Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Silly arguments against self-ownership

by George J. Dance:

May 10, 2017 - Libertarians often talk about "self-ownership." What is it? To quote an encyclopedia definition: "Self-ownership (or sovereignty of the individual, individual sovereignty or individual autonomy) is the concept of property in one's own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of her or his own body and life."

I am no fan of the term. "Ownership" over one's own body and life is different, in crucial ways, from "ownership" of external things, like a car, and using the same term for both blurs those differences. One has to act to acquire a car; while one has "self-ownership" simply by existing. One can sell a car to another person, meaning that the other person now owns it; but I cannot imagine how anyone could rightfully come to own another person. Finally, ownership, and possession and control, of oneself are indistinguishable – some libertarians even ground self-ownership on the fact that people do possess and control their own bodies – while it is perfectly sensible to imagine a car being owned by one person, but possessed and controlled by someone else.

So I would prefer to use a different term, like the ones the encyclopedia offers: individual sovereignty or individual autonomy. However, I have no trouble with the concept as properly understood. Anti-propertarians, on the other hand, do seem to have trouble with the concept; perhaps because of the problems with the term noted above. In any case, on the web one often encounters people arguing against the very idea of self-ownership.

One popular argument that I often run into is "Three Refutations of Self-Ownership," published on an anarchist discussion forum years ago. It consists of three arguments meant to show that self-ownership is  (i) an oxymoron, (ii) immoral and unjust, and (iii) metaphysically impossible; posted with the invitation to "Please critique freely". Being a sucker for logical arguments, I had to respond to the invitation.

A Refutation of Self-Ownership #1 (With No Consideration of Cartesian Dualism)

1. Ownership requires a thing A that owns and a thing B that is owned.
2. Self-ownership requires that one A owns one’s body B.
3. If A and B were the same – i.e. if one and one’s body were one and the same thing – then A and B would both own and be owned.
4. Ownership implies an ability to control, direct, dominate, dispose of, defend, manage, and rent a thing.
5. If A and B were the same, then A would be controlling B, and B would be controlling A, and so forth, ad absurdum, so that true ownership would not really exist.
6. Therefore, if A and B are the same, then self-ownership is an oxymoron.

The false premise here is 5. If A and B were two different people, then it would be absurd for A to control B and for B to control A at the same time (precisely what makes the democratic idea of the citizens controlling a government that controls them absurd). What would happen if A and B disagreed? A would have to give in to B, and B would have to give in to A; in what sense, then, would either of them be in control?

However, the assumption is that A and B are the same person. So let us make that identity clear, by using just the one symbol, and rewriting premise 5 as:
5. If A and A were the same thing, then A would be controlling A, and A would be controlling A, and so forth, ad absurdum, so that true ownership would not really exist.
No absurdity there. Since premise 5 is false, the argument is unsound.

A Refutation of Self-Ownership #2 (With Consideration of Cartesian Dualism)

1. Ownership requires a thing A that owns and a thing B that is owned.
2. Self-ownership requires that one A owns one’s body B.
3. If A and B were not the same – i.e. if one’s mind/will and one’s body were not one and the same thing – then A would be a mind/will and B would be a living human body.
4. It is immoral and unjust to claim ownership of a living human body.
5. Therefore, self-ownership is immoral and unjust.

Premise 4 looks like the false one here. It might indeed always be "immoral or unjust to claim ownership of a living human body;" but why think it is? Perhaps the author was thinking about slavery, and reasoning implicity:
4a) Claiming ownership of a living human body is slavery.
4b) Slavery is immoral and unjust.
4c) Therefore, claiming ownership of a living human body is immoral and unjust.
But the definition of slavery in 4a) is misstated. Slavery is claimed ownership of someone else's living body. So all that this argument, if sound, would prove is that claiming ownership of someone else's living body is immoral and unjust; and of course claiming self-ownership is not claiming that. Since premise 4 is false, the argument is again unsound.

A Refutation of Self-Ownership #3 (With Consideration of Cartesian Dualism)

1. Ownership requires a thing A that owns and a thing B that is owned.
2. Self-ownership requires that one A owns one’s body B.
3. If A and B were not the same – i.e. if one’s mind/will and one’s body were not one and the same thing – then A would be a mind/will and B would be a living human body.
4. If the mind exists outside of the living human body – i.e. if the mind is a separate, non-physical entity – then the mind is intangible, whereas the human body is tangible.
5. It is not possible for a thing without physical tangibility to act upon a thing with physical
tangibility.
6. Therefore, self-ownership is metaphysically impossible.

In this case, the premises are all true, but the conclusion is a non-sequitur. Premise 4 contains
an assumption – "If the mind exists outside of the living body" etc. – that is not discharged in the conclusion. So to be valid the conclusion would have to be stated as:
6'. "Therefore, if the mind exists outside of the living body – i.e. if the mind is a separate, non-physical entity – then self-ownership is metaphysically impossible."
 –  Which would refute any libertarians who do argue that their minds are non-physical things that exist outside their bodies. But what libertarians do that? Since the conclusion does not follow from the premises, the argument is invalid.

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