Are children and non-human animals self-owners?

Alternative Title #1: Against Self-Ownership? Lit Review, Part 5

Alternative Title #2: The Problem of “Special Cases”: Self-Ownership of Children and Non-Human Animals

Thus far in this series, I have presented–and refuted–several theoretical critiques of the concept of self-ownership. Among these theoretical objections are logical incoherence (the problem of self-reference), indeterminacy (the level-of-generality problem), and the ghost of Ronald Coase (the problem of minor intrusions). But that said, how should we handle special cases like children and non-human animals?

Libertarian theories of self-ownership, however, tend to be “fact-insensitive”–to borrow G. A. Cohen’s apt term. That is, libertarian theorists by-and-large wave away or brush this important question aside. Calling forth their “inner economist” (in a bad way), they simply assume these special cases away. Consider, for example, this incredible statement by Peter Vallentyne (1998, p. [4]), a leading proponent of self-ownership: “… to keep things simple, we’ll assume that all beings with moral standings are fully psychological autonomous (fully capable of self-governance), and that they pop into existence in this state (as opposed to developing gradually).” WTF?

Alas, this strategy of side-stepping these special cases simply will not do. Any workable theory of self-ownership should be able to handle these cases or at least explain them away–explain why children or animals are not self-owners–instead of assuming the problem away. As it happens, I am happy to report that several scholars have, in fact, attempted to address different aspects of this problem head on. By way of example, David Favre’s 2000 Duke Law Journal paper on “Equitable Self-Ownership for Animals” uses existing property law concepts to propose a limited form of self-ownership for animals, while Hillel Steiner’s 2009 Public Reason paper on “Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources” (especially pp. 3-5) explains why parental rights over one’s children is consistent with left-libertarian theories of self-ownership.

I won’t evaluate the relative merits of either of these special theories here. It simply suffices to say that, although I don’t necessarily endorse Favre’s creative theory of animal self-ownership or Steiner’s qualified theory of temporal parental rights over children, the work of professors Favre and Steiner in this domain show that it is, in principle, possible to accommodate children, non-human animals, and other special cases into a self-ownership framework. Their works also show us just how versatile most theories of self-ownership are. Contra Barbara Fried and other critics of self-ownership, this flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Self-ownership is a moral axiom with implications for all sentient beings.

But wait up. What if self-ownership is a “bad” moral axiom? To the point, why should we prefer individualism over some social form of “communitarianism” or “collectivism” as our paradigm? I suspect that what is really going on here is that most, if not all, of the critics of self-ownership reject the individualistic nature of the self-ownership paradigm out of hand and would prefer a more communitarian or socialist model of ownership. After a brief hiatus, I will explore this fundamental objection–and then wrap up this series–in my next few blog posts starting on Wednesday, May 19.

The History of Finding (or Building) Noah's Ark - OZY | A Modern Media  Company
Who owns the animals? Who owns Noah’s children? Noah or no one?

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Are children and non-human animals self-owners?

  1. Pingback: The Law of Self-Ownership | prior probability

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