What is the opposite of self-ownership?

Alternative Title #1: The Paradigm of Self-Ownership (Part 2)

Alternative Title #2: Ben Bryant’s Middle-Way

In this post, I want to challenge the paradigm of self-ownership by presenting a competing paradigm, one that recognizes our collective obligations to society and to our fellow man. But I have a problem. Simply stated, the problem is this: From a theoretical perspective, isn’t the opposite of self-ownership “slavery”? If so, this has to be one of the most unattractive moral principles in the world! (As an aside, I can’t resist taking one last dig at the leading critics of self-ownership–scholars like Barbara Fried, David Sobel, and Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen–who themselves are unable to propose a workable alternative to self-ownership.)

Nevertheless, despite the difficulty of imagining a workable alternative to the self-ownership paradigm–i.e. an alternative that does not involve the unpalatable extreme of slavery–I will do my best here to imagine a less extreme alternative. To do so, allow me to introduce you to Ben Bryant and to his beautiful 2017 paper titled “Duty-Sensitive Self-Ownership,” which is available here (via ProQuest) for your reference. To his credit, Professor Bryant does try to paint a workable alternative to self-ownership. Strictly speaking, Bryant himself does not reject self-ownership outright. (How could he, given the lack of alternatives?) Instead, Bryant presents a modified version of the self-ownership paradigm–a version he calls “duty-sensitive self-ownership.”

According to Bryant (2017, p. 265, emphasis added by me), “people have some limited but enforceable duties of assistance to one another.” Alas, the problem with Bryant’s “duty-sensitive” theory is that it has no real stopping point. Bryant (p. 278) himself concedes that “working out the details here will, of course, be tricky.” We could, however, try to rescue Bryant’s duty approach by strictly limiting the outer scope of these positive duties to one’s family and to the members of one’s political community. After all, no one chooses one’s family, just as no one chooses the political community you are born into, so perhaps it makes intuitive sense to limit our positive duties to these two domains (family and politics). But even in these two contexts, we still have to decide what the scope of these parental duties or community duties are–specifically, which family members and community members are entitled to support, and how much support are they entitled to?

Nevertheless, despite this fatal flaw, Bryant is on the right track. Why? Because he has found middle ground between absolute self-ownership on the one hand (in which I am not even allowed to blow smoke in your face or create minor risks) and absolute slavery on the other (which is even worse, in principle, than absolute self-ownership). Moreover, what is most attractive about Bryant’s middle-way is how it comports with our moral intuitions and with our Anglo-American legal traditions. The law of negligence, for example, imposes a general “duty of care” on all persons–one has a duty to take reasonable steps to avoid or reduce the risks of foreseeable harms. That is, even self-owners have a legal duty to avoid imposing unreasonable harms, or the risks of such harms, on third parties. But beyond this general common law duty of care, what other limited duties, if any, do self-owners owe each other?

I will explore that all-important question–and then conclude my self-ownership series–in my next post.

Vedantic Reflections: Duty?
Okay, fine, but what do my duties consist of?

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 What is the opposite of self-ownership?

  1. Pingback: Closing thoughts on self-ownership | prior probability

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