Self-ownership and property rights

August 28, 2012

What does it mean to have a right to a particular piece of property? This is a useful question. Understanding the way in which you conceptualise property rights can be an instructive way of gaining a fuller understanding of your own political intuitions. For example, in my pocket there is a pen, which I own. To me, this means that if society consisted of only you and I, then saying I own something is tantamount to saying you and I have agreed that the pen should be mine. If we expand this into real world, to say I have the property right associated with that object effectively means that we have all agreed that I should own the pen. Of course, going through an adjudication process for every single object in the world would be time consuming, and so we have devised a set of principles from which you can derive the ownership of any given object. We call these ‘laws’.

Other political philosophies have a very different understanding of property rights. Rather than being the subject of mutual agreement, they are instead moral rights ultimately derived from the self. They can be understood as a relation between a person P and an object X such that P has the exclusive right to determine a range of X’s parameters, and countermanding this is wrong.

On this model, property rights are ultimately derived from the self; you own yourself, and any wealth you create is yours as a result of being derived from that fundamental ownership. My pen is mine because I exchanged money I earned through my labour for it in a free and fair exchange.

However, this way of thinking about property rights is fundamentally weird. As given above, property rights are a relationship between the possessed and the possessor. ‘Self-ownership’ can only fit into this model in an odd way. Either the self has at least two parts, one of which owns the other, or the relationship is somehow reflexive.

On the former description, self-ownership is tantamount to the mind owning the body, and the two being distinct things in order to allow this relationship to work. This is quite a claim, and going down this path commits adherents to a rather strong form of dualism, with all the problems that implies. It also has an extra problem: to make it work, adherents would need to find a way of demonstrating that the controlling relationship between the mind and the body is different to other forms of possession inasmuch as it is necessary; i.e. the mind necessarily owns the body and is inextricable from that relationship. Without this being the case, the adherent is trapped in a regressive argument – ownership is derived from the mind, but the mind does not own itself, so there must be at least two distinct entitities within it and so on, ad infinitum. To avoid this, a person advocating a dualist form of self-ownership must find a way of avoiding Cartesian doubt to demonstrate the necessity of that self-ownership. Needless to say, that is quite a challenge.

The latter description, that of a reflexive relationship in which the self owns the self, is perhaps even more puzzling. I fully understand what it means for me to own a pen. I can write with it, place it in a pen jar for safe-keeping, balance it on my top lip when bored of writing, and even destroy it if I choose. All these things are a clear relationship between myself and an object; when this relationship does not exist, what comprises ownership?

Perhaps if we are to understand the reflexive self-ownership model more sympathetically, we should think of it less as a relationship and more of a question of determination. I determine the parameters of my pen; what it writes, when writes, and where it is kept. Similarly, I determine the parameters of myself; when I eat, when I sleep, and what I say. If we adjust the language we use here slightly so we avoid even implicit reference to dualism, we can say that these parameters determine themselves. Self-determining parameters are therefore what is required to make this reflexive model work.

We can therefore see this as a ‘tree’ of parameters: these self-determining parameters also determine these other parameters (the pen). We could then say that this relationship of determination adequately captures what we mean when we say self-ownership, and hence property rights. However, it does not seem to do so satisfactorily: we have not defined a relationship of work, the moral intuition which this form of property rights appeals to, but rather a causal relationship between the self and the world that requires other moral clauses laid on top of it to get property rights out. If a collection of self-determining parameters hits another collection of self-determining parameters and takes a parameter-bearing object from them, then, causally, that object is now theirs. This is not what we normally consider to be property rights.

This reveals, perhaps, the greatest flaw in self-ownership models of property rights: despite claiming that property rights are derived from self-ownership, they in fact require additional moral suppositions in order to work. Given that each of these suppositions are open to question in turn, this model would appear to rest on very precarious foundations indeed. On balance, I would prefer to stick to convincing other people that I should be allowed pens.

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