Reason versus "Self-Ownership"
September 16, 2008 by Paul McKeever
There are those who believe that the mind cannot exist independently of the activities of the brain; that the mind and the brain are one; that the mind and the body are one. There are also those who believe that the mind and the body are separable or separate – for example those who believe that there is a soul which inhabits the body at birth, or perhaps at baptism, and which leaves the body when the mind dies. Your position on the separability of mind and body has a logical implication for your position on “self-ownership”. The reverse is also true: your position on the validity of the concept “self-ownership” implies your agreement with, or disagreement with, an underlying assumption concerning the separability or non-separability of mind and body.
Political philosophy draws a distinction between liberty and property. I submit the distinction is best drawn as follows:
- Liberty is control over ones self.
- Property is control over something other than oneself.
For the concept of “self-ownership” to have a logical meaning, it has to be assumedmake any sense, it is necessary to imply that you are made up of not one piece but two: you are made up of the “self” and something else that owns the self. That part – that mysterious owner – is not the body and it’s not any part of the body. Nobody considers a dead man’s brain to be the owner of his body, any more than they consider his liver to be the owner of his body. In practice, those who speak of “self-ownership” consciously or subconsciously assume that the owner is the mind; that the mind owns the body, or that which occurs in the material realm. Therefore, if one considers the concept “self-ownership” to be a valid concept; if one considers one to own ones self; it is necessarily the case that, consciously or subconsciously, one is drawing a dichotomy between the mind and the body.
To the person who believes that the mind and the body are separable, liberty becomes nothing more than a special case, or a synonym for, property – a special kind of property: property in ones self. Alternatively, if liberty is not a kind of property then it means that ones mind controls ones mind controls ones mind, etc., recursively, ad infinitum: a ridiculous, recursive meaning of the word “liberty”.
Now, consider the position of the person who does not draw a dichotomy between mind and body; between spirit and body; between soul and body. For such people, liberty refers to control over ones body, whereas property refers to control over things other than ones body.
To the person who regards mind and body as inseparable, it is “self-ownership” – not liberty – that has the ridiculous and infinitely recursive meaning: that the self owns the self owns the self etc.
Who, then, finds it necessary to use this concept of “self-ownership” in defence of freedom? Who is it that uses “self-ownership” as the reason to oppose laws against abortion, laws against the use of drugs, laws requiring organ donation? The answer is: those who, consciously or subconsciously, assume that the mind, the soul, and the spiritual are separate from the brain, the body, and the material.
“Self-ownership” is a concept compatible not with rational philosophy, but with any number of irrational ones. It serves not those who believe freedom is the logical consequence of a commitment to reality and reason, and a necessary condition for the prevalence of reality and reason, but those who want to treat freedom as somehow axiomatically virtuous; who want to render all metaphysical, epistemological and ethical arguments unnecessary and redundant, or interchangeable; who want to base freedom upon any number of different and conflicting metaphysical, epistemological or ethical beliefs; who want to believe that freedom can be the result of numerous different philosophies, whether rational or irrational; whether committed to reality, reason and self, or whether committed to god, obedience, and etc.
In practice, most succinctly, “self-ownership” is a concept used by conservatives and libertarians who are afraid of being divisive on the issues that are most fundamentally at the base of freedom – the justification of freedom: metaphysical beliefs, epistemological beliefs, and ethical beliefs. They want to side-track all of those aspects of philosophy. All of the under-pinning of political philosophy they want to shunt to the side, and instead replace them with these floating abstractions like “self-ownership” (a concept actually borrowed not even from politics but from law: something subsequent to political philosophy). All in an effort not to have to deal with, or to try to deny, or to try to pretend, that reality, reason and ethics have no important role – are not indispensable – in justifying freedom.
I will just conclude that, in the rational person’s lexicon, the term “self-ownership” really should not exist. In its place should be a single word: liberty.
Note: the above text is a transcript of Paul McKeever’s video of the same name
“Reason versus ‘Self-Ownership’ ” by Paul McKeever