Reason versus "Self-Ownership"

September 16, 2008 by  

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 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


6 Responses to “Reason versus "Self-Ownership"”

  1. Paul McKeever on September 16th, 2008 8:12 am

    On youtube, in the comments to the video, perricles12 writes:

    Fascinating commentaries and thought-provoking – there must of course be a distinction between the body and ‘who’ WE ‘are’! We make this distinction every moment when we say: “MY hand” or “MY leg” meaning the hand and/or leg BELONGING to me! We NEVER say “I hand” or “I leg”. We identify the difference between “us” as we conceive ourselves to truly be and our bodies over which we therefore must have ownership.

    I replied:

    Imagine that you were living all alone on an island. Saying “my” hand would be a bit redundant, don’t you think?

    “My” is used to distinguish oneself from others, not to distinguish ones body from ones mind; not to distinguish the allegedly owned from the alleged owner.

  2. perricles12 on September 16th, 2008 8:33 am

    Very clever Paul – appreciate your response – 2 things: (and both just for fun!)

    One: The use of the word ‘my’ is NOT used to distinguish ourselves from others around us for most of our dialogue is internal and private anyway and if I burn my hand on a hot rock on my desert island I will still not say “I” hand but will probably say “Ouch, MY **** hand hurts!”

    Two: Since the quantum physicists say all reality is via conscious intent only it follows that there’s really nobody outside us at all! Any of us!

  3. Ryan Mulkerin on September 16th, 2008 1:43 pm

    Paul’s example would be better in the case that someone grows up on a desert island without the concept that there are other people. In that case your hand would be the only instance of a hand which you would be aware of. You would think of it as “the hand” not “my hand”. Thus, “my” is only applicable in the case that it is distinguished from some thing else. (Of course this wouldn’t be in English, but the concepts would be the same)

  4. Ralf Wilmes on September 16th, 2008 5:41 pm

    When I say this is my hand, I mean it as a way of self-identification. In the sense that the hand is part of me and not of anybody else. But then again I must admit I never met anyone who tried to steal my hand, but I imagine I would say something like ‘don’t touch me’ and not start a discussion about property rights, and take out the receipts to prove I bought it at the local store.
    Likewise, I would say ‘these are my thoughts’ to indicate ‘differing from your thoughts’, I mean: obviously my thoughts are not anybody else’s property.

  5. Paul McKeever on September 16th, 2008 8:56 pm

    Commenting upon the video/text above over at the Objectivist forum, Leonid wrote:

    “Consider medical ethic’s concept which is called autonomy. This concept relates to the right of the person to own his/her own body. For example this concept prohibits doctors to perform any operations or interventions in patient’s body without patient’s consent.”

    I replied: Let’s deal with rational (hence conscious) people first. In the typical situation, a doctor has no desire to operate on a rational (hence conscious) person that has not first *asked* the doctor to have the operation done. It is not a question of permission, so much as a question of request. If no request is made, no operation is performed. I submit, therefore, that the proper characterization of this situation is: the person has control over his self, and can therefore decide whether or not to ask for an operation. Doing so implies consent on the part of the would-be patient and all that remains is for the physician to consent to perform the service. So there is no need to speak of the would-be patient “owning” his body: he controls his self (body and mind as one), i.e., he has liberty.

    Now lets turn to the non-rational (perhaps unconscious) person: in such situations, neither the concept of “liberty” nor the (false) concept of “self-ownership” applies, because the person has no control of anything (i.e., not his self, and not any property). Others are in control while he is mentally incapacitated. He has no liberty and no property, politically speaking.

    Leonid wrote:

    It also prohibits medical experiments without consent. Nazi doctors have been tried and sentenced exactly for violation of autonomy principle.

    I replied: In such situations, the victim is deprived of control of his self. He is deprived of liberty. Property (e.g., “self-ownership”), I submit, has nothing to do with it…even if one chooses to call such an invalid concept a “principle”: as I say to my clients, “I can point to a dog and say cat, but that does not make the dog a cat”.

    Leonid wrote:

    From other hand this principle allows termination of medical treatment and even euthanasia, if that what patient wants. This principle is also represents moral ground for abortion. So self-ownership or autonomy is definitely valid concept.

    I replied: With respect, I don’t see why it is desirable (much less appropriate or necessary) to introduce a proprietary notion into what is a simple exercise of liberty. The person who chooses to terminate medical treatment, to die, or to have an abortion is simply exercising her liberty. The foetus is not “owned” by her any more than her left leg is “owned” by her. The foetus and leg are parts of her self…until they cease to be a part of her body.

    Leonid wrote:

    I’d agree,however, that autonomy principle is a part of the much wider concept of liberty.

    I replied: If so, there’s no need to refer to alleged “self-ownership”.

  6. Paul McKeever on September 25th, 2008 12:55 pm

    A libertarian on posted the following video, apparently in response to my video above:

    Self-Ownership is a meaningful concept” by dakshinamurti.

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