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Self-ownership (or sovereignty of the individual or individual sovereignty) is the condition where an individual has the exclusive moral right to control his or her own body and life. The concept has been originated inside mainstream anarchist theory, from different thinkers like Josiah Warren, Max Stirner, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
The writers William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson described this condition as being a sovereign individual, in which individuals have supreme authority and sovereignty over their own choices, without the interference of governing powers. This notion is central to mainstream anarchism or libertarian socialism, classical liberalism, individualistic political philosophies such as abolitionism, ethical egoism, libertarianism and objectivism. Those who support self-ownership usually support private property by various arguments, such as if a person owns himself, then he owns his labor and therefore the products thereof. Sovereign individuals hold to the premise that government only has authority and power which is given to it by the individual, with decentralized administrative organizations acting as servants to the individual and never their master.
Friedrich Nietzsche uses the term sovereign individual quite differently in On the Genealogy of Morals.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is sometimes viewed as an implementation of the concept of self-ownership, as are some portions of the Bill of Rights.
The trouble of defining the border of the self can be seen in the debate surrounding abortion where the fetus could alternatively be seen as its own or as a part of the property of the mother's body, and the right of the woman to control her own body could therefore be viewed as being in opposition to what may be considered as "the fetus' right to live". This contrast is even more pronounced in situations where women are forced to undergo surgery in order to deliver a healthy baby. Even though self-ownership advocates civil rights, it does not extend these rights over others, an argument used by both sides of this debate.
In addition to the abortion debate, there are also debates surrounding euthanasia and suicide. However, some of these actions can be viewed as self-destructive which is somewhat removed from the original meaning of self-ownership, as this also meant taking responsibility for self.
Defining the borders of the self can also be difficult if one accepts the notion that the self includes objects that are external to the human body, as is proposed in Andy Clark's essay, Natural Born Cyborgs.
Self-ownership could be viewed as a decentralized bottom-up philosophy, as opposed to totalitarianism being a centralized top-down system. Henry David Thoreau regarded self-ownership as a key component in achieving utopia, while Robert Nozick, an influential libertarian political philosopher, based his theory of property-ownership on the premise of self-ownership.
Arguments for self-ownership
Template:Freedom It has been argued by Austrian School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe that self-ownership is axiomatic. His reasoning is that a person contradicts himself when he argues against self-ownership. The person making this argument is caught in a "performative contradiction" because, in choosing to use persuasion instead of force to have others agree that they are not sovereign over themselves, that person implicitly grants that those who he is trying to persuade have a right to disagree. If they have a right to disagree, then they have legitimate authority over themselves.
The person argues that self-ownership is an undesirable condition, and currently he is only authorized by law to argue against the status quo that allows self-ownership.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Moreover, someone that argues against self-ownership does not necessarily do it in an absolute way. Sovereignty does not need to be a black-and-white issue: for instance, the person could be sovereign to have opinions, but not to perform any kinds of acts. For instance, a person that thinks the consumption of drugs should be always illegal is against absolute self-ownership, but not necessarily in favor of full subordination.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
In The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argues that 100 percent self-ownership is the only principle compatible with a moral code that applies to every person - a "universal ethic" - and that it is a natural law by being what is naturally best for man. He says if every person is not entitled to full self-ownership, then there are only two alternatives: "(1) the 'communist' one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another - a system of rule by one class over another." He says that it is not possible for alternative (2) to be a universal ethic but only a partial ethic which says that one class of people do not have the right of self-ownership but another class does. This, therefore, is incompatible with what is being sought - a moral code applicable to every person - instead of a code applicable to some and not to others, as if some individuals are humans and some are not. In the case of alternative (1), every individual would own equal parts of every other individual so that no one is self-owned. Rothbard acknowledges that this would be a universal ethic, but, he argues, it is "Utopian and impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man." He says the system would break down, resulting in a ruling class who specializes in keeping tabs over other individuals. Since this would grant a ruling class ownership rights over its subjects, it would again be logically incompatible with a universal ethic. Even if a collectivist Utopia of everyone having equal ownership of everyone else could be sustained, he argues, individuals would not be able to do anything without prior approval by everyone in society. Since this would be impossible in a large society, no one would be able to do anything and the human race would perish. Therefore, the collectivist alternative universal ethic where every individual would own an equal portion of every other individual violates the natural "law of what is best for man and his life on earth." He says that if a person exercises ownership over another person, that is, uses aggression against him rather than leaving him to do as he wills, "this violates his nature."
Notes and references
- Terrell, Timothy D. Property Rights and Externality: The Ethics of the Austrian School. Journal of Markets & Morality, Volume 2, Number 2 • Fall 1999
- Rothbard, Murray Newton. The Ethics of Liberty. NYU Press. 2003. pp. 45 - 45
- Self-Ownership, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Philosophy of Liberty
- The Ego and Its Own (also translated as The Individual and His Property), the main work by German philosopher Max Stirner
- What is a sovereign individual?
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