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The Concept of Self-Ownership

Self-ownership is often regarded as an axiom, if not the basic axiom, of Libertarianism. There are many formulations of it; the oldest one that I know of is by John Locke, who said that

… every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (Second Treatise on Government, Ch. 2, Sect. 27.)

Quite as often, one hears Objectivists object to this; the common objection is that this make the right to property the basic right, while it is in fact a derivative of the right to life. And this, in its turn, just goes to show that Libertarians have no concept of a proper hierarchy of knowledge.

In a recent podcast, Leonard Peikoff answers a question about self-ownership, where he says:

Ownership is a concept that implies a relationship between you and an external object; there is the owner and the object possessed. How can you own yourself? Who is the owner who is doing the owning of the owner?

And he goes on to explain that the idea originally comes from some “frightened conservative”, by which term I have to assume that he refers to John Locke. The podcast is less than two minutes long, so you can easily listen to the rest of his answer.

So let us turn to Ayn Rand’s own writings. In his “money speech”, Francisco d’Anconia has this to say:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. (For the New Intellectual, p. 89; italics mine.)

So not only does Ayn Rand say that self-ownership is a valid concept, she says that it is axiomatic! The axiom of self-ownership is not some Libertarian perversion; it is part of the “official Objectivist doctrine”! It is part of what she herself published or approved of during her lifetime.

Stuart Hayashi has written a Facebook note, giving some other quotes from Ayn Rand on this subject. I quote:

“What greater wealth is there than to own your life and spend it on growing?”
–Ellis Wyatt, Atlas Shrugged, Pt. 3 of book.

“For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors — between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.”
–John Galt, Atlas Shrugged, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/good,_the.html

“But the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is the essence of all ownership.  It’s your of your own ego.  Your soul, if you wish.”
–Howard Roark to Gail Wynand, The Fountainhead. (All italics mine.)

It seems that the “frightened conservative” Leonard Peikoff is talking about is none other than Ayn Rand herself! (And pardon the sarcasm!)

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But what does it mean to say that self-ownership is axiomatic? An axiom is fundamental and irreducible; it stands at the beginning of knowledge and cannot and need not be traced back to something even more fundamental. In Ayn Rand’s words:

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it. (“Galt’s speech”, quoted from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

It is not hard to see how this applies to the well-known axioms of “existence, identity and consciousness”. But I am at a loss to see how it applies to self-ownership. Does it simply mean that one cannot disown oneself, no matter how hard one tries?

I think it is possible to see self-ownership as a corollary of identity. It is simply part of a man’s identity that he is himself and owns himself.

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Parenthetically: In 1987 I gave a lecture titled The Objectivist Validation of Individual Rights, which was basically an attempt to summarize Objectivism and relied heavily on Leonard Peikoff’s “basic course”. In an appendix, I wrote the following:

As for the alleged axiom of “self-ownership”, I agree completely with Tibor Machan’s criticism [which was the same as Peikoff’s criticism above]. The term is meaningless on the face of it, if taken literally. If you use the term at all, you must realize it’s a metaphorical usage. Historically, I think it goes back to a statement by John Locke that “every man has a property in his own person” – which is fine, as a rhetorical device but would not serve as a formal axiom.

[PS 2009: Today, I am uncertain about this paragraph. Francisco d’Anconia, in his money speech, says: “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort.” So it seems that Ayn Rand (I assume that Francisco speaks for her) endorses the idea of “self-ownership” as an axiom. I have never seen or heard this particular point being discussed further by either Ayn Rand herself or other Objectivists. I’m trying to figure out how this relates to the rest of Objectivism.]

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Nevertheless, and regardless of what Ayn Rand wrote about the subject, I can see a problem with the concept of self-ownership:

If you own an object, there are various things you can do with the object:

  • You can sell it.
  • You can lend it out.
  • You can give it away.
  • You can bequeath it to you heirs.

But can you do this with yourself? With your person, your body, your mind?

To bequeath yourself to your heirs would be pretty pointless. What can they do with you after your death, except giving you a decent funeral? – which they will probably do anyway, regardless of what is stated in your last will and testament.

Can you give yourself away? Well, in a marriage, the spouses in a sense give themselves away to each other, but that is metaphorical language.

Can you lend yourself out? Again, metaphorically, you can lend another person a service –­ as in the expression “lend me your ear”, meaning “listen attentively to what I am saying”. But in a literal sense, no.

Can you sell yourself? Well, I have heard Libertarians argue that a man should be free to sell himself into slavery (i.e. that he should be free to renounce his freedom). For example, person A might have a debt to person B that is so huge that he sees no possibility to pay it back; then he might agree to instead work as a slave to person B for the rest of his life. (Such a situation is rare, but it is at least possible.)

Can you sell your mind? Well, you may perform some work of an intellectual nature for an employer, but what you are selling is then not your mind, but some of the products of your mind. What you do with your mind in your leisure time is none of your employer’s concern.

And, of course, people are selling their souls all the time – most often for a ridiculously low price.. But is this expression to be taken literally?

Also, you can misplace an object you own; but if you misplace your person, you are in serious trouble.

So there is a difference between owning an object and “owning one’s self” – and this far, Leonard Peikoff is actually right in the quote in the beginning of this post (except for the nonsense about “frightened conservatives”).

Not that I think this is terribly important (after all, it revolves around the question whether “self-ownership” should be taken literally or metaphorically) – but it seems to give rise to endless discussions among Objectivists. Objectivists are very keen on explaining to other Objectivists that they have misunderstood Objectivism.

Personally, I will put this in a file and save it for my forthcoming treatise Nit-Picking Objections to Objectivism.

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Update December 6: Nit-picking objections notwithstanding, I like this Auberon Herbert quote:

To abandon self-ownership is to become corrupt and servile in spirit, and for the servile and corrupt there are no great things possible. You cannot carve in rotten wood; you cannot lead to greatness those who have renounced the essence of their own manhood or womanhood.