Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body

i. introduction Libertarians endorse: The Self-Ownership Thesis: Each person enjoys moral ownership of himself or herself (his/her body and mind). On this view, persons own themselves in the same way that they have (legal or moral) private ownership of things and in the same way that a slaveholder can have (legal) private ownership of a complete chattel slave.1 At the core of the self-ownership thesis is the moral control-right a person has over the use of his or her body and mind. Other rights included in full ownership over oneself include the right to compensation if someone uses one’s body or mind without permission, the right to prevent violation of one’s self-ownership, the right to recover compensation if someone uses one in a way that violates one’s self-ownership, the right to transfer one’s rights over oneself to others (e.g., by way of sale), and immunity from nonconsensual loss of one’s self-ownership.2 Clearly, self-ownership places moral constraints on what can be done permissibly to individuals. Warren Quinn puts it thus: “A person is
I thank Johan Bränmark, Nir Eyal, Cécile Fabre, Frits Gåvertsson, Nils Holtug, Karsten Klint Jensen, Anders Gorm Nissen, Michael Otsuka, Thomas Søbirk Petersen, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Peter Vallentyne, and the Editors of Philosophy & Public Affairs for very helpful comments on previous versions of this article. 1. Peter Vallentyne, “Critical Notice of G. A. Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 28.4 (1998): 609–29, p. 611; G. A. Cohen, SelfOwnership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 68. 2. Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, and Michael Otsuka, “Why Left-Libertarianism Is Not Incoherent, Indeterminate, or Irrelevant: A Reply to Fried,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33 (2005): 201–22, at pp. 203–4. © 2008 by Blackwell Publishing, Inc. Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, no. 1


Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body

constituted by his body and mind. They are parts or aspects of him. For that very reason, it is fitting that he have primary say over what may be done to them—not because such an arrangement best promotes overall human welfare, but because any arrangement that denied him a say would be a grave indignity.”3 In this article I want to rebut the libertarian self-ownership thesis, understood as a freestanding, fact-insensitive moral principle. (I shall shortly explain what I mean by that.) Libertarians divide into left- and right-libertarians. Both parties endorse self-ownership, but “they differ with respect to the powers agents have to appropriate unappropriated natural resources. . . . Right-libertarianism holds that typically such resources may be appropriated by the first person who discovers them, mixes her labor with them, or merely claims them. Left-libertarianism, by contrast, holds that unappropriated natural resources belong to everyone in an egalitarian manner.”4 Among recent proponents of the self-ownership thesis, the most prominent is the right-libertarian Robert Nozick. Nozick famously rejected end-state and patterned principles of justice, as well as the ‘redistributive taxation’ often needed to implement them, because they “institute (partial) ownership by others of people and their actions and labor. These principles involve a shift from the classical liberals’ notion of self-ownership to a notion of (partial) property rights in other people.”5 Nozick himself defends a minimal state as the only state compatible with proper respect for self-ownership. Left-libertarians find themselves more or less in agreement with Nozick’s assertion of self-ownership. In a rich exposition of his leftlibertarian position, Michael Otsuka accepts a libertarian right of selfownership that is “less than full” because it does not prohibit all
3. Warren Quinn, Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 170–71. 4. Peter Vallentyne, “Libertarianism,” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/, p. 1. 5. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), p. 172. I have put the term ‘redistributive taxation’ in quotes to cancel the unquoted term’s suggestion that a ‘free market distribution’—I use quotes again for a reason similar to the one being expressed in the present sentence—has a morally privileged status relative to other market rules and resulting distributions. A similar reservation applies to talk about the redistribution of bodily parts. Having flagged these reservations I shall omit the quotes henceforth.


Philosophy & Public Affairs

incursions upon one’s body. This right does not, for example, prohibit trolley-case-like infringements necessary and sufficient to minimize the number of innocents killed. Nevertheless, it remains stringent, because it “encompasses the following two rights: (1) A very stringent right of control over and use of one’s mind and body that bars others from intentionally using one as a means by forcing one to sacrifice life, limb, or labour, where such force operates by means of incursions or threats of incursions upon one’s mind and body (including assault and battery and forcible arrest, detention, and imprisonment). (2) A very stringent right to all of the income that one can gain from one’s mind and body (including one’s labour) either on one’s own or through unregulated and untaxed voluntary exchanges with other individuals.”6 Being a leftlibertarian, Otsuka rejects the right, analogous to (2), to income gained through the use of external resources. Although right- and left-libertarians disagree over what moral powers agents have to appropriate external resources, they agree that: The Asymmetry Thesis: Ownership of external resources is intrinsically different, morally, from ownership of one’s mind and body.

6. Michael Otsuka, Libertarianism Without Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 15, 19. Otsuka formulates the first right as one “. . . that bars others from intentionally using one as a means. . . .” Hence, the first right of self-ownership would not be violated by someone who uses another person as a means unintentionally, e.g., by a bystander who pushes what he takes to be a mannequin but is in fact another person dressed to look like a mannequin into the path of a runaway trolley to bring it to a halt, thereby saving five others. Yet this case certainly seems morally different from one in which a bystander diverts a trolley from a track, on which five innocents are trapped, onto a sidetrack on which there is what the bystander takes to be a mannequin, but is in fact a person. For instance, it would seem permissible for a third party to harm the bystander to prevent him from pushing the person (whom the bystander mistakenly believes to be a mannequin) into the path of the trolley, but not permissible for a third party to harm the bystander to prevent him from diverting the trolley in the latter case. Note further that the first self-ownership right does not bar others from “forcing one to sacrifice life, limb, or labour” as an end in itself. Nevertheless people who believe that intentions matter typically think that harming someone as an end (as when the bystander diverts the trolley, not to save the five, but to harm one whom he dislikes) is no less problematic than harming someone as a means. In response to these two observations, Otsuka might want to say that the scope of self-ownership goes beyond the two rights he describes it as encompassing in the quoted passage. In response specifically to the first observation, I suggest he might want to omit the qualification “intentionally” in his statement of the first right encompassed by self-ownership. I thank Michael Otsuka for clarification here.

Otsuka thinks that ownership of external things is conditional upon the satisfaction of an egalitarian proviso enjoining equal opportunities for welfare.g. one might deny the asymmetry thesis as well as the libertarian notion of ownership rights altogether. 22–29. but ownership of external resources is acquired through personal exercise of the moral power to acquire such ownership.8 he assumes that ownership of oneself is not conditional in this sense. Similarly. one might deny that there is any moral asymmetry between ownership of one’s mind and body and ownership of external objects. This agreement about the asymmetry thesis means that one can take issue with libertarians in three importantly different ways. one simply starts owning oneself. Mass. The latter possibility is compatible with a restricted version of the asymmetry thesis that applies to essential bodily parts only. Judith Jarvis Thomson. it might be held that. pp. Finally. Libertarianism. 1990). 226. but agree that one enjoys libertarian ownership rights over oneself as well as over external resources. but broadly Lockean. pp. one enjoys the very same stringent property rights over one’s body and the physical space it occupies. account of how one can become the owner of an unowned external object. or that there are certain parts of our bodies (e. for he offers no comparable account of how one can become the owner—morally speaking— of one’s own—nonmorally speaking—mind and body. . The Realm of Rights (Cambridge. but disagree with libertarians over the absolute or relative weights assigned to self-ownership and ownership of external resources. one might accept the asymmetry thesis. Nozick. For example.7 Absent special circumstances. initially. Otsuka. it might be suggested that we enjoy initial ownership of the physical space in which our bodies are located. each person enters the world owning himself or herself. nonessential bodily parts) of which we enjoy no initial ownership. p. such as organ theft. Utilitarians and liberal egalitarians contest libertarian thinking in precisely this way.89 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body For example. Nozick’s subscription to the asymmetry thesis is evident in his admittedly rather sketchy. Second.. Anarchy. First. 9.: Harvard University Press. For example. 8. 174–82. but no initial ownership of our bodies themselves. but which we can acquire ownership of in exactly the same way that we can acquire ownership of external resources.9 7.

.: Temple University Press. I shall also suggest that libertarian proponents of nonderivative self-ownership may be trafficking in moral intuitions that really only bear on the derivative case. Peter Vallentyne helpfully suggests that whether 10. Jan Narveson. G. Just to indicate the sort of issues involved. like Otsuka and most others. 11.g. Penn. 12. A. E.12 However.90 Philosophy & Public Affairs The self-ownership thesis (and the asymmetry thesis) can be held as a fact-insensitive or as a fact-sensitive moral principle (or claim). for example. . 1990). The Libertarian Idea (Philadelphia. For present purposes I assume.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 31 (2003): 211–45. 177–83. even setting aside the issue of self-ownership over one’s brain. Self-ownership implies that. in a world in which people’s relation to their mind and body is different from ours—e. 1988). I do not need to establish that self-ownership is (or is not) a derivative moral principle. According to Jeremy Waldron. “Facts and Principles. Locke claims that we own our persons. Given my present purposes. “most others” does not include John Locke. However. but given his psychological criterion of personal identity this is not to claim that we own our bodies: see Jeremy Waldron. Cohen. their memories or intentions. In this article I set aside the issue of ownership of one’s mind. because people in the imagined world are emotionally attached to those parts in the same way as we in fact are emotionally attached to our bodies.10 In the latter possibility the right of self-ownership is derived from a combination of nonmoral facts about (say) the relationship between a person and his or her body and mind and one or more basic moral principles. thereby modifying the contents of these people’s minds. I shall argue later that it is more plausible to assign self-ownership derivative status than it is to assign it nonderivative status. I would suspect that. Equally. The Right to Private Property (Oxford: Clarendon Press.g.11 According to views exploiting this possibility.. one in which people are constituted by their bodies but their welfare is best promoted by people starting life as owners of particular external resources—people might have no self-ownership.. in a world different from ours people might be related to parts of the external world in such a way that they have rights that are comparable in stringency to those rights of self-ownership that we have in our world over our own bodies. imagine that we remove part of one person’s brain and graft those parts onto another person’s brain. e. that self-ownership partly consists in nonderivative ownership of one’s body. The latter will then explain how self-ownership is grounded in the relevant nonmoral facts. This might be so. pp. a person has a right not to have the contents of his mind modified in this way without his consent (even if it does him no harm and benefits the other person greatly). although I suspect some of the arguments I present below apply there as well.g.

” Ethics 107 (1997): 321–43. then bodies (in their initial state) are simply (external) natural resources. for that matter. indeed it falls short of generally speaking. it is clear that. they are different from. On Vallentyne’s interpretation of it. and not part of. .e. It is not clear what role Vallentyne ascribes to voluntary occupancy of one’s body. Thus for those accepting a nonreductionist account of personal identity like the one entertained by Vallentyne in the passage just quoted and. i. at p. If. for materialists who think that we are our brains and hence only parts of the human organisms we inhabit). for example.. p. the self-ownership thesis potentially loses the support of some of the considerations most commonly offered in its favor. for him. Incidentally. Universal Dominance. one’s body and mind. 613–14n. Vallentyne. strictly speaking. or are part of. “Critical Notice. for most reductionists (e. even if both involve or result from the use of one’s body and mind. Gifts. voluntarily occupy and leave bodies. independently of what concretely it is that a person owns when he owns himself.”13 In the quoted article. just like tracts of land.. the reasons favoring not interfering with someone’s mind are much stronger than the reasons favoring not interfering with someone’s body. Peter Vallentyne.14 The self-ownership thesis draws a sharp distinction between those objects in the relevant initial state of the world that are. Suppose agents are indeed purely mental beings. Vallentyne leaves it an open question what the relevant facts about personal identity are. Ibid.g.” pp. Hence. 324. something other than an external natural resource? 14. considerations about the injustice of a compulsory eye redistribution scheme become irrelevant to selfownership. the self-ownership thesis does not imply that one owns one’s labor or the fruits of one’s labor. and Leximin. but (oddly enough) have no choice as to which body they occupy. as well as elsewhere. but need not.. 13. 623.91 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body self-ownership implies ownership of our (entire) bodies “depends on facts about personal identity. Vallentyne himself appeals to such intuitions in his reasoned rejection of theories that conjoin self-ownership and purist egalitarian views on the ownership of natural resources. “Self-Ownership and Equality: Brute Luck. Why would this have any greater tendency to render their particular body different from an external resource than the tendency of the fact that Robinson Crusoe did not occupy his remote island voluntarily (for quite some time) has to render that island. a person and those that are not. What I say here is consistent with the view that the principle that a person owns himself is highly plausible in itself. Although labor and the fruits thereof are often understood to fall under the scope of the self-ownership thesis. agents are purely mental beings that can.

Presumably Otsuka would endorse a similarly lax view of inessential incursions on essential parts. Nozick seems to think that in some cases self-ownership rights may permissibly be infringed provided the selfowner is fully compensated. using no resources other than those one owns in virtue of selfownership.g. one owns this object as well. Anarchy. Full self-ownership “is the logically strongest set of ownership rights that one can have over one’s person that is compatible with someone else having the same kind of ownership rights over everything else in the world.. may permissibly be infringed to save the lives of others. Self-ownership comes in degrees.” p. by which I mean what it takes for self-ownership rights to be permissibly infringed. However. including labor income. Vallentyne. they do).92 Philosophy & Public Affairs implying this even where one makes no use of external resources. and so on. such as one’s hair. 19. the right to prevent violations of one’s selfownership. the owner. see Vallentyne. and if this ownership right 15.16 Similarly. 16. as witnessed by Otsuka’s statement of the principle quoted above. The first dimension is the range of self-ownership rights persons have. for instance. 72–73. they must be drawing on additional principles. 205. These would include control rights over one’s body and mind. Nozick. such as a memorable tune or a valuable chemical formula. For other exceptions to full self-ownership. Many libertarians stop short of endorsing full ownership. to challenge the self-ownership thesis in what many take to be the core case: ownership of one’s body. or are part of. for example. 17. Otsuka. pp. the right to compensation if someone violates one’s control rights.”15 I take it that the fullness of rights of this sort has two dimensions. Steiner.) This grading of ownership over bodily parts according to the importance they have for the owner is surprising if what makes them fall within the scope of a nonderivative principle of self-ownership is that they are. the principle that if one produces an object. “Why Left-Libertarianism. Self-Ownership. a right against bodily intrusions). “Libertarianism. then (and. and Otsuka. The second dimension is the stringency of those rights. thinks that one’s self-ownership over nonessential parts of one’s body. 1. Otsuka. (I owe this observation to an Editor of Philosophy & Public Affairs. Insofar as libertarians affirm these further claims. p.” p. Here I shall largely set aside the issue of ownership of labor and the fruits of labor. it is easily explained if the self-ownership principle is derived from those basic concerns that determine the grading of self-ownership rights. .17 If persons have just one of the selfownership rights that are included in the catalogue of full ownership rights (e.

in effect. e.. in Section V. that is. In the course of doing so. In Section IV.93 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body can be permissibly infringed in a wide range of cases (e.. one has to defend what I shall refer to as substantive self-ownership rights. Admittedly. It is rarely assumed that we can demonstrate that we enjoy self-ownership in an interesting sense simply by showing that there are moral rights. In this article I shall argue that substantive self-ownership. to moral intuitions about the impermissibility of a compulsory eye redistribution scheme and to some kind of moral rationale for self-ownership. I indulge in some philosophical fantasy that is designed to bring out the counterintuitiveness of the claimed moral asymmetry between ownership of our bodies and ownership of external objects. not just a say and not necessarily a veto. for the purpose of my arguments against substantive self-ownership below this vagueness is unproblematic. my notion of substantive self-ownership is vague.g.g. Fortunately. as a derivative moral principle. I also consider a number of hypothetical and real-life cases that cast doubt on the thesis of self-ownership. I move on to a more general level and consider the possible moral significance of the properties in virtue of which an object might be considered part of one’s body. I tackle the two most influential arguments offered in support of self-ownership. These appeal. In Section II and Section III. to prevent two similar violations of the rights of others). and (2) that it is hard to see how the mere fact that something is part of one’s body can have moral significance. is false. Or to put things metaphorically. respectively. I survey two criteria for the individuation of human bodies and show (1) that they have rather surprising results given the standard interpretation of the self-ownership thesis. understood as a fact-insensitive principle. but any attempt at stating a precise definition will be tremendously complicated and have a somewhat arbitrary outcome. a package of selfownership rights that. . and typically fail to explain why one has moral ownership of a particular thing (one’s body) rather than ownership of the means required to achieve or enjoy the moral status or capacity that purportedly rationalizes self-ownership. in the way Quinn does: persons need a primary say over their lives. To qualify as a libertarian.g. are much stronger than minimal self-ownership. a body no worse than one’s own. persons own themselves in a minimal sense. I also offer reasons to reject the Moral Asymmetry Principle. e. as Otsuka describes them in the quotation above. Finally.. an autonomy-based one. In the latter case I argue that the rationales in question defend self-ownership.

I try to erode the plausibility of this belief by testing our moral intuitions about nonstandard cases in which the only factor motivating the view that one owns one’s body is the nonmoral fact that it is one’s body.94 Philosophy & Public Affairs Generally speaking. Fried. and Otsuka. and hence that the idea that a person owns him. 28. sell themselves into slavery. 165–66. once we set aside a few easy and noncontroversial cases such as the forcible extraction by the state of one of your eyeballs to transplant to the blind. at pp.” Times Literary Supplement (October 25. pp. See also Michael Gorr. and Richard Arneson. “Justice.18 The second kind of criticism alleges that the notion of full selfownership is indeterminate. Infield (New York: Harper and Row. “Lockean Self-Ownership: Towards a Demolition. Barbara H.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33 (2005): 216–22. 39. tell from the notion of full selfownership whether self-owners have a right to.” pp. 1996). As the disagreement among libertarians attests. 20. Vallentyne. “Left-Libertarianism. In a recent article Barbara Fried pushes an objection of this kind. and Otsuka. to my mind. or blow smoke into someone else’s face.19 From a broadly functionalist conception of property rights. say. trans. Fried argues. p. 19. Once More: A Rejoinder to Vallentyne. convincingly. that nothing can be both a thing and a person. bequeath their property to their heirs.20 Obviously. Barbara H. Immanuel Kant. see also Brian Barry. and Natural Assets. she argues that. Lectures on Ethics.” Social Philosophy and Policy 12 (1995): 267–91. at p. Fried. Fried submits. Steiner. that one cannot helpfully fix the content of full self-ownership by appeal to the notion of . 1963). “You Have to Be Crazy to Believe It. Criticisms of self-ownership largely fall into three main kinds. “Why Left-Libertarianism. if the thesis of self-ownership is thus 18. “Left-Libertarianism: A Review Essay. The first submits that the very concept of self-ownership is incoherent. the notion of full self-ownership is compatible with a very large set of contrasting packages of rights.” pp. that owners are persons not things. we cannot. my strategy is to disentangle the many factors that appear to motivate the belief that people enjoy substantive ownership of their bodies. Fried. Steiner. 201–15. 268–70. “Left-Libertarianism. L. It might be helpful if I locate the present article in relation to the existing literature attacking self-ownership before I proceed further. Kant famously made an objection of this sort when he argued that only things can be owned. 77–78.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32 (2004): 66–92. and that it can acquire determinate content only through appeal to independent moral principles or intuitions.or herself is incoherent. Self-Ownership.” Political Studies 39 (1991): 36–54.

” in Thomas Nagel.” pp. Self-Ownership. Cohen. permissible uses of oneself. only the former of which has a solid foundation in moral intuitions. in particular pressing the counterintuitiveness objection. 216–19. “Left-Libertarianism. Rejecting this indeterminacy. pp. Cohen believes that the self-ownership thesis has coherent. 22. Other Minds: Critical Essays 1969–1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press. He suggests that proponents of selfownership often fail to distinguish clearly between these. 21. how well it coheres. Nagel’s remark that Nozick “has left the establishment of the moral foundations [of his libertarianism] to another occasion” can be seen as a gesture at a complaint of the last sort: see Thomas Nagel.21 John Christman’s and G. or fails to cohere. 230. it would be counterintuitive. at p. Construed this way. This article contributes to the third strain of criticism. I assume arguendo that the notion of full self-ownership is coherent and has determinate content. 213–17. in a determinate way. . in the absence of appeal to other moral principles than self-ownership) unsettled issue of which uses of oneself are permissible: see Fried. Once More. 139. content the intuitive appeal of which I test below. the line of argument offered here is simply orthogonal to that offered by friends of the incoherence and indeterminacy objections in favor of the same self-ownership critical conclusion.e. we cannot say. Christman argues that self-ownership is best regarded as involving two components: control rights over one’s body and life and various income rights. p. i. or because it cannot be grounded in underlying moral principles. or because it fails to imply any of our considered moral beliefs. relatively determinate content and holds considerable intuitive appeal. Cohen’s writings on self-ownership fall within this category. “Libertarianism Without Foundations. because when one attempts to do this the issue of indeterminacy simply reappears as the (generally. with our considered moral beliefs. A. Friends of the incoherence and indeterminacy objections might want to view the argument I present as a second line of defense for their rejection of selfownership showing that even if the full self-ownership thesis were coherent and determinate. but that this appeal is to some extent due to its being confused with other conditions.95 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body indeterminate.22 Similarly. either because of its counterintuitive implications. 1995). such as our not being slaves to other people.. those who make the third kind of criticism urge that the self-ownership thesis can be seen to fail to mesh with our considered moral beliefs.

however. no objections to an eye redistribution scheme could derive from these non-self-ownership concerns. 240. i. However. Jonathan Wolff. and that are ‘deeply’. “Self-Ownership and Property Rights. such as the kind one finds in the writings of moral theorists working with a framework of reflective equilibrium. . pp. that is. 243–44. 70. a state in which everyone can see with one eye is better than a state in which half the population is binocular and the other half blind. let us suppose. pp. on a less stringent understanding of what it is to demonstrate the falsity of a thesis.24 Suppose half the population is born with two eyes and the other half eyeless. lies in its exploration of what can be inferred given steadfast exertion of this kind of control. but only contingently. To do this. I think one can show the self-ownership thesis to be incorrect. It is not clear whether Cohen thinks this because he takes no putatively fundamental moral principle to be demonstrably false. Justice.96 Philosophy & Public Affairs What does the present article add to existing literature canvassing the counterintuitiveness objection? Cohen thinks that although the selfownership thesis is false. compulsory transplantation of this sort would be morally impermissible. p. Cohen. he might well be right.e. Yet. Cohen. at p. we have to control assiduously for factors that influence moral intuitions. The self-ownership thesis explains this. 40. and. Self-Ownership. what follows if we insist that the self-ownership thesis is insensitive to each and every contingent fact about the way in which we are related to our bodies.23 If he has in mind a demonstration that the thesis is logically inconsistent (as Kant seems to think) or inconsistent with other theses that are self-evidently true. Transplantation technology has improved. It would be very easy. and the Minimal State (Cambridge: Polity Press. 206. to share the eyes out. it is not demonstrably false. Robert Nozick: Property. 230. 1991). as I see it. The main contribution of this article. perfectly safe. Self-Ownership. Hence. pp. Anarchy. For in 23..” Political Theory 19 (1991): 28–46. as well as the point of view of welfare. 24. From the point of view of equality. the eye redistribution intuition Theorists wanting to bring out the intuitive force of the claim to selfownership often appeal to the case of compulsory redistribution of eyes. so the argument goes. associated with self-ownership. entirely costless to transplant one eye from each person with two eyes to another person with no eyes. John Christman. Nozick. ii. 7–8.

Second. John Harris. G. 54. The sudden departure of one’s spouse may amount to a severe intervention in one’s life. the thesis. The first explanation here invokes a concern different from the self-ownership thesis. However. A. First.” Journal of Political Philosophy 12. so the fact that self-ownership implies that the eye redistribution scheme is impermissible speaks against.” Social Theory and Moral Practice 26 (2000): 1–23.97 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body the absence of consent. Samuel Freeman. Taylor. this is not a decisive argument for self-ownership. such a scheme would violate the donors’ selfownership. we would need to refine our description of the eye redistribution scheme if we wanted to use it to support substantive self-ownership. and perhaps more specific than. it has been claimed that we have enforceable duties not to treat ourselves in certain degrading ways and enforceable duties to help others when the costs of doing so are tiny and the gains of the beneficiaries are great. “Freedom and Self-Ownership. pp. Obviously. 26.25 These duties are incompatible with the selfownership thesis. at pp. 4–6. For instance. Self-Ownership. “Lockean Self-Ownership. the selfownership thesis may explain resistance to the eye redistribution scheme. 110–11. self-ownership is compatible with a moral. not in support of. First. we could recast the case of eye redistribution so that it involves violation of components of self-ownership other than the right against 25. “The Survival Lottery. “A Kantian Defense of Self-Ownership. This supports the self-ownership thesis. 244.27 Hence. Arguably. Daniel Attas. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View. The second explanation appeals to a specific component of the self-ownership thesis. or even morally required. 131. Cohen suggests that “hostility to severe interference in someone’s life” or a right against unwanted bodily incursions might explain the impermissibility of the eye redistribution scheme. Let us briefly pursue three such refinements. such as those with strong consequentialist leanings. 70. some observers. this intervention by one’s spouse would be fully compatible with one’s selfownership. at pp. Arneson.” Philosophy 50 (1975): 81–87.26 Third. we may find other implications of the self-ownership thesis counterintuitive. nonenforceable duty not to treat oneself in various degrading ways: see Robert S.” p.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30 (2001): 105–51.1 (2004): 65–78. 27. Thus. since self-ownership includes a right against unwanted bodily incursions (besides much else). moral principles other than. Cohen. . may insist that the eye redistribution scheme is morally permissible.

on its own. nor is there severe interference in anyone’s life. Self-ownership so conditioned would avoid the present objection.98 Philosophy & Public Affairs unwanted bodily incursions. and surely everyone will feel very differently about this redistributive scheme from the way they felt about the original one. . The pair can then easily be reabsorbed into the shoulder of its owner. 37–38. Indeed they cannot perform any visual or other bodily function without being moved. chap. they play no role where they are.. As it happens the state implements a compulsory redistributive scheme in which whenever a person’s body expels a nonoperative pair of eyes. Antoine Roquentin. feels alienated from his hand when he perceives it as a crab lying on its back moving its legs and claws. there is a violation of self-ownership. for the hostility to compulsory eye redistribution. or the owner can transfer his spare eyes to a blind person. On the other hand. resistance to the original scheme is not explained by substantive self-ownership.e. but also involves neither of the other putatively morally objectionable features that Cohen suggests may each account. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In sighted individuals. let us consider an eye redistribution scheme in which half the population is born with two pairs of eyes and the other half with no eyes. I doubt many people would regard this redistributive scheme as morally wrong. Either considerations different from those involved in the self-ownership thesis or a specific right 28. Here. these are appropriated and transplanted into a blind person. The other pair is located inside the human body. Yet on the assumption that I own parts of my body even when they are reversibly located outside my body. Although this latter pair would enable those who have them to see if they were surgically moved to the eye sockets. Suppose further that the body of a person born with two pairs of eyes will expel the spare pair when that person reaches twenty years of age.28 Typically people will feel alienated from their spare pair of eyes in the same way that the main character in Sartre’s Nausea. 1965). In this vein. 5. giving him normal sight. Second Treatise of Government. one pair of eyes is located normally and fulfills the usual function. i. in the shoulder. say. To the extent that this is so. severe intervention in someone’s life and a violation of the right against unwanted bodily incursions. ed. This case raises the issue of whether something analogous to Locke’s ‘no-waste condition’ on ownership over external resources applies to one’s body: John Locke. §§31–32. nobody’s right against unwanted bodily incursions is violated.

from a case in which the state appropriates pairs of functioning eyes that were never part of anyone’s body from people who. in the real-life cases. however. For the benefit of those who favor real-life cases. the example shows that the mere fact that something is part of a person does not give that person a very stringent ownership right over that thing. . Moore (unsuccessfully) asserted ownership over the samples and a proprietary interest in the products that 29. I need not claim that the scheme is wholly unobjectionable. For my own part.2d 479 (Cal. samples from it. To make the point that factors other than self-ownership partly explain our resistance to the eye redistribution scheme. one organ can be redistributed at some cost to the owner. that the difference in numbers will not be held to be that great. If this is correct. I suspect. morally speaking. in accordance with standard medical procedure. the plaintiff. were used to develop a unique and valuable stem cell line that. happened to be the first to stumble across them and make a claim to them. bone marrow and blood that can be extracted and used for the benefit of others with little cost to the owner. the bodily parts have to be extracted in ways that are painful or otherwise unpleasant and are not functionally redundant). but afterwards. 1990). 793 P. it was hoped.29 The doctor’s team patented the cell line in the name of the University of California. In each case. We have two kidneys and two corneas. note that my spare eyes example is really only a purified variant of the situation we are in with regard to many of our bodily parts (“purified” because often. John Moore. it is noteworthy that the courts have become involved. We also have eggs and sperm. It might be insisted that a larger number of recipients are needed in the former case than in the latter for the redistributive scheme to be permissible. without his permission. In Moore v. I am happy to make the stronger claim that the present case is no different. Moore v. together with additional samples of his blood and bone marrow extracted on later occasions. Where items of the second kind are concerned. sued because while he was being treated for hairy-cell leukemia his spleen was removed.99 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body among the large cluster of rights that one’s right over oneself is taken to amount to underlies the hostility to compulsory eye redistribution. could be used to develop anticancer drugs. through sheer good luck. Regents of the University of California. Regents of the University of California.

Moore v. will cut little ice with those who take the minority libertarian view that once a body part is detached it is no longer a part of you. and who share my response to the case of a spare pair of eyes. and have not lost your ownership rights to it through past wrongs) are satisfied. then. Peter Vallentyne holds the minority view (personal communication).g.. Michael Otsuka is representative in stating that self-ownership “extends beyond a right against the sorts of painful and invasive incursions upon (other parts of) one’s body which might be necessary in order to force [donations of body parts]. their being redistributed will not disrupt any (postmortem) plans of ours. that you have not voluntarily transferred the part away. p. Those who take this view. 32. 31. Many think that this right raises a whole set of problems in addition to whatever problems the right to use one’s body in ways other than selling it for money raises. There are. . Similarly.30 Or consider this: when we cease to exist we no longer need our organs. For suppose that in order to preserve the functioning of one of one’s eyes or kidneys it must be temporarily removed and then reimplanted after it has been treated. n. their extraction will not discomfort us at the time of extraction (although the anticipation of that extraction prior to death may well do so). To the extent we feel schemes such as using already extracted blood without the patient’s consent differ from the initial case of forcible eye redistribution appealed to by libertarians—and I think we do—selfownership is not what explains the difference. unlike the two further arguments discussed in Section II. if you own a detached body part at all. like everything else you might have owned. Liberalism Without Inequality. your body.31 However. you own it in virtue of a specific principle of resource ownership that assigns ownership of a body part to you where that part was once part of you and where various other conditions (e. 15. Most libertarians take the objects of self-ownership to include bodily parts that have been separated from one’s body as well as the more common intact parts of one’s body. Regents raises the issue of whether one has the right to sell parts of one’s body for money. the present argument. One would still have a strong right of control over the disposition of that organ between the point of removal and reimplantation” (Otsuka. an appeal to the (in moral terms) relatively unproblematic redistribution of organs from dead people will have little argumentative force against libertarians who think that once you cease to exist. should reject the specific principle of resource 30. plenty of real-life cases of actual or feasible redistribution schemes for bodily parts. immediately becomes part of the commonly owned pool of external resources (or something similar).100 Philosophy & Public Affairs resulted from the use of them. and thus no longer something you own in virtue of your self-ownership.32 On the minority view. 18). I bracket those issues here.

full or at least substantial. e. except (say) as a source of income. that.g. however. On the latter view. that I badly need the pair of eyes thanks to which I can see. the relevant view concerning nonstringent self-ownership rights over superfluous bodily parts might imply that others may appropriate and use one’s extra pair of eyes without one’s consent provided that they supply suitably compensating benefits in return. Ultimately. in the absence of some kind of intervention. This suggestion. my ownership rights over one of the items is nevertheless much more stringent than ownership over the other. in virtue of which I can see. why cannot the mere fact that I need some external resource ground my right to it? I see no satisfactory way to answer this challenge. If the degree to which I need some part of myself can determine the stringency of my self-ownership rights. One explanation is that the ground of my ownership over myself is not simply the fact that I am myself. For instance. unlike my ownership rights to my superfluous eyes. I therefore think it would be problematic for the libertarian to claim that the stringency of self-ownership rights over bodily parts varies with factors such as the parts’ importance in pursuing one’s plans of life and hence that one enjoys only very nonstringent self-ownership rights over the extra pair of eyes in my four-eye hypothetical example. I doubt that whether an object is attached (or can be reattached) to one’s body matters. who maintain that although two items may equally be a part of me. however. are.. Nor may it convince libertarians who think that self-ownership rights vary in strength such that my ownership rights to the pair of eyes. but one still has some kind of not very stringent ownership over them. unlike libertarians. but have no need for my extra pair of eyes. Libertarians.101 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body ownership. Can the cutting of a nail or small piece of skin tissue really constitute a significant moral difference? The first argument may not convince people who. which means that their status is different from what it would have been had they just fallen from the sky as a pure natural resource. must explain why this is the case. raises a further question. ownership over one’s extra pair of eyes can permissibly be infringed in the case I have described. it remains attached to the body of the owner by a small lump of skin or nail tissue. or that it never detaches by itself. think that self-ownership rights are neither full nor substantial. but some other fact. Suppose the extra pair of eyes in my example cannot reattach to the body of the owner once detached. not the self-ownership principle. .

the other half of whom have none. imposing an eye redistribution scheme on these children will. so the explanans entertained does not extend to their case. 95–111. 105. “Choice and Circumstance. not involve a violation of the selfownership rights of present or future self-owning persons. these children will never mature into autonomous beings. because they have some. 245–46. Andrew Mason (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. I cannot deal 33. 34. infants are not even partially autonomous. To the extent that eye redistribution. of the properties in virtue of which an agent is autonomous and thus a self-owner. We can suppose the children are orphans to avoid the complications raised by parental ownership rights: see Hillel Steiner. Libertarians assume that “each autonomous agent initially fully owns himself. 1998). Let us suppose that the eye redistribution involves not a violation of substantive self-ownership. half of whom have two functioning eyes.. being sentient). 35. albeit less objectionable than a similar scheme involving full self-owners.g.” p. “Libertarianism. where one eye is removed from infants with two eyes and given to infants with no eyes. Consider an eye redistribution scheme involving small children who are not yet autonomous and thus not yet self-owners. but either a violation of a right against unwanted bodily incursions or severe interference with the donor’s life (or both) comparable to that involved in the original compulsory eye redistribution scheme. 1994). selfownership is not what explains resistance to the original scheme.”35 This is consistent with assuming that some nonautonomous agents are partial or full self-owners.102 Philosophy & Public Affairs I now turn to the second refinement of the eye redistribution scheme to test if the original example really supports substantive self-ownership.33 It can be stipulated that. An Essay on Rights (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Still. however morally problematic this may be. The former claim might enable libertarians to explain why the present eye redistribution scheme is morally objectionable. Vallentyne. at p.34 Accordingly. . pp. is judged no less objectionable in this case than it was in the original example. as seems likely. or because there are bases for (partial) self-ownership other than being (partially) autonomous (say. e.” in Ideals of Equality. as indicated it is unclear that we really do find the present redistributive scheme less morally objectionable than the original one and. in any case. Hillel Steiner. due to unavoidable early death. The latter claim about bases for (partial) selfownership other than autonomy raises the huge issue of beings with (or normally thought only to have) intermediate moral status. ed. pp. but not all. 6.

who are not self-owners. and prior consent can be revoked at any time. p. 37. Arguably. they better deny that infants are full or partial self-owners.36 However. By way of further support for the latter claim. nonlibertarians) would object to an eye redistribution scheme involving such beings—and to the extent that they want to avoid a speciesist insistence on the intrinsic moral relevance of being Homo sapiens. ed. morally speaking. Third. since the first case involved removing two eyes. I am not suggesting that the right against unwanted bodily incursions is best seen as a component of self-ownership. morally speaking. Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner (Houndmills: Palgrave. As indicated. it arguably involved a more serious violation of self-ownership. 2000). we do not really enjoy self-ownership over our bodies. . a plausible position on these matters has yet to be “developed adequately”: see Vallentyne.103 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body adequately with this issue here. I think the hypothetical cases considered support the stronger conclusion that. 12. If so. not just one.” p. for that matter. I thank Nir Eyal for helpful comments on this matter.) The conclusion to draw from these tests is that substantive selfownership does not provide the best account of our resistance to the compulsory redistribution of eyes. As he notes elsewhere. These two features distinguish the right against unwanted bodily incursions from standard ownership rights. “Libertarianism. intrusion by others upon one’s body requires free and informed consent. and not by any broad notion of self-ownership of one’s (present or past) bodily parts. compare the first scheme that consists in a redistribution of detached eyes from self-owners with the second redistributive scheme that involves children. 6. nonhuman animals—I take it that few libertarians (or.37 (In fact. they will think that eye redistribution of the latter sort is more wrong than that of the former sort. It seems likely that to the extent people think these differ. Vallentyne briefly sets out some of the possibilities in his excellent introduction in Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate. our resistance to the original eye redistribution scheme is explained either by just one of the rights over oneself that substantive self-ownership involves (the right against nonconsensual bodily incursion) or a right unrelated to self-ownership (a right to be free of severe interference with one’s life). This overturns the main support based on moral intuitions about concrete cases offered for the selfownership thesis. which is often appealed to in the libertarian literature and in which the 36. to the extent that libertarians do not want to ascribe full or partial self-ownership rights to nonautonomous. and finally. not just consent. consider another case.

however. The weaver would. the case of forced labor. then. prefer to weave only one set of clothing for herself and none for the other person. consider a modified version of one of Otsuka’s thought experiments. Even if she is compensated for the forced labor. the weaver’s claim to the extra set of clothing is stronger than the four-eyed person’s claim to her extra set of eyes. By contrast. In short. this would result in an unwilled increase in the weaver’s psychic energy. . When people discuss forced labor.39 This case nicely illustrates the way in which the alleged right against forced labor looks much less convincing when that labor involves no burdensome interference with a person’s life. . 38. 18. to the extent that efforts matter to ownership rights in the libertarian perspective. no effort is involved in providing someone else with a spare pair of eyes in my first example. that if anyone were to force the weaver to make clothes for the other person. To deny that the weaver has an enforceable duty to save the life of the bald stranger because that duty would violate the weaver’s self-ownership strikes one as extreme. the weaver’s need for sleep would be so drastically reduced that she would have no less spare time. for example. which can be woven into clothing. One of the two is hirsute and capable of weaving. and so on. she would need much less sleep and be much better at multitasking. the only source of material is human hair. abhor the thought of her being made to work for the benefit of others without her prior consent. however.g.”38 Suppose. Otsuka. For example. Self-Ownership. her being forced to labor would make no difference to her ability to live her life as she pleases. they assume. where forced labor induces a compensating increase in the laborer’s capacities: “Imagine a . that forced labor involves a disruption in the laborer’s pursuit of his or her plans and goals. Suppose also that the weaver’s being made to work for someone else’s benefit will not place any other burdens on her.. e. each of whom will freeze to death unless clothed. 39. she does not. Unfortunately. . the weaver will still need to make an effort to produce an extra set of clothing out of her hair.104 Philosophy & Public Affairs assertion of self-ownership seems implausible when the case is suitably purified to eliminate the influence of non-(self-ownership) factors. all other things being equal. except of course in respect of the work she is forced to undertake to ensure the survival of the bald stranger. understandably. no less opportunity to pursue her own projects and aims. To see the relevance of this. p. whereas the other is bald and incapable of weaving. Hence. society of two strangers.

p. then I do not see how a right to self-ownership could plausibly be said to render taxation of the weaver morally wrong. In worlds very much unlike ours—i. 19. But if it is conceded that the fact that some good is important in one’s life can be part of the complete ground for one’s enjoying ownership over it. i.e.. worlds where almost all production involves no use of external resources and where individuals possess very different amounts of internal resources—despite being a leftlibertarian. but let us set that aside. and partly because Otsuka himself subscribes to equality (of opportunity for welfare). p. and from the point of view of such a prerogative it is hard to see how the tax would be objectionable in my example. agents have a right to pursue their own projects in ways that might bring about outcomes which are less than optimal from an impersonal point of view. it might be replied that people own themselves but that their self-ownership right against forced labor is much less stringent here than it is under normal circumstances. Within limits. 11.e. there is a need for the libertarian to explain why this fact cannot on its own ground ownership. not entirely. of course. the fact that ‘This is me’ is not the complete ground for (self-)ownership rights does not entail that it is not a necessary part of 40. and if equality of opportunity is desirable. partly because this is a different issue. his position commits Otsuka to regarding the resulting highly unequal distributions as being just provided the stated sufficientarian proviso is satisfied. circumstances in which forced labor does disrupt people’s lives and capacity to flourish. “an illusion”: see Self-Ownership. but this fact together with the fact that these rights protect something important in one’s life. disagree about the desirability of equality. Self-Ownership. . The case brings out nicely why Otsuka merely claims that “the conflict between libertarian self-ownership and equality is largely. but adds: “I believe that the libertarian gains the upper hand when the opponent goes so far as to claim that a tax may be imposed on the weaver not merely in order to ensure that the nonweaver does not freeze to death or is able to enjoy a certain amount of comfort.”40 We might. Otsuka. This reply implies that the ground of self-ownership rights is not just the fact that ‘This is me’.105 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body Otsuka agrees.” i. The point is that if the tax on the weaver would not interfere with the weaver’s life. but in order to ensure that the non-weaver end up with a wardrobe that is no less luxurious than the weaver’s. I believe that the motivation for Otsuka’s view that self-ownership defeats the case for equality-restoring taxation in his ingenious weaving example derives largely from something like an independently justified agentprerogative.e... To be sure. Again.

the weaker will be the constraints they impose on the pursuit of other values. they are quite unlikely to be what grounds “constraints on the admissible means of promoting equality” (Vallentyne. for example. unanimous intuitions. and less well integrated with the rest of our bodies. To the extent that parts of our bodies are functionally irrelevant. This is shown by a case of Siamese twins where one twin is functionally dependent on a kidney located in what we will consider to be the other twin’s body. It is doubtful whether nonstringent self-ownership can in fact account for the constraints normally endorsed by libertarians. p.” p. I doubt that any plausible account will supply the needed argument. Yet in view of the insignificance of the mere fact that some physical object or substance is part of one’s body (see Section IV). and to the extent that a certain use of our bodies does not involve burdensome interference with our lives. “Critical Notice. the feebler self-ownership rights are. the flip side of the claim that it is hard to construct cases providing a solid basis on which to rule out the possibility that a factor has some (if only slight) moral relevance is that it is similarly hard to construct cases demonstrating clearly that some factor makes a slight moral difference. Note that parts of one’s body can be as important to others as to oneself. To be sure. .106 Philosophy & Public Affairs the complete ground. say. Examples like the ones considered in this section seriously erode the plausibility of the claim that we enjoy substantive self-ownership of our bodies. Note. this conclusion is compatible with the ascription of weak or even minimal factinsensitive self-ownership rights. If. 1). we must say something about why one cannot enjoy ownership over a good that is not part of me but overwhelmingly is important to the execution of my life plan (and not similarly important to others). This renders the ownership rights we do have over our bodies sensitive to a range of nonmoral facts.41 It is logically possible that one’s need of something to carry out one’s life plan can ground ownership in some contexts but not in others. from a left-libertarian point of view. we think that I can enjoy self-ownership rights over a bodily part that is part of me and has a tiny role in my execution of my life plan. that libertarian retreat to this position comes at a cost. Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner. if self-ownership rights are quite weak. Yet some left-libertarians take their theory to be “promising because it coherently underwrites both some demands of material equality and some limits on the permissible means of promoting this equality” (Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics. we have no substantive right of self-ownership. ed. People are unlikely to have definite. however. about the claim that the moral permissibility of redistributing eyes in my 41. For instance. even dysfunctional. 617). 42. First.42 Second.

“Self-Ownership. do not support fact-insensitive self-ownership.”45 At their core these arguments assert (a) that selfownership is necessary for a particular kind of moral status or capacity (e. 48–51. 31. including the following.g. Self-Ownership.e. pp. Nozick. In this section I strengthen the case against selfownership by showing how these considerations fail to support the self-ownership thesis. (a) is problematic whichever of the three kinds of moral status I have mentioned is at stake. autonomy and self-ownership In the previous section I argued that moral intuitions about the kinds of cases. for each of the kinds of moral status appealed to. In my view. Someone who has the right to a body no worse than his own. It is concluded from this (c) that persons enjoy self-ownership. However. Self-ownership secures a person’s rights over a particular entity. i. it is possible to imagine situations in which a person’s ownership of an entity functionally equivalent. the libertarian case for self-ownership is not based solely on appeals to our intuitions about concrete cases. such as the eye redistribution scheme. needless to say. Nozick.. 34. nonslave status.g. 44. Yet. Anarchy. see Cohen.. or even functionally superior.” p. Anarchy. 230–43.. 45. iii. Let me set aside (b) and focus on (a). or a status as an end). our intuitions do not favor self-ownership. Anarchy. to his own body is sufficient to furnish the owner with possession of that moral status.43 that self-ownership is necessary for the rightful exercise of autonomy. p. and (b) that persons enjoy that moral status or capacity. his or her own body. but 43. . Deeper arguments for self-ownership. p. an unobjectionable inference.44 and that selfownership reflects “the Kantian principle that individuals are ends not mere means. have been pressed into service: that our not having the moral status of slaves requires us to be self-owners. pp. 172. well-being and autonomy). Christman.107 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body four-eye person’s example depends on the anticipation of marginally greater benefits than does the moral permissibility of redistributing spare pairs of eyes from lucky finders to blind persons. When we control for factors that are only contingently connected with violations of one’s ownership rights over one’s body (e. 40. Nozick. autonomy. to which libertarians appeal. For a thorough critique of these three kinds of argument that differs from that presented here.

forced donations of blood and 46. Admittedly. p.108 Philosophy & Public Affairs no right to his own body. accordingly. than a mere noninstrumental concern not to violate his negative rights. In some cases. if one is tied to one’s present looks.. esp. “Self-Ownership. accordingly. essentially. by abstaining for noninstrumental reasons from violating such a right. because that would demand more. Even when this point about how the quality of a body (part) is linked to its being similar to one’s present body (parts) is granted. But then such rights cannot be grounded in a principle that is. this point cannot be pressed as an objection in the present context. Second. in one’s attitude to this person. the present suggestion strikes me as immensely more controversial than the point that our moral status is different from that of slaves—and. a body part not worse than one’s own may mean a body part not too dissimilar from one’s present body parts. 30. 125–84. in our world many forcible interventions in one’s (use of one’s) body (e. note first that this suggestion does not conflict with my argument in the present context. The Myth of Property (Oxford: Oxford University Press. it might still be suggested that while someone with a right to a body no worse than his own has a moral status that is more elevated than that of a slave.” they must be grounded in agents’ autonomy and individual liberty. one treats its possessor differently from—perhaps very differently from—the way in which one treats a mere means. and I am not making any positive claims about our moral status. The present line of argument can be seen as an extension of Christman’s general view of self-ownership . an extreme makeover of one’s face may not lead one to have a better face in the relevant sense even though one would agree that another person with one’s post-makeover looks is more handsome than a third person with one’s present looks. that of a slave.g. has a moral status that is different from. p. In reply. John Christman. Cohen. in respecting someone’s right to a body of a certain quality one will not necessarily treat its possessor as an end. take John Christman’s suggestion that if the subset of the full package of self-ownership rights that is comprised of control rights over one’s body “are to be justified at all.47 Finally. Christman does not think that the subset of the rights of full self-ownership comprising income rights can be grounded in a person’s autonomy and individual liberty. 1994). regular. 30. because whether someone violates another person’s selfownership is not a matter of his attitude to this person. he rejects this subset of self-ownership rights. that status is still lower than that of a self-owner. Self-Ownership. and much better than.. pp. I am simply addressing an argument in favor of selfownership that appeals to the fact that our moral status is different from that of slaves.46 Also.”48 Surely. E. 39.. 47. 48. However. as opposed to control rights over one’s body and life: ibid. and more elaborately. as immensely less promising as a rationale for self-ownership.” pp. a matter of the agent’s attitude to those his conduct affects.g. Christman. and that agents are autonomous and exercise individual liberty when they “control and plan [their] own life. 240.

normal human bodies. it does not prevent them from controlling and planning their lives in general. way. 301 n 7. although it might ground a right over a fraction of one’s body (or a right to a body no worse than that fraction necessary for the exercise of one’s autonomous agency). 49. or a very similar. but to make his or her body a body of a certain sort. at p. Christman’s concern about autonomy obviously cannot ground self-ownership for these people. in which people’s plans concern their own bodies. Surely. For the latter point. their ability to control their lives is promoted best if 99 percent of each body is removed in such a way that these abnormal individuals end up with what are. these interventions and (say) forced sacrifice of an income obtained through the use of external objects relate to the underlying concern in the same. “The Shape of Lockean Rights: Fairness. see Nir Eyal. and taxation of income obtained only through the use of one’s body and mind) are compatible with this underlying concern. and Consent. See also Richard Arneson. Since their bodies heal very easily. a person will plan. that people are born with huge bodies they can barely move.” Social Philosophy and Policy 22. It might be objected that in very special cases. Although it might be true that the absence of self-ownership prevents people from realizing such plans. bodies with two hundred legs and arms. for us. Pareto. . 283 fn.49 Moreover. for instance. Moderation. they can at best sense and control 1 percent of their bodies. at p. not merely to have a body of a certain sort. “If You’re an Egalitarian. also. Suppose. We can even imagine possible (although evolutionarily impossible) worlds in which people’s bodies are such that they have no ability to control their life and in which the forced donation of most of a person’s body will actually enhance his autonomy. At any given moment. although they can readily determine which percent that is. How Come You’re So Inegalitarian about Your Body?” Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly 55 (2006): 299–310. it is possible to imagine worlds in which forced donations of one’s organs need in no way undermine one’s ability to control one’s life. It can hardly be an objection to a moral view that in a world in which this principle is respected some people will be prevented from showing that even limited control rights over one’s body can at best be grounded in autonomy and individual liberty given certain contingent truths about the way in which we are related to our bodies.1 (2005): 255–85. and this is what matters.109 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body hair samples announced well in advance.

if autonomy implies we have a right to enjoy control of a body that is at least as good as our own. 41. “SelfOwnership. given the deficiencies of transplants. it is the mere fact that people are able to control their own lives that makes it fitting that they own themselves. as a matter of fact. artificial limbs. In this section. and unavoidably. 50. and so on. Note that nothing in this argument rules out the notion that.” Journal of Ethics 2 (1998): 27–55. Thus. when is something a part of one’s body ? In standard cases. compatible with an acknowledgment that physical parts of one’s body have derivative moral significance because people tend to be emotionally tied to. and Autonomy.110 Philosophy & Public Affairs realizing certain plans they have. since this will be true of virtually any moral principle. it may seem that the distinction between physical objects that are part of someone’s body and physical objects that are not ought to be accorded moral significance. the most plausible criteria determining when an object is part of one’s body might lead to doubts about the self-ownership thesis. at p.50 iv. Their self-ownership is not something they enjoy because. Roughly. However. their ability to control their own lives is enhanced. and when we try to answer this question we may find that. this is neither here nor there for the moment. Freedom.) Moreover. on reflection. I along with Christman have understood the concern for autonomy as the concern that people are able to control their own lives. (This finding is. the mere fact that some object is initially part of someone’s body is not inherently morally relevant. and dependent on. it may well be that. not a principle with derivative status that reflects the fact that. dependent on the particular bodies that we happen to be stuck with. . the only way to respect this right is to respect people’s right to their own body. because at present we are concerned with the self-ownership thesis understood as a fundamental moral principle. their bodies. The fact that one has the ability to control one’s life can hardly make it fitting that one owns a huge body of which one can at any given time control only a fraction. autonomy and the like require ownership of one’s own body. For present purposes I do not think Brenkert’s understanding makes a difference. owing to technological limitations. if they do so. However. when we consider nonstandard cases we are forced to wonder what makes a physical object part of someone’s body. we are currently heavily. of course. since any substitute would in fact prevent us from controlling and planning our own lives. Brenkert suggests that the concern for autonomy should be understood differently: see George Brenkert.

the world. However. that since I am normally aware of my hands without being aware of anything else—I do not have to notice the location of my arms to infer their location—and I can normally move them just by intending to do so. What I shall do instead is to consider the self-ownership thesis in the light of two leading accounts of bodily criteria.52 However. I would not be entitled to resist its use by others in a predicament like mine to a higher degree than I would be entitled to resist the appropriation. and awareness of. 1984). it would seem more natural to say that the artificial limb is attached to one’s body. or perhaps it should be considered collectively owned property. On the Cartesian account. nor am I aware of them. 52. if and only if X is a material object that (i) Y can “be aware of without being aware of anything else”. p. It can be appropriated by someone else. . p.111 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body The question of criteria here is large and not one I can adequately address in the present article.”51 This account captures well the view that the body is the vehicle of agency in. Again. this suggests that they are not part of my body and yet ownership of one’s body is normally understood to include ownership of the internal organs. first. The Human Animal (Oxford: Oxford University Press. thanks to some complicated electronic device. The first. Olson. The Cartesian account implies that these are parts of one’s body. I have always been able to sense through and move the artificial arm. it is clear that even when an artificial limb was initially part of my body. this seems rather strained in some cases. or (ii) Y “can move intentionally without intending to move anything else. this limb is not part of the person’s body and accordingly he does not enjoy self-ownership over it. 22. Consider next cases of people with high-tech artificial limbs with which they can perform basic actions and through which they sense the world. my hands are parts of my body. Certainly I cannot move them directly. Furthermore. Eric T. by 51. and when. it has some rather surprising implications in itself and poses a threat to the self-ownership thesis. following Eric T. Olson. Personal Identity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. for example. Consider. 1997). It implies. I shall call the Cartesian account. which. a person with a numb and paralyzed limb. 145. this in itself would give me no special ownership over the artificial limb. Richard Swinburne. consider my internal organs. says: X is Y’s body or a part of Y’s body. On the Cartesian account.

”53 The self-ownership thesis remains unattractive under this account. This supports the Human Organism account: X is Y’s body or a part of Y’s body. Also. or parts of which. Presumably. can presumably be legitimately redistributed. Consider a scenario in which half the population is born with no eyes and. On the Human Organism account of body parts. we would not say that the first twin’s body includes all parts of the other twin’s body. but inorganic seeing devices implanted in their eye sockets by some cosmic accident soon after conception. these eyes. unlike organic eyes. no metabolism takes place between the eyes and the human organism in which they are located). and (ii) Y “can move intentionally without intending to move anything else. and although they enable the person in whose body they are located to see. A numb and paralyzed leg is no less a part of the human organism to which it is attached than a functional leg. artificial limbs—at least. . as athlete and amputee Oscar Pistorius’ carbon-composite Cheetah legs are—are not parts of the human organism to which they are attached. they do not form any complex organic unity with this person’s body. Suppose that we found out to our great surprise that the eyes of half of those people who actually exist are not parts of their bodies. like a pacemaker.e. of some other external resource that I am accustomed to using and that they need for reasons similar to mine. the other half is born with two nonbiological eyes in their eye sockets. On 53.” which. (i) Y can “be aware of without being aware of anything else”. they are involved in comparable metabolic processes. if and only if X is or is part of “the largest living [human] organism.. when they are inorganic. it is not really clear that they are not parts of the relevant bodies. but this asymmetry is very implausible.112 Philosophy & Public Affairs others. For example. due to some freak event. This account needs refinement to accommodate the case of Siamese twins. Would we infer from this that appropriating their eyes would be morally less problematic than appropriating those of the other half? Some might think that if the inorganic seeing devices are located in people’s bodies from a time soon after conception and enable people to see. Some of these counterintuitive implications of self-ownership under the Cartesian account might be avoided if we focus instead on the fact that our body is a human organism. These pairs of eyes are not part of the human organism in which they are located (i.

that in order not to have the status of slave one has to own something. in fact involved some people owning.: Harvard University Press. in a legal 54. as we have known it throughout history. However. the comparison between the inorganic and organic eyes has no implications for the asymmetry thesis. 226. moreover. Judith Jarvis Thomson. As Judith Jarvis Thomson puts it: “people’s bodies are their First Property. Suppose. Note. whereas everything else that they own—their houses. .113 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body this view. Hence. Slavery. and shoes—is their Second Property. I think it is clear that. Let us suppose. finally. and that this enables the person to control the replica body. The concept of the human body is the concept of a particular kind of organism. the people living in a world in which everyone owns a silicon body. owning something is intimately connected with the possession of high moral status. arguendo. The Realm of Rights (Cambridge. For philosophers such as Hegel. Consider a case of a person born with a dysfunctional organ that is connected to the rest of his body by no more than a small lump of skin. but does not own his or her natural body. and it may simply seem obvious that if one is to own something. however. Surely. I suggested. I would want to insist that there is no morally relevant difference between the two kinds of eyes. 1990). there are cases of bodily parts whose possession seems to merit no more moral protection than the possession of similar nonbodily parts.”54 Now suppose. typewriters. people are born unable to move or sense with their own nonartificial bodies. like a pacemaker. Even if this is denied. Consider the three rationales discussed in Section III. that due to high levels of toxic material in the atmosphere. no more have slave status than people in our world. none seems to explain why the mere fact that something is part of the organism that is a human body should have any special moral significance. that each person’s brain is connected to a silicon replica of a human body through an electronic transmitter. p. one’s body is the prime candidate. there would still be a problem for the asymmetry thesis. Mass. Even if this organ were treated as part of his body. that if we look at the arguments people have offered for the self-ownership thesis. to invoke a stringent right of self-ownership in this case would not seem plausible. Just as there are cases of nonbodily parts whose possession seems to merit no less moral protection than similar bodily parts. an inorganic eye is not part of a human body.

5 (forthcoming). 57. I am not identical to my body: see Derek Parfit. Derek Parfit. The world described two paragraphs back is like this. 35–39. other people’s bodies. would be the survivor. 253. and awareness of. Most of those who have considered the matter concede that if someone were to extract my brain. case of dicephalic twins supports the same conclusion. “Justice and the Compulsory Taking of Live Body Parts. Now in worlds like this parts of a person’s body—even if that body is what the person is or is constituted by—are of much less concern from the point of view of autonomy than external resources such as the replica body that the person controls or even the person’s income. If so. pp. that we simply are our bodies. Let us turn. The body is. or something close to being mere means. Whose Body Is It Anyway? (Oxford: Clarendon Press. which. Unless we grant. p. 56. the world. While the Kantian means principle certainly militates against certain uses of bodily parts. as in the example above. .” Utilitas 15 (2003): 127–50. 2002). and use it for the benefit of others. for most people. we see that the concern that no one suffers being reduced to slave status has no necessary connection with the concern that people own their own bodies. implausibly. and when we consider the full range of possibilities. the vehicle of agency in. Dicephalic twins are two different persons even if they share the same body from the neck and below: see Jeff McMahan. at pp. chap. destroy my body in the process. Consideration of the extremely rare. and awareness of. but real-life.” They assert that selfownership explains or grounds “the intuitive wrongness of various forms 55.114 Philosophy & Public Affairs sense.56 when we appropriate an eye of theirs that is part of their body and use it for the benefit of others. Climbing the Mountain.57 Some libertarians think that “full self-ownership is the most appropriate reflection” of our status as “self-directing beings with full moral standing. The world as we know it fills just a tiny spot in the space of what is possible. Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press.55 it seems that if we use people as mere means. to the concern about autonomy. 2006). 113–18. pp. The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1984). the world. and implant my brain into another body with an empty skull resulting in a person with my psychological features. and not the person previously occupying the body with the empty skull. 136–37. we also use people as mere means when we appropriate an inorganic eye of theirs. Consider next the appeal to the Kantian means principle. however. Cécile Fabre. I. is not part of their body but simply located in their body. we can easily imagine worlds in which large parts of people’s bodies are irrelevant to their agency in. finally. see Cécile Fabre. However. it seems unable to distinguish such uses and otherwise comparable uses of nonbodily parts. For the latter point.

From this examination of two accounts of bodily criteria I draw two conclusions. and many have found his thesis persuasive. however. 338. 59. 209. . and not something else. G. “Why Left-Libertarianism. “Does Left-Libertarianism Have Coherent Foundations?” Politics. Cohen observes that: “Jean-Jacques Rousseau described the original formulation of private property as a usurpation of what should be freely accessible to all. Vallentyne. (2) It is in any case unclear why the mere fact that something is part of one’s body should in itself make a significant moral difference. 71. at p. Compare Mathias Risse. and Equality. are influenced by factors that are only contingently related to the distinction between what is and what is not a part of one’s body. (1) It is not obvious that any account will actually provide friends of the self-ownership thesis with an understanding of the body that enables them to retain all of the intuitions they want the selfownership thesis to capture. p. As Cohen acknowledges. Philosophy. but few would discern a comparable injustice in a person’s insistence on sovereignty over his own limbs. Cohen. Freedom. So if selfownership really is a reflection of our status of self-directing beings with full moral standing. It is. to which he refers. A. 58.” p. the selfownership thesis had better explain the wrongness of nonconsensual interference with such devices. quoted approvingly by Otsuka. artificial bodies. the counterintuitiveness of the asymmetry thesis It might be urged in spite of all that has been said so far that interventions in people’s bodies really do seem morally different from interventions in external resources. Steiner. a further question whether it is selfownership that explains this asymmetry. as a matter of fact and in a certain range of cases. 21 n 27. Libertarianism. people do indeed detect greater injustice in an insistence upon sovereignty over external objects than in the insistence upon sovereignty over one’s own limbs.3 (2004): 337–64.”58 But surely this grounding relation can be made out only to the extent that one’s body.”59 Let us grant Cohen that. it is possible that the judgments. Self-Ownership. to the extent that we can manifest our capacities as self-directing beings through external. then. is under one’s self-guidance. & Economics 3. p.115 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body of nonconsensual interference with bodily integrity. v. and Otsuka.

a piece of land) necessary to enjoy a functioning body will seem more important than having sovereignty over one’s limbs. whether internal or external to one’s self. people’s lives do not depend on the particular limbs of which their bodies consist. since extraction involves risks..” pp. we are to physical areas in the real world. or areas. this is only an impure. we feel shame or pride in them. generally speaking.116 Philosophy & Public Affairs To test whether this is the case. say. We also need to assume that we are emotionally indifferent to our bodies in the same way that. I take it that a moral asymmetry reversing that propounded by Rousseau will appear attractive. are not in the relevant respect replaceable. Again. because in our world people’s lives do depend on their own bodies but not on particular external physical objects. Fabre. incidentally. that it is now possible to extract liver lobes for the use of others. On this 60. related to particular areas in the same way that we are actually related to our bodies: we are dependent on a particular area for our survival and well-being. In the fantasy world I have described. appropriates and removes my arm. if someone. To screen out irrelevant factors that may influence our intuitions we should also imagine that we are emotionally attached to the relevant areas in the same way that we are emotionally attached to our bodies in the real world. and that the physical spaces. on which one’s life depends. This explains why people in the real world have a right to their own bodies. This suggests that the special claim one has is not to one’s own body. this is no big deal. e.g. In this philosophical fantasy we are. this will lead my body to malfunction. the donor’s liver rejuvenates in a matter of weeks. 136–37. (Note. Normally. . real-life version of the hypothetical example. in an important respect. but that persons are able to use their limbs only in particular physical spaces. Thus. but to any resource. in such a world.g.60) However. Having sovereignty over the external resources (e. Now. but not dependent on our body. “Justice. if someone appropriates the small area of land where I enjoy a functioning body and evicts me. suppose that limbs are easily replaceable.. is time-consuming. I will suffer no pain and a new one will immediately appear and replace the old one. and can be unpleasant. but they do depend on the particular physical spaces in which they can have functioning bodies. and the injustice of insisting on the former concomitantly less serious than the injustice of insisting on the latter.

But in all these cases. just as in the case of one’s body parts. The point generalizes beyond the present particular example. we do not own our bodies or own them in a way that involves more stringent rights than those we have over external objects. Obviously. for example. the considerations I have presented fall short of showing that we lack derivative rights over our entire bodies. it is nevertheless worth ending with some words of caution. Second. except that we can be conscious only if our bodies are located in a particular space. to all resources that are essential to one’s life. conclusion We have good reasons to reject substantive self-ownership as well as the asymmetry thesis. And it would be the case if we were the purely mental beings that Vallentyne entertains the thought of our being. except when read as a derivative moral evaluation applying to our world only. most people have had their organs naturally since before birth.117 Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights over One’s Body proposal the asymmetry thesis is false. and for good reason (such as the fact that many of them are vital and cannot easily or not at all be replaced) they care about them a great deal. this provides some reason to give people a legal right protecting them from unwanted interventions in their bodies. people came into existence deeply emotionally attached to particular places. In all these cases. At a fundamental level. and the way in which these facts generate derivative self-ownership rights. Third. there are reasons for our insisting upon ‘sovereignty’ over those essential resources. I hope that those who are inclined to retreat to these claims will at least agree that the present article serves to clarify the issues at stake. I hope the discussion has helped isolate the issue of ownership of one’s body from a number of contingent facts about our relationship to our bodies and to external objects. so that to wrench them out of those places would be to diminish the value of their life substantially. vi. In particular. as I have indicated along the way. Although these are important conclusions. This would be the case if. First. some of my arguments do not decisively demonstrate that weak claims of self-ownership are false. whether . It extends to particular physical spaces or objects that are essential to one’s life for reasons other than that they are necessary for one to have a functioning body. those reasons are derivative of contingent facts about the functional importance of those resources to our lives.

to rest on the self-ownership thesis—e. the truth and status of the self-ownership thesis is no less interesting than its implications. this does not rule out the possibility that the moral principles which have been mistakenly taken.” pp. “Justice. often in the justification of some or other kind of inequality. 267–91. Self-Ownership. However. self-ownership cannot play this kind of role to any significant extent. or the implications of its rejection. or the right to a dominant say in how to live one’s life—similarly restrict (or. the right against severe interference in one’s life.. 61.61 I take it that from the point of view of moral theory. Gorr. in my view. If this article is correct. and Natural Assets. . for that matter.g. underlie) the claims of distributive justice.118 Philosophy & Public Affairs people have self-ownership is a question often raised in discussions of distributive justice.

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