What is self-ownership and how is it justified?
The principle of self-ownership is the fundamental principle of libertarianism. Without self-ownership, there is no private property justification. Without private property justification, there is no non-aggression principle. Self-ownership is the undeniable ownership of one’s own body. From this, it is implied that individuals then have sole ownership of anything they come to legitimately possess through the control of their own body.
I want to discuss three justifications for self-ownership. This may be overkill, but I find these different justifications will appeal to different people who may prefer one justification over another. Regardless of multiple justifications, self-ownership can be praxeologically explained and I’ll try to show how its validity is undeniable.
One justification is mainly common sense, but is also derived from the homestead principle (ownership of property requires an act of original appropriation, use, control, or mixing land with labor as Locke would put it). That is, an individual having direct control of his or her body demonstrates ownership (indirect control does not demonstrate ownership). “First come, first served” certainly applies here. Who besides the original appropriator of one’s body could possibly claim ownership over that body? Any system of ethics based on need rather than private property becomes very problematic. In a system of ethics based on need, one could make the claim that he or she needs the control of another’s body more than they do. For example, a low-skilled worker would greatly benefit by ownership of a rich person’s body. The rich person has already saved plenty of resources, therefore the low-skilled worker should be able to expropriate the labor of the rich person to fulfil given needs. Such an arrangement is only possible through slavery or by the forceful confiscation of property from the rich person (this occurs through taxation and regulation of property which are both violations of the self-ownership principle). The common-sense justification for self-ownership can be summed up in the question, “If I don’t own myself, then who does?”
The natural law justification of self-ownership is built on man’s nature. The nature of man is to reason. We use reason to justify our actions. An animal has no such capacity to reason. Animals cannot use reason to determine property rights, rather animals can’t even comprehend something like property rights. While some critics will call natural law theological, it does not depend upon religious beliefs whatsoever.
To quote Murray Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, “The natural law, then, elucidates what is best for man — what ends man should pursue that are most harmonious with, and best tend to fulfill, his nature. In a significant sense, then, natural law provides man with a ‘science of happiness,’ with the paths which will lead to his real happiness.” Through natural law, we can derive concepts like self-ownership that are inherent to man’s nature that also provide the base for prosperous societies. Only absurdities can follow if we try to consider a society based on the opposition to self-ownership as a natural law. Such a societal norm would inevitably result in situations (such as slavery or serfdom) that are inherently at odds with the true nature of man (history of man must not be confused with the nature of man).
What I find to be the ultimate justification for self-ownership and consequentially private property is called the “a priori of argumentation”. To argue is to make propositions with the intent to arrive at some conclusion of truth. This means that two individuals engaged in argumentation both claim to understand what it means for something to be true. If this weren’t the case (if no one claimed to understand what it means for something to be true), there would be no reason for argumentation in the first place. But, there is a reason for argumentation. That is, to arrive at some understanding of truth, even if the resulting understanding is that a truth cannot be agreed upon between the arguing parties. Agreement to disagree is still an agreement and resolution of an argument.
One cannot argue against this understanding of the ethics of argumentation without engaging in a performative contradiction. To claim, “individuals don’t engage in argumentation to arrive at truths” is proposing an argument itself. Here, an actor is making a proposition that he or she claims to be true with the intent that this truth will be recognized as the truth by other parties. Therefore, argumentation ethics are a priori true, or true in and of itself.
An individual putting forth a proposition is undeniably in control of his or her body. Thoughts formulated in one’s brain are then communicated using one’s bodily faculties. To claim, “I don’t own my body” or, “you don’t own your body” is a contradiction. Without direct control of one’s body, one cannot even formulate the proposition that they may not own their body. Because first appropriators of property rather than latecomers must be the rightful owners of property, it is impossible for me to utter the words, “I don’t own myself” without contradicting myself. If I don’t own myself, someone else must. Since I am clearly in direct control of my body, who besides myself can possibly claim ownership over my body?