The confusion of “self-ownership”…

NEW: Read Kinsella’s response to this entry which, sadly, does not address any of the points raised. Also make sure to read the comments section, which is a fine demonstration of the lack of sanity of “anarcho-capitalists.”


I have discussed why I reject the concept of “self-ownership” in a past entry. One related article that was linked on my comments is Kinsella’s Mises Institute article “How We Come to Own Ourselves”. Strangely, in his whole article he nowhere presents an actual account of self-ownership: however, he does quote one from his nasty anti-gay paleo friend Hans-Hermann Hoppe, whom he has lied for in the past on the issue of kicking all homosexuals out of society.

I wanted to address this account, since it is a common counter-argument to my position. Hoppe’s argument goes like this:

Why do we say “this is my body”? For this a twofold requirement exists. On the one hand it must be the case that the body called “mine” must indeed (in an intersubjectively ascertainable way) express or “objectify” my will. Proof of this, as far as my body is concerned, is easy enough to demonstrate: When I announce that I will now lift my arm, turn my head, relax in my chair (or whatever else) and these announcements then become true (are fulfilled), then this shows that the body which does this has been indeed appropriated by my will. If, to the contrary, my announcements showed no systematic relation to my body’s actual behavior, then the proposition “this is my body” would have to be considered as an empty, objectively unfounded assertion… On the other hand, apart from demonstrating that my will has been “objectified” in the body called “mine,” it must be demonstrated that my appropriation has priority as compared to the possible appropriation of the same body by another person.

As far as bodies are concerned, it is also easy to prove this. We demonstrate it by showing that it is under my direct control, while every other person can objectify (express) itself in my body only indirectly, i.e., by means of their own bodies, and direct control must obviously have logical-temporal priority (precedence) as compared to any indirect control.

I am not going to address the second point, because it is valid but irrelevant: it is in the first point that the crux of the issue lies. Besides, the control argument is the one I wanted to address anyway. I grant that if the control argument is valid, then any attempt to attribute ownership to anyone else is contradictory since it implies that this other person already owns their own body.

Here is where the problem occurs:

“When I announce that I will now lift my arm… and these announcements then become true… then this shows that the body which does this has been indeed appropriated by my will.”

In plain language, it is clear what Hoppe means, because our language evolved within the context of a belief in the soul as a separate entity which controls the body. But how are we to understand this from the modern biological perspective? This is important because the implicit assertion here is that “my will” is distinct from “the body.” A thing cannot appropriate itself, and if “my will” is an inseparable part of “the body,” Hoppe’s statement becomes incoherent.

I want to make clear that I am not merely accusing Hoppe of using sloppy language, or arguing that “self-ownership” is merely badly formulated. I am stating that “self-ownership” can only be a coherent concept if the mind-body dichotomy is correct. Otherwise there is no concrete entity called “the self” which we can name owner of “the body,” except to claim that “the self” is “the body,” in which case the owner is the same as the owned. And an ownership claim without an owner, or where the owner and the owned are the same thing, is nonsense.

In that respect, the English language is very deceptive, and it’s lamentable. When I say “I raised my arm,” it sounds as if I am claiming possession of an arm, which the “I,” a distinct entity, has raised. But this does not correlate to our understanding of biology or neurology. What it is that raised the arm is a complex and lengthy series of conscious and non-conscious actions which cannot be subsumed by “my will.” In fact, “my will” is only the tip of the iceberg.

This leads me to the further and even more critical problem, in that the vast, vast majority of the actions of the body, and the brain in particular, are not the result of “my will.” I do not decide when my heart beats, how fast to digest food, what hormones to release at what time, how to fend off a virus, which memories get conserved and which do not, how to translate stimuli into visual forms, and so on and so forth. Even if we accept his concepts, according to Hoppe’s own criterion, “my will” is only a minority shareholder of “the body.” “My announcements” on a vast majority of what the body does would fail to come true. Any intelligent alien observer who does not understand human biology may very well conclude that those correct announcements I made about my arms and so on were in fact pure luck (or he may also conclude that humans are stupid, or misusing language).

“Self-ownership” is nonsense, but let us be clear on the goal of such a concept. Self-ownership is a capitalist attempt to justify individual freedom in a world where property reigns. As such, it is a laudable but unnecessary mental contortion, as there is no merit to the concept of property. Nowhere can it be seen as more of a contortion than in this very article, where Kinsella deftly dances around the issue of whether parents own their children or not. To any Anarchist, the issue is very simple and straightforward: no human being can own another. But Kinsella has to keep doing the two-step until he finds the end of the song:

So, who owns a child’s body? Initially, the parents own it as a sort of temporary trustee. The parents, as the producers of the child, have an objective link to the child’s body that defeats any claims of outsiders (unless the parents sever this link by abusing their position). That is, parents have a better claim to the child than any outsiders, because of their natural link to the child. However, when the child “homesteads” or “appropriates” his own body by establishing the requisite objective link sufficient to establish self-ownership, the child becomes an adult, so to speak, and now has a better claim to his body than his parents.

Hang on there, capitalist! I thought property rights could only be taken away voluntarily or after you die. This is a fundamental principle of capitalism, which mutualists are constantly accused of breaking in the name of ideological convenience. Now you renege this fundamental principle, which you say is the only security man has in this world, because you can’t figure out any other way out of this problem, for ideological convenience? So you can promote the repulsive and unjust doctrine of parental privilege? What utter nonsense from Kinsella, the king of the Misesian dunces.

One may also reply that this implies that one can homestead anyone else’s land, and thus own it for oneself, something which capitalists would obviously oppose. This is a good analogy for the child’s body being owned and then homesteaded. But you have to remember that in their minds self-ownership is a special kind of ownership, superior to all the others, and bodies are a special kind of property which must therefore be treated differently (i.e. in any way that fits the desired outcome). They can’t justify this special treatment and merely assert it, even though it flies in the face of the concept of property itself.

Everything they say about self-ownership is ad hoc rationalizations and sophistry. Either a human being can be owned, or he cannot. There is no middle ground in this issue, no special pleading will be admitted. And if a human being can be owned, either by himself or by others, the logical contradictions rip any resulting system of thought to shreds. Let us therefore discard such an outmoded concept.

24 thoughts on “The confusion of “self-ownership”…

  1. […] Francois Tremblay opines once more on the flawed concept of “Self-Ownership” and accurately describes the underlying flaws within this idea. This only further drives the nail in the coffin of an  idea which you will see utilized by almost every pro-capitalist (“Anarcho” or not) in order to justify private property. This is in fact why all the arguments against it are ignored even by those claiming that rationality is on their side. […]

  2. self-owner-pwner March 23, 2010 at 18:08

    Ownership is a human convention.

    That simple fact obliterates self-ownership before its proponents can draw breath to defend it. That the idea ever got off the ground stands as a testament to human gullibility.

    • Ash April 12, 2011 at 10:43

      In fact ownership is ascribed (from the Latin ‘ad scribere’), that is simply written to someone.

    • guest August 31, 2011 at 19:36

      What really defines ownership is control, one owns something in name and name alone if they do not control it… I control myself thus own myself.

      Tell me how can one or many usurp control over me or any other freethinker, without resorting to barbarity? and ills that’s immorality are surely not worth debating…

      • Francois Tremblay September 1, 2011 at 00:25

        Did you not read my entry? Self-ownership is a nonsense concept. Stop irrationally believing in nonsense concepts.

        • Charles June 20, 2013 at 16:57

          In short, perhaps a bit of your own advice might be useful: Stop irrationally believing in nonsense concepts.

          • Francois Tremblay June 20, 2013 at 21:44

            The difference between you and me is that I back up my claims on this blog. I have seven years’ worth of it. You come here and you have nothing to back your claims up. Unless you’ve got anything to back you up, this is the end of the conversation, asshole.

  3. Bob Kaercher March 27, 2010 at 00:46

    “Ownership is a human convention.”

    Wow. How’d you get to be so SMART?

  4. self-owner-pwner March 27, 2010 at 08:21

    Wow. It seems you’ve both missed the point, and gotten it, at the same time. How’d you manage THAT?

    Of course it isn’t profound. It’s self-evident. And it blows the nonsense of self-ownership to smithereens. If you don’t see that, try squinting.

  5. Khoi April 3, 2010 at 03:36

    Hey, a tiger is another sentient being who also owns its body and highly conscious of that kind of self-ownership. So self-ownership must in no respect shoot the tiger.

  6. Francois Tremblay April 3, 2010 at 03:38

    Uh no, tigers don’t have self-ownership any more than any other being does.

  7. wolf May 16, 2010 at 17:38

    I agree with the gentleman on the fact that it is clearly self evident…as self evident as “I think therefore I am.” Your attack against this principle is completely unconvincing.

    • Francois Tremblay May 16, 2010 at 23:55

      Uh, you seem to be confused, wolf. “self-owner-pwner” was AGAINST self-ownership, not FOR it. He said that “ownership is a human convention” is self-evident, not that self-ownership was self-evident.

      Arguing that self-ownership is self-evident is nonsense, since property-ownership itself is not self-evident. How can a composite of something that is not self-evident be self-evident?

  8. wolf May 18, 2010 at 10:29

    Sorry about that.. I was reading another discussion and confused it with this one.. : )

    How about this….the body is inanimate without the mind controlling it. Therefore, the mind, the self, owns it’s body. The concept of self-ownership may be redundant in consideration of the idea that the mind/body are in essence one, but it’s used to present a contrast with other-ownership. I still do not see a clear demonstration regarding why human property cannot be considered a “special” form of property – and how this is somehow contradictory to the point that a human being owns himself or herself.

  9. Francois Tremblay May 18, 2010 at 15:20

    Uh, that’s what my whole entry is about… so read it.

  10. […] issue of “self-ownership,” see my entries Self-ownership is a meaningless concept and The confusion of self-ownership This entry was posted in Links. Bookmark the permalink. ← Why do bad things happen to […]

  11. Erik Boyd February 17, 2011 at 16:34

    While I agree 100% that the idea of “self-ownership” is nonsense, i find that much of the argument here relies on proponents of self-ownership being dualists, whether they realize it or not, and those in opposition being monists. While monism is, in my opinion, more likely to be true, and I myself am a monist, I don’t discredit people for believing in dualism.

    In particular, I feel that socialists often expend far too much energy trying to negate the idea of self-ownership without focusing on the underlying issue that is far more important — subordination. We spend far too much time fiddling around, trying to refute this Lockean concept, when we should be focusing our energy on the more dangerous bit of Locke’s Second Treatise:

    “[T]he Grass my horse has bit; the Turfs my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg’d… become my Property”.

    The notion of self-ownership is not in-and-of-itself dangerous as not all proponents of this idea see it to its logical conclusions. It is when one uses it to justify the alienation of ownership of one’s self, and therefore the subordination, whether voluntary or imposed, of one being to another, that I have a problem with. Unfortunately this is almost always the case, though I do not see the use in furthering the dialogue between those in favor and in opposition of self-ownership as it simply boils down to a semantic argument that is of little actual substance.

    • Francois Tremblay February 18, 2011 at 02:08

      Well… if you don’t think the dialogue is worth doing, why are you doing it right now? Logically, you shouldn’t have posted in the first place.

  12. […] same way that you own a table or a chair? It seems to be a rather empty claim. I talk about this in this entry. My point in debunking self-ownership is to debunk this bizarre concept of using property as the […]

  13. […] former libertarian Francois Tremblay’s post Self-ownership is a meaningless concept (follow-up post).Now I have explained the errors in this confused argument against self-ownership in a number of […]

  14. […] I’ve already discussed in detail how the concept of self-ownership is meaningless (here and here). To explain this simply, the concept of owning a body (by which I imply a living body containing […]

  15. […] (the bizarre circular belief that the body is a property of itself). I’ve already extensively debunked the concept of self-ownership. I’ve also pointed out that proving “property […]

  16. […] the concept of self-ownership, which treats living, thinking bodies as pieces of property. If something is property, then it can […]

  17. […] I have already pointed out here and here, the principle of self-ownership is nonsense both logically and biologically, therefore her whole […]

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