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March 7, 2011 / dictateursanguinaire

‘one thing youuuuu cannot buy’: on self-ownership

Philosophical ownership is a slippery concept. It combines both (1) literal, physical ownership (as in, having it at your disposal or being able to physically do what you will with it) and (2) the  right to do whatever you want with it. Often people conflate the two or think ownership possible when only one condition is fulfilled.

Why You Don’t Own Yourself (or any sentient being)

Think about a public pool – you have a right to swim there or read by the pool. But you cannot drain the pool of water to water your crops (which is also a bad idea agriculturally) – your rights are limited. Only ( You have a right to feed your children and an obligation to take care of them but you cannot do whatever you want with them, which is why you don’t own them. Ownership can’t just be “having some right to in some way manipulate or partake of something.” That’s one of the useful things about the concept of rights in the first place – it’s a way to avoid the black-and-white trap of “I can do anything I want with this” vs. “I cannot do anything at all with this.” True individual ownership has to be based on exclusive right and unlimited right (with the obvious exception that you cannot in the process violate others’ rights.) Interestingly, I would guess that historically the idea of rights to something is probably even older than the idea of ownership. Village commons in England, the idea of mutual land use in pre-invasion North America sans “ownership” – the idea of having a right to manipulate certain objects without the right to do whatever you want with them is a cornerstone of every facet of human life (think child-raising.) O

But, why, then, don’t you own yourself, since you can do whatever you want with yourself? Well, in short, prong (1). One theme I continually hit on over and over again is that abstract ideas must at some point intersect with reality – to say otherwise is to generally invite the abuse of power by those with the ability to manipulate language. I mean, really, I don’t think you can deny that a purely theoretical right to do whatever you want with something is meaningless if it is physically impossible now and for the forseeable future  to actually do that. E.g. one could claim sovereign right over the as-yet-uncolonized-sun and then “sell” it to me – thus I own it – but of course we all know that this would not really constitute ownership of the sun. In this case, I could certainly have (2) the legal (i.e. socially reconized) right to dispose of the sun but of course that is beyond my abilities. Or, take land. Land is fundamentally un-own-able. I can have exclusive right to the land but I cannot physically get rid of the land – I own the deed to the land because I can destroy it via fire but I cannot destroy land. Since I physically cannot do everything I might want to do with it, it’s meaningless to say that I have a right to do everything I might want to do with it.

How does this apply to humans? Well, you cannot literally make yourself to become 100% subservient to someone else. Even if you choose to do whatever someone else wants you to do, you are still actively making that choice. Short of lobotomizing yourself, you cannot get rid of your own agency. Acting like you have no agency is not the same as actually not having agency. If I sell my labor to someone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s still a (fairly abhorrent) contract relation and every day I either choose to terminate the contract or fulfill its terms. If I were to sell myself to someone, presumably a) they wouldnt have telekinetic abilities and b) I would have control over my body – I would still have to make myself do what they asked me. A trivial difference, seemingly, but it matters when certain ideologues on the right want the market to creep into literally every possible facet of life (and when there are no more facets left, to invent facets…see: commodity futures.)

Another example – think about “owning” a herd of cattle. If own cow runs off your land, do you really still say “I own that cow” anyways? Even if you have the legal right to that cow, it seems absurd to say that you own it when it’s actually not in your possession nor can you make it be in your possession. Now, you have a right to try to retrieve the cow but the idea that you have total control over a sentient being is some weird form of uniquely human hubris that is demonstrably false.

In general, we can say that the concept of ownership implies agency and a certain level of it. You must have agency to own something and you cannot own something that itself has agency. A rock can’t own a tree; a person can’t own a dog. In short, agency as a pre-condition to own anything. That is, you have to be a agent before you can own anything. But since we know that anything with agency cannot be owned, self-ownership is a fallacy. Your agency is inalienable – you can only be an agent or not be agent but someone else cannot have your agency.

*This discussion applies only to physical ownership. I’ll post in the future about intellectual property rights etc. (you can probably guess that I favor very limited forms of them.) The reason for that is basically explained by the above discussion – since prong (1) is already eliminated since ideas are infinitely malleable, that means that the only thing “ownership” depends on is legal and social convention. I still need to read a lot more about intellectual property rights to figure out exactly how many, if any, I think we need but I think it’s safe to say that American society c. 2011 has swung way too far in favor of IPR. I think this swing is legally invalid and I also think, even if it weren’t, its effects are demonstrably bad.


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