Self-Ownership is Bad Logic, Not Just Bad Grammar

“Self-ownership” is a ubiquitous buzzword in libertarian discourse because it’s often used as a platform, along with The Non-Aggression Principle, for property rights. It’s a conundrum of modern libertarianism because it’s impossible, and it can be used to ill ends like voluntary slave contracts (see Robert Nozick and Walter Block). I do not doubt that the Self-Ownership Theory (SOT) is useful for good, but it’s a weird misnomer for sovereignty or autonomy.

Running in Circles Around the Self

Here are four ways “libertarians” typically use ‘ownership’ with self:

  1. I own myself based on property rights
  2. property rights exist based on self-ownership
  3. property rights are a self/being or vice versa
  4. property rights don’t exist

Statement 1 is circular: self-ownership is a premise, and property rights a conclusion— the premise is a property claim like the conclusion. This becomes even weirder if the self claims the self as property outside the self, or as a right in not oneself.

The same can be said for 2 as in the case of 1, circularity: Rights are a premise, and self-ownership a conclusion— the premise is a property claim on a property claim.

Statements 3 and 4 don’t lend themselves to the self-ownership principle, but I included them nonetheless.  Statement 3 seems like the sanest route thus far for self-ownership advocates as the circularity issue is avoided, but it’s odd because a rights and a self are separate “packages.” Some may claim inalienable rights are innate, but these rights are not typically property rights.

The 4th position can be a belief that rights are a myth, a human convention, even so-called universal or natural rights. Still others may claim that in the grand scheme of life (or big the picture) perhaps we never own or don’t own, we just “borrow.” However, I’m guessing most people that hold this position may still claim the right to exclude possessions from others. Communists argue private property does not exist, only possessions do, but even the latter is tentative for some communists in “post-scarcity.” Most socialists will also argue ‘property is theft,’ but claim possessions are private. But of course to say there is such a thing as theft assumes that property exists. Anyway, the point is that self-ownership is heretofore just plain awkward.

Shaving with Hume

Being a believer in Ego Theory* or Bundle Theory** may change how we think about a “self” to begin with.

*Ego- There is a self (the person) that experiences, but is separate from the body and mind, that is the subject of all experiences
**Bundle- A person is a collection of experiences, thoughts, and mental states, all “bundled” together, or actions exist, but a person/actor does not source* **

Is the following equation true? ownership = owner + owned. Self-ownership is a term/ideology that seems to claim owner and owned are the same unit. How can ‘the owner’ “be” 1 (the owner), and 2 be the “owned” at the same time? Being that I define ownership as owner + owned you can see why “I” don’t think an owner can be the owned, i.e. a self-owner. Is ownership a bundle as one thing/unit, or two units? We can’t be both unless you believe dualism is true.

I don’t think the self and that self’s will are separable, but that ownership is separate from the former (as stated above with +). Ownership is a right of a being if we consider the “can I” relationships described a few paragraphs below. The self/being/nature is a descriptive statement (what is), and the right to own a self is a prescriptive/normative statement (what ought to be). Hume’s Guillotine separates the two. “I own myself” seems axiomatic or self-evident, but what rights or moral duties derive from a self? “Ownership” only matters in a dispute between two people/selves, or a schizophrenic, over who ought to own what— exclusion. Can you exclude a self from a self to self-own? Why even say “self-ownership”? Because it’s easy, and some think it’s useful? Self-ownership as a pack confuses existence and free will (metaphysics, epistemology) with rights of individual sovereignty and property (ethics).

If Not Self-Ownership Then Dilemma

The following isn’t really a refutation of self-ownership, but a means for self-ownership advocates to frame false dilemmas:

If not self-ownership then:

  1. one or more people own you
  2. an entire “class” owns the class you are in
  3. everybody owns everybody

If self ownership then:

d. nobody owns you

Statements a and b are untenable because they are asymmetrical, why one rule for X and another for Y: Kant’s categorical imperative. Moral rules should apply equally to all.

Proposition ‘a’ is indefensible in my mind in spite of the reality of slavery having the potential to exist.

Where we draw the line between classes is difficult in the second case, b.

Proposition ‘c’ is a contradiction, as how do you own and not be owned simultaneously? Or they render each other null, just as all power to all people is the same as no power to no people.

The last statement ‘d’ may be used as the alternative to the dilemmas by self-ownership advocates. However, if nobody own you then how can one own the self? I happen to think ‘d’ is true, but not based on SOT or fear of the dilemmas. I have doubts that the will of another can be owned or controlled by a co-pilot, and I don’t think slavery is valid nor 100% possible due to the co-pilot impossibility. I’d also say ‘d’ is true in that I deny the self, and that not even myself can own myself because the self does not exist so it can’t be owned. By non-existence I mean the self is in a constant state of flux so its not as if the self can ever be ‘grasped’ so-to speak. I’ll even go a step further to say determinism seems to be true, and free will false thus the idea of ownership via control is false.

I Against I

What about Jason Brennan’s definitions for ownership (in a Bleeding Heart Libertarians post): use, sell, rent, destroy, and exclusion? Can I “use, sell, rent, destroy, and exclude” myself? I can ‘use’ my body, I can commit suicide/destroy, but I don’t see how to exclude I from I, how to sell I to I, or rent I to I. This supposes owner + thing owned are separate. What if they aren’t separate like SOT suggests? Then alienation or transfer of ownership of the self like property occurs: I can sell myself, and rent myself because I own me. On the flip-side I still don’t see how this jibes with exclusion, as I can’t escape me (and I also happen to believe in certain inalienable rights, but at the same time often question the existence of rights (the human conventions, including those dreamt up as natural)).

I Against You, You Against I

How Brennan defined ownership leaves me perplexed as I have shown. The rights to exclusion/control vs. the fact of possessing. I act, but my act/will does not prove that others ought not interfere. My control over something does not imply that I ought to control it or that I ought to own it— like hoping on a stranger’s bike would transfer ownership. So who owns anything? Do “I” even exist or just my actions, my liberty? Yes, I am being absurd to a degree, but self-ownership begs questions and it’s not so obvious that it’s self-evident as to what one means when they use the term “self-ownership.”

How can we “own” our body, but not “own” anyone else? Ownership is a property claim, or rights claim, so this is a problem, as on one hand we say ‘yes’ we can own bodies, but on the other ‘no’ you can’t own other bodies. I think many people see the danger here, but some don’t and they use this reasoning with SOT as a premise, like Nozick and most employers, to illegitimate ends like slavery and human rental contracts. Hume strikes a chord with me: liberty = acting or will. It’s when we treat will, i.e. a self, as an alienable object that things get “problematic.” In this sense, I deny the self exists. I am not property, I am action.

We can’t separate action from responsibility, nor liberty from person (though we can of course lock a self in a cell). Self-ownership claims responsibility is owned, like people can be owned, when both responsibility and people are acts, not objects. Blaming person A for the actions of person B is not truth. Action can’t be separated from responsibility, despite the attempt. I am defining a person as responsible actor, and liberty as action. Jail takes away liberty to a degree. If you believe in inalienability (and criminal ‘justice’) then action is inseparable from actor, i.e. “with liberty comes responsibility.”

What I, and perhaps Francois Tremblay, mean by “owning humans has no middle ground,” is that inalienability and monism are true. The existence of inalienable rights won’t change the *possibility* of turning someone into a slave. Nevertheless, I don’t know that I’d call this middle ground, nor acceptable, as its still slavery. David Ellerman in a clever twist against Nozick, Philmore, and Block shows inalienability extends to the inability to rent humans, not just own them. If our being is a property right as SOT seems to indicate, then we can be sold, or we can sell ourselves, destroying liberty– silly SOT libertarians. If we can contract away our will, then we could contract away responsibility (for murder, rape etc.), destroying justice. SOT is dangerous.

Liberty and innocence is the foundation or premise of justice, or logic for that matter. Owning property is result of liberty, or action. People that assert they want to take away property would have to prove an asymmetry in freedom. We need cite self-ownership to arrive at these ideas.

Use, Not Abuse

Self-ownership is part of the libertarian vernacular, and it may not go away, despite the illogic surrounding its use. I do sympathize however, as we live in a world where people and animals are owned like property, and proclaiming self-ownership as a virtue makes sense, if only as a self-defense mechanism to an affront on liberty.

Are people that believe in self-ownership likely to have respect for the concept of inalienability, or see people as property regardless? Or would people that think self-ownership is nonsense be more likely to behave as a Master? Who is likely to believe you can’t escape the self, or act as a Master, or think they really don’t have “total” ownership of you even if they attempt to be your Master?

It ain’t the whole story, but the moment at which you recognize that “I am myself” and “I own myself” might be at odds is the moment things start to get interesting, and, arguably, the moment when “self-ownership” starts to get useful. Shawn Wilbur

It’s the useful part that matters to me, as it seems we live a world where people and animals are owned or rented like property. Most people are not going to nit-pick or care about the logical inconsistency of the word. They will understand however, that the word basically alludes to sovereignty or autonomy, and that’s what matters. I have a feeling abandoning ‘self-ownership’ is going to be as hard as going from the standard to the metric system. Whatever you decide to do, measure carefully.


I might as well have my first post be a doozy. This is a total rearrangement of my original comments on an article by Jason Brennan in which I fell flat in a few spots:

I think the first to bring up some of these points were Francois Tremblay and Alex Strekal, independently I might add. I discovered the latter’s writing early in my anarchist journey. His once excellent blog polycentric order is currently defunct, but I have re-posted many of them here.

Critiques of Hans Hoppe’s SOT are here and here.

Leave a Reply