Note: this blog post is the first of a multi-part series.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently discovered–much to my amazement and surprise–a remarkable body of “anti-self-ownership” papers. This discovery leads me to formulate a modified form of Rule 34–let’s call it Rule 34a: “If you can imagine it, it exists somewhere in the scholarly literature.”
But back to the main topic at hand: Why are some scholars opposed to the principle of self-ownership? After all, how can anyone be opposed to such an intuitive and morally attractive principle? It turns out, however, that there are many good reasons why one can question the truth-value of self-ownership. For my part, I was able to identify at least five major critiques of self-ownership, which I will summarize for now as follows:
A. The self-reference problem, i.e. logical critiques. Simply put, is self-ownership a logically coherent concept? To the point, how can a thing own itself?
B. The problem of indeterminacy, i.e. operational and definitional critiques. Even if you can own yourself (contra critique A above), what exactly do you own? That is, even if we accept self-ownership as true, what rights do self-owners have? Relatedly, what is the source of self-ownership? Where does this right come from?
C. The problem of minor intrusions or minor risks, i.e. counter-intuitiveness arguments (e.g. second-hand smoke, seat belt laws, noise regulations, overflight rights, etc.). That is, whatever rights self-owners have (i.e. whatever rights are included in self-ownership), how far do these rights extend?
D. The problem of special cases. What about children, non-human animals, and mentally-diminished people? Are they self-owners in any meaningful or real sense?
E. Communitarian critiques or critiques on the merits. This last type of critique rejects “individualism” outright, emphasizing the fact that we are social animals and live in overlapping societies, such as kin groups, voluntary associations, and political communities. Because of these social facts, because we live in well-defined societies, we owe enforceable and mutual duties to each other and these duties severely limit or even override self-ownership.
In my previous series of blog posts on self-ownership, I had treated self-ownership as an axiom, i.e. I had assumed self-ownership to be true by definition. But as we can now see, my axiom or pro-self-ownership “prior” needs to be updated, for even a cursory or bird’s-eye view of the anti-self-ownership literature shows us a wide variety of reasons and arguments that can be made against self-ownership. So, in my next few blog posts, I will further explore, one at a time, each of the five major criticisms of self-ownership set forth above. I will also illustrate these critiques with specific examples and then evaluate their merits.