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Is self-ownership axiomatic?

In my recent post on Murray Rothbard, I addressed the question of whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership could be said to be axiomatic. Let’s pursue the question a little bit further. In particular, let’s pursue the question of whether it is even plausible to suggest that the principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense of “axiomatic.”

Notice that I am not asking whether the principle is true; nor am I asking whether there are any good reasons, of some sort or other, to believe it. Those are separate questions. I am asking whether, if it is true and justifiable, its truth and justification are plausibly of the sort that strict axioms enjoy. Again, what I am asking is whether the principle is plausibly axiomatic in the strictest sense.

What sense is that? One traditional way of thinking about it is this: A principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense if any proposition you could give as evidence for it would be less obviously true than the principle itself is. The law of non-contradiction is a standard example. Nothing you could say in defense of the law of non-contradiction is as obviously correct as the law of non-contradiction itself is. Call this special characteristic of strictly axiomatic propositions “self-evidence.”

So, is the libertarian principle of self-ownership axiomatic or self-evident in this sense? Before you answer, keep in mind that the principle says far more than merely that (say) your right hand belongs to you. When you look at your right hand and judge, spontaneously and quite correctly, “This is mine,” you might initially be inclined to think that the principle of self-ownership must be right. Indeed, maybe it is axiomatic!

Not so fast. Your right hand is indeed yours, as is your right foot, your right eye, and every other body part you can name. All well and good – and not terribly controversial. But what exactly does that entail? Does it entail that you are entitled to do absolutely anything you want with those body parts, provided you do not infringe the liberty of others? Does it entail that you can even do things that are immoral – on the grounds that since it’s your body, you have the absolute right to abuse it so long as you harm no one else? More to the point, is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you can do these things?

Let’s be more specific: Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that, so long as you harm no one else in doing so, you have an absolute right to do the following: Commit suicide; inject yourself with heroin, even repeatedly, to the point of addiction; have a major body part surgically removed for no reason other than that you just feel like doing so; deliberately engage in self-deception (it’s your mind, after all); and, in general, do to and with yourself things you believe it is immoral to do?

Consider further: Suppose your adult child or best friend informs you that he has decided to do one of these things. To take a clear and fairly simple example, suppose he has become a devout follower of Schopenhauer and has decided, on well-thought out philosophical grounds (rather than some fleeting whim, say), to commit suicide. And suppose you try to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you must not use force to prevent him from killing himself – such as by stealing his glass of hemlock, locking him in a padded room, or whatever? Because that is what the libertarian principle of self-ownership entails.

Again, to avoid irrelevant objections, keep in mind that the question is not whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership, radical implications and all, is true or in some way defensible. The question is whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident, whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident that one has a right to do the things mentioned above, and an obligation to refrain from keeping others, even children and friends, from doing any of them.

When we keep in mind what the principle entails, I think it is quite obvious that the principle is not strictly axiomatic or self-evident. Indeed, this is, I submit, so obvious that it is remarkable that anyone would suggest that it is – as Rothbard may have (though, as I noted in my earlier post, it is not at all clear that Rothbard really meant to use the term “axiom” in anything other than a loose and popular sense). Unlike the law of non-contradiction, it is quite easy to doubt whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership is true; indeed (and again unlike the law of non-contradiction) probably most people on considering it would judge that it is not true. Of course, that doesn’t show that it isn’t true, but it is very strong grounds for doubting that it is self-evident or strictly axiomatic. More to the point, any argument one could appeal to in order to convince the doubters that the principle is true would obviously have to appeal to premises that are more evident than the principle itself is – in which case, it simply cannot be said to be strictly axiomatic.

Perhaps the rhetoric of property led Rothbard astray here. In some contexts, saying “It’s my property” does indeed crisply settle the question of whether one may carry out a certain course of action. But not in all contexts. In everyday life, we are all well aware that the fact that you own your back yard (say) does not entail that you have no obligation in justice to allow the fire brigade access to it in order to get to the burning building behind it, or to avoid using it to engage in dangerous scientific experiments. Conversely, we are well aware that the fact that you have these various obligations does not entail that you don’t “really” own your back yard after all. In everyday contexts, that is to say, we are well aware that to say “X is my property” simply does not entail “I can do absolutely anything I want with X provided doing so violates no one else’s property rights.”

It is only when, after the fashion of “rationalistic” approaches to moral and political thinking of the sort Burke and Hayek criticized, we abstract away from the complex details of human life that property rights can seem have such extreme implications. (It happens, as Wittgenstein might put it, when we “sublime the logic of our language [concerning property].”) Property rights are not all-or-nothing. For almost all theories of property historically – and certainly for classical natural law theory, which is in my view the correct approach to moral questions generally – private property rights, even when very strong, nevertheless come with various qualifications. (For those who are interested, I develop and defend such an approach in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” which is forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy. As I argue there, the correct approach to property rights rules out both the level of government and taxation that socialists and egalitarian liberals favor, but also the extreme laissez faire position of libertarianism. It is, in short, conservative.)

To suggest that you either go along with Rothbard or you are logically committed to going the whole hog for socialism is just too silly for words. Rothbardians seem to think their man (or maybe some precursor like Lysander Spooner) was the first thinker in history ever to think about property in a consistent way. In fact all he did was simply invent a grotesque caricature of the idea of private property.

(I recall once asking a radical libertarian what he thought he would be obliged to do if his own adult son informed him that he intended to commit suicide and he could not talk him out of it. Troubled, he thought for a moment and then replied that he hoped he would have the courage to do the right thing and allow his son to kill himself. “This,” I thought, “is a young man whose mind has been rotted out by theory.” But, being young and childless, it was merely theory, and we can have good hope that he will reconsider: Growing older and having children are pretty good cures for extreme libertarianism, though unfortunately not infallible ones.)

Anyway, if this judgment is mistaken, appealing to a purported “self-ownership axiom” is not going to show that it is.

Comments (18)

The answer is, at least for some people, no:

1Cr 6:19 - 20 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own;
you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

1Cr 7:23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

Rom 14:7 - 8 None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. [All translations, RSV]

The Chicken


Would the question, and the picture, change if we were a little more limited and used "partial ownership" instead of ownership simply?

Is it axiomatic to say "this is my hand" implies that I have a (limited, partial) right to order its coming and going, to "ownership" of it?

Often we say things that are axioms, that are "self-evident", are seen as certainly true as soon as we understand the meaning of the terms, immediately (i.e. without mediation). While we can surely (in a loose way) speak of a dog's paw as being "his paw", we would not think of the use of "his" implying that the dog has ownership of the paw in the moral sense. In fact, WE have the right to order the movement of that paw, should we choose to. So the sheer use of the "possessive" pronoun his does not imply what we mean by ownership.

But of course, when a human says "My hand", this is a self-reflecting rational being speaking, using the possessive pronoun "my", in a way that is reflexive. Underlying that usage is a wealth of perspective on what it means to be human, to be rational, to be (therefore) self-directing. But the inferences standing between these underlying meanings and the expression "my hand" are seen in steps, not all at once. And if seen in steps, then these steps mediate the result, and the result (a conclusion) is not axiomatic.

That's my guess.


A fabulously good post.

There is a tendency among those who tilt in the Libertarian direction to package their dogmas as 'axioms' so as to block any critical examination. The Randians are prime offenders. Take the 'axiom' 'Existence exists.' The idea is that whatever exists, exists in sublime ontological independence of any and all minds, including a divine mind should there be one. Now that might be true, and there might be some interesting arguments for it; but it is scarcely an axiom in the strict sense you have so well explained.

Rand used to say, "Check your premises." She and here acolytes would be well advised to check their 'axioms.'

I own my computer. I can give it away to someone else. If I own myself, can i give it away to someone else? And can that person, upon possessing the property called "me," transfer ownership to a third person, who subsequently sells me back to me. But when I hand him the money, I own the money but not the me I receive in exchange for it. And if I am still an agent freely capable to buy me from another, then I have rights apart from self-ownership. But can I give those rights away? And if I do, what remains of me?

I loved Murray. He was a friend. But his axioms are only persuasive to pot-smoking Star Trek fans who live in their parents' basements.

This is a lovely post and it gets right at the heart of what is so obtuse about so much of what Feser calls the "radical libertarian" position.

The right to property is a complex and multifaceted affair, and not simply a matter of moving from some kind of apodeictic or axiomatic principle of self-ownership. Indeed, it is true of course that we own our bodies at least in some sense. But it is only this nuanced and complex view of rights and ownership that allows a Christian, for instance, to affirm such a thing.

It doesn't follow, of course, that if there is no moral right to suicide or self-mutilation that there is a corresponding duty on the part of government to prevent or punish it. The lack of a moral right doesn't entail that there is no corresponding "political" right. It is this sensitivity that is part and parcel of something like Aquinas' consideration of the question, "Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?"


I just came back from a great Irish music session, but had to drive 50 minutes on Chicago's highways to get back home and so I wasn't tired yet. All I have to say is Wow and now I am tired. Good night gentlemen.

Francis Beckwith gets into another problem I've seen with the "self-ownership principle."

Property ownership in life generally requires a clear title. But where does the clear title to my own life come from?

Another point: let's grant the radical self-ownership axiom. What happens when someone has a kid?

Since the kid's bodily material comes from his father and mother, presumably they would have a clearer right to ownership of the child than the child himself. The mother could claim a stronger right, given the child's drain on her body.

(Tangent: Depending on how you want to push this example, they could even assert this claim over a longer period without challenge from the child, giving them property rights via the principle of adverse possession.)

Regardless, grant radical self-ownership, and one could argue for something as authoritarian as the rights of the Roman pater familias: "Vitae necisque potestas," power over life and death of his children. So the libertarian implications of radical self-ownership can be challenged too.

One libertarian I know--closer to a David Gauthier type than a Rand or Rothbard type--argued on behalf of self-ownership because he thought that of all the possible claimants on owning you, your claim had better reasons in favor of it than others' claims did. I wasn't entirely clear why we should have thought of me (or anyone else) as being 'on the ownership scale' in the first place, but I think he thought my response implied that I thought no one should be thought of as owning anyone, which in his view meant that no one was allowed to do anything with his own body or anyone else's.

Of course, I don't think the number 2 or justice should be thought of as owned by themselves or anyone, and yet that doesn't mean that I think that they or anyone else aren't allowed to "do" anything with themselves (whatever that means), but it did make me think a whole lot more about what ownership means in the first place. And I think Ed's point is really good in that regard.

I wonder, though, whether a self-ownership enthusiast could respond to Ed's examples by invoking the notion of externalities. If you cut off your arm for no good reason, this imposes externalities on others, either now (if, say, your role is that of a warrior defending his city) or in the future (if we have good reason to believe that you're going to need that arm). Obviously, this leads down a path that many radical libertarians don't want to go, but if we're consistent I wonder if a self-ownership proponent could argue along these lines to explain and justify some of our reactions to the awful things people do to themselves.

Perhaps to say you are the major shareholder of your body might be more apropos, though not as catchy.
As a counterpoise to the long reigning ethos of group, power, and sacrifice, self ownership offers a rhetorical and moral defense of substance. We may be witnessing it's assertion in some of today's debates.

Both social mores and legal structures require an essentially necessary and knowing surrender of actions and control that impinge on self autonomy. Personal obligations may at times even outweigh the force of law, but either way subordination is to a degree a requisite of a civil, ordered society.
We might not be herd animals but we are social.

Still, was it Locke who said a man's body is his property? It may not be axiomatic but it's worth remembering.


Those are good texts. As I note in my other post, even Locke, who affirmed a kind of self-ownership, heavily qualified it in light of his affirmation of God's ownership over us. For Locke, I would say, talk of "self-ownership" is really just shorthand for talk of a set of significant but limited leasehold rights over ourselves granted us by God, rather than strict ownership. There is, I agree, no way to reconcile a radically libertarian conception of self-ownership with theism. (Some people think Locke's theism is inessential to his theory of rights, but I think that is totally mistaken. Nor do I have some vested interest in this claim, since though I am a theist, I am not a Lockean. Indeed, Locke's need for theism to ground a doctrine of natural human rights comes in precisely because of his abandonment of the Scholastic metaphysics of human nature. I explain this in detail in my book Locke. Not that anyone asked.)


Two problems: First, "partial ownership" wouldn't yield anything like what Rothbard wants in a principle of self-ownership. Second, while "My hand belongs to me" understood in the non-moralized sense in which we understand "The dog's paw belongs to him" might have a kind of self-evidence, I'm not sure this will be preserved when we think instead in terms of the moralized, rights-involving sense. Maybe so, since that doesn;t by itself commit us to all the radical implications I mentioned above, but just keeping the distinction in mind at least raises a question or two. (But maybe that was your point?)


Thank you! But I fear for your safety, or at least the safety of your Inbox, as you've just risked the Wrath of the Randians.


You raise some interesting questions. Indeed, the very idea of "selling me back to me" is delicious with paradox. (If I've been sold, how can I be "around" to buy myself back?) No doubt this is why some self-ownership advocates would deny the possibility of selling oneself into slavery (though not all would -- the notion arguably seems to lead in both directions at once). This is why, whether one accepts or rejects it, the notion of self-ownership is philosophically fascinating.

Re: Rothbard personally, any friend of Francis Beckwith is a friend of mine. (Though after some of the things I've said about him, I doubt he'd want to be my friend were he still alive!)


Thanks! Re: your last paragraph, I agree, though I would urge caution vis-a-vis the notion of a "political right." Many libertarians would hold that even if it is immoral to use heroin (say), so that there is some sense in which one has no right to use it, there is still a natural right to a political order in which heroin use is legal. I don't think even this sort of view can possibly be justified via Thomistic natural law theory. Aquinas's concerns in the passage you cite are more or less prudential ones, not grounded in any notion of rights, political or otherwise. It is counterproductive to try to suppress all vice, and this counterproductivity might in some circumstances even reach a level where we're morally obliged not to try to suppress it. But it doesn't follow that there's a "right" of any sort to indulge the vice. (I realize you may not disagree with this. Just wanted to clarify.)


Glad to help.


Children are always a difficulty for libertarianism. In my article "Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children" (available at my website), written when I was just starting to move away from libertarianism, I argued that if we couple the notion of self-ownership with certain conservative moral premises which libertarians take to be at least compatible with libertarianism, we end up with grounds for at least certain kinds of conservative morals legislation of the sort that most libertarians want to avoid. That is to say, the result is a fairly conservative political order, grounded in part in what at first glance seemed a radcially libertarian moral premise.

Later, in my article "Personal Identity and Self-Ownership," I argued that all sorts of consequences unwelcome to libertarians -- such as, to take your example, parental ownership of children -- follow when we couple self-ownership with the standard theories of personal identity on offer these days. The only way to avoid these particular consequences, I then argued, was to adopt an Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic conception pf personal identity. The trouble is, once we do that, we end up with a theory of human nature that entails a morality that is incompatible with a radically libertarian conception of self-ownership.

One lesson of all this is that the idea of self-ownership is far less determinate than its defenders usually suppose. When we probe it carefully, it ends up being very difficult to see how it can be both defensible and, at the same time, to do the work libertarians want it to do.


As you indicate, the problem with the "externalities" strategy is that it is bound to snowball to a point that would be unacceptable to the libertarian -- especially when we add in all the externalities associated, not just with bodily damage, but with moral error, false beliefs, etc. Moreover, whatever the libertarian might think, the idea of self-ownership itself comes to seem far less interesting and worth talking much about when it ends up so heavily qualified. (My own view these days is that while there is some loose sense in which we "own" ourselves, it is far less misleading, and theoretically more fruitful, just to speak of which specific natural rights we have and which ones we don't have, without trying to package some of them together into a kind of "ownership" right.)


As a counterpoise to the long reigning ethos of group, power, and sacrifice, self ownership offers a rhetorical and moral defense of substance. We may be witnessing it's assertion in some of today's debates.

Yes, I think that's part of its appeal. Talk of self-ownership is rhetorically a very powerful rejoinder to socialism and the like -- as socialists like G. A. Cohen recognized, which is why he devoted a whole book to trying to defuse it. Still, when understood the way libertarians tend to understand it, the notion ends up just embodying the opposite error.

Aquinas's concerns in the passage you cite are more or less prudential ones, not grounded in any notion of rights, political or otherwise. It is counterproductive to try to suppress all vice, and this counterproductivity might in some circumstances even reach a level where we're morally obliged not to try to suppress it. But it doesn't follow that there's a "right" of any sort to indulge the vice.

You're right, I do agree that Thomas is speaking prudentially here. But it seems there might theoretically be such moral obligations not to try to suppress something politically that go beyond merely occasional or unusual circumstances. That is, there are things that prudence would dictate ought hardly (if ever) be suppressed politically. "Rights" language might not be the best kind of language to describe such a situation, certainly. Or it may well be that such "rights" language needs the kind of variegation that is necessary for talk about property "rights" or ownership.

On that topic, the main point of this post, a relevant biblical theme is certainly "stewardship." Concepts like the universal destination of goods and property rights as a kind of relative rather than absolute reality fit well with that kind of theme. To quote Manfred Spieker (at some length):

In numerous paired concepts, the advocates of Christian social theory have attempted to characterize the relationship between the two pillars of property ethics. The universal destination of goods was called an “absolute” or “primary” natural law, the right to private property a “relative” or “secondary” natural law, the former also “God’'s work” or “fundamental law” and the latter “Man'’s work” or “implementing provisions.” Even Thomas Aquinas had traced back the universal destination of goods to natural law, that is, the dispensation of creation, and the right to private property to positive law, which springs from human reason and does not oppose natural law. It was also called to mind in this debate, as Paul VI had also emphasized in Populorum Progressio (PP49), that the principle of the universal destination of goods holds “also for the community of nations” and especially in view of Gaudium et Spes, the ethics of property should not be confined to an ethics of distribution, but one should also inquire into the significance of production and the use of goods in order to implement the principle of universal destination.


Talk of self-ownership is rhetorically a very powerful rejoinder to socialism and the like

Is it? The mental practice of viewing oneself as self-owned property has been a staple of the Marxist and Liberal capitalist alike, and both systems submerge the person in a large impersonal mass of conformity. The prison-house of the collectivist is worse, but the consumerist comes with insidious horrors, ostensibly "freely chosen" of his own.

The only anthropology based in Reality is the Trinitarian one, where the person is seen as reflecting a Divine image, only capable of finding "self by gift of self” and in relationship;

“Expressed in the imagery of Christian tradition, this means that the first Person does not beget the Son as if the act of begetting were subsequent to the finished Person; it is the act of begetting, of giving oneself, of streaming forth. It is identical with the act of self-giving. Only as this act is it person… In this idea of relatedness in word and love, independent of the concept of substance and not to be classified among the ‘accidents,’Christian thought discovered the kernel of the concept of person, which describes something other and infinitely more than the mere idea of the ‘individual.’ Let us listen once again to St. Augustine: ‘In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation.’ Therein lies concealed a revolution in man’s view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality. It becomes possible to surmount what we call today ‘objectifying thought;’ a new plane of being comes into view." Josef Ratzinger Introduction to Christianity

Ed, yes, your comments are what I was trying to get at. Indeed, partial ownership does NOT get what Rothbard needs for his argument.

Jordan, I think that you have hit a telling point, one that is critical in order to understand the Church's views on politics, such as in Dignitatis Humanae. The fact that it is wrong for a person to engage in a behavior is not itself sufficient to show that it is a state problem, an activity that the state ought to consider suppressing if, prudentially, there is sufficient gain versus the costs of doing so. Some things are to be left in the hands of individuals making their life choices, even when they get them wrong. Subsidiarity cannot mean I have the right to make choices for myself as long as I make the right choices, it HAS to mean giving me room to choose whether I do it well or ill. So there have to be areas where the state should not interfere, even when a person is choosing ill.

This does not give the individual the "right" choose ill, it gives him the room for choice which implies the possibility to choose ill, and this room for choice obtains only with non-interference from the state .

It occurs to me that several legal terms might be helpful here:

Usufruct, the right to use and enjoyment of a property

Alienation, the voluntary and absolute transfer of title and possession of real property from one person to another

The most radical aspects of self-ownership surround alienation, while the more mundane aspects go towards usufruct.

The American tradition speaks of "inalienable rights," it would be useful to consider how that relates to self-ownership.

For those like me who rarely visit Ed Feser's own blog, I copy a laughably sarcastic comment from "Interstellar Bill":

"A dead body has no rights per se, being a mere physical object. Doesn't therefore the decision to render oneself into that state mean you've thereby abandoned your rights at that very moment? For example, if I rescue a Bridge Jumper from SF Bay, why can't I make him my slave?"

The world is a richer place because that last question has now been asked.

Let’s be more specific: Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that, so long as you harm no one else in doing so, you have an absolute right to do the following: Commit suicide; inject yourself with heroin, even repeatedly, to the point of addiction; have a major body part surgically removed for no reason other than that you just feel like doing so; deliberately engage in self-deception (it’s your mind, after all); and, in general, do to and with yourself things you believe it is immoral to do?

It is also not self-evident that society has the authority to stop you from engaging in sin which has no direct, material harm on another. Even if we do not own ourselves, we can be said to have custodial authority over our bodies and the only reasonable restrictions on that right are ones that can be said to be in our own self-interest while we cannot act in it. Suicide is a good example of that, since suicide is almost invariably related to some form of mental illness. It is, generally speaking, damn near axiomatic that someone who is committing suicide is doing so against what would be their good sense.

In all cases, the burden should always be on the state to justify why it cannot leave a moral issue to the individual and God. The only cases where the state has a clear interest and role are in matters which disturb the peace or cause a quantifiable injury to another.

It is this sensitivity that is part and parcel of something like Aquinas' consideration of the question, "Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?"

Anyone who would say "yes" must first consider the feasibility of their answer. Victimless crimes like drug use present them a pernicious challenge in that neither party (buyer or seller) has a motive for ratting out the other to the police. The obvious result of that has been that the police often have to rely on people who have criminal motives of their own to win convictions.

Ironically, the result is a lot more vice, and usually vice that is more soul-killing like personal corruption in those who work in the system.

Bill Vallicella,
For what it's worth, Objectivists do not conclude existence is independent of any mind on the basis of the axiom "Existence exists." They draw that conclusion (rightly or wrongly) from their axiom "Consciousness is identification." From that second axiom, they conclude that consciousness is metaphysically passive, deriving its content from existence, although it is psychologically active, with different types and aspects of consciousness determining the different forms in which awareness occurs. Just FYI.

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