Saturday, April 08, 2006

Self-Ownership and Lockean-Libertarianism:

See this post from Right Reason, where Ed Feser criticizes the concept of "self-ownership" as a libertarian underpinning.

In any event, my current views by no means rest entirely on the SOP. I would also now argue that, whatever one thinks of the SOP, the thesis of self-ownership itself is inherently indeterminate. Its history alone indicates as much. Most contemporary libertarians take the principle to imply that each man has absolute sovereignty over himself, and has a right to engage even in immoral actions -- suicide, drug use, etc. -- as long as these do not harm anyone else. But John Locke, whose advocacy of the principle has influenced so many libertarians, would have utterly rejected such a notion. For Locke, talk about "self-ownership" is really just a kind of shorthand for the leasehold rights God has granted us over ourselves as stewards of His property, and we have no right to do anything to ourselves which might damage that property. Hence Locke's famous claim that no one has a right to commit suicide or to sell himself into slavery (a claim that is crucial to his case for limited government, since if we have no such rights over ourselves, we cannot transfer them to government).

The key point is that to own something is just to have a bundle of rights over it, so that any theory of ownership (whether of ourselves or of anything else) presupposes a theory of rights. Moreover, people can own something without having an absolute right to it: hence someone who has paid off his mortgage really does own his home -- no one can take it from him or enter the premises without his permission, etc. -- even if there are easements on his property that put certain limits on what he can do with it. So any theory of self-ownership must begin by specifying exactly which rights we have over ourselves, and why; and only if it can show that we have over ourselves every possible right that could enter into ownership of a thing will it thereby show that our ownership over ourselves is full and absolute. If it shows instead that we have many or even most of these rights but not every single one of them, it may entail that we have a kind of ownership of ourselves, but not full and absolute ownership. In short, no appeal to self-ownership can suffice, all by itself, as an argument for libertarianism, or even as a way of giving determinate content to libertarianism, since the content of self-ownership can only be determined by a prior theory of rights.

Locke's theory of rights, given its foundation in our obligation to preserve God's property, yields an account of self-ownership that is clearly less than absolute. Alternative theories of rights might also yield less-than-absolute views of self-ownership. In particular, I have suggested that if rights are grounded in classical Thomistic (as opposed to Lockean) natural law theory, then this is bound to put even greater limits on self-ownership. For if, as some classical natural law theorists would argue, the function of rights is to safeguard our ability to realize our moral obligations and natural ends, then there cannot be such a thing as a right to do what is of its nature contrary to our natural ends and moral obligations. That doesn't mean there might not be reasons (even moral ones) for not interfering with the use a person makes of himself and his body, talents, and abilities. But it does entail that no one can have a natural right to do what is inherently immoral or contrary to one's natural ends, so that no one's self-ownership can be absolute, if that is meant to imply that one has a natural right to do whatever he wants to with himself as long as it hurts no one else. Whether this yields a version of self-ownership that can still be called "libertarian" (as I thought it did in my JLS article, though I no longer think this), it indicates that if, as many libertarians think, self-ownership is the central premise of libertarianism, then "libertarianism" is a very fluid concept indeed.


Contrast Feser's theory with Harvey Mansfield's argument about Locke and self-ownership:

Locke gives two descriptions of the character of men in their fundamental relation to liberty. He says that they are the "workmanship" of God, that men are "his [God's] property" and so belong to God; but he also says that "every man has a property in his own person."1 These appear to be directly contrary because the "workmanship argument" (as it is called by Locke's interpreters) would make man a slave of God2 whereas the idea of property in one's own person sets him free to do with himself what he wishes. Thus Locke says, in accordance with the former, that men have no right to commit suicide ("everyone is bound . . . not to quit his Station wilfully"3). But in accordance with the latter, though saying nothing directly about a right of suicide, he pronounces that in the state of nature, man is "absolute lord of his own person and possessions."4 Yet Locke does not make a point of the contradiction between these two descriptions. It is rather as if he had forgotten what he said earlier or perhaps lost his train of thought. Yet Locke does not seem to be a woolly-minded fellow, and his reputation shows that both his friends and his enemies take him seriously. His political thought typically contains contradictions, of which this one is perhaps the most important, but he leaves the reader to do the work of establishing the contradictions and working out their implications. In this case and in other cases, Locke does not leave the contradiction as flat as I have reported it; he teases readers with possible routes by which it might be harmonized.5 But most of all, Locke lets readers do their own harmonizing by allowing them to combine two things they want to believe. Almost all of Locke's readers would want to believe in the truth of Scripture, and many of them would like to think, or might be persuaded to think, that their belief is compatible with, or even entails, the notion of liberty that Locke sets forth.

The difference between belonging to God and belonging to yourself is not a small one....


Whether Locke was deliberately playing games with language, the kernel of Truth in Mansfield's theory is as follows: Some thinker comes forth with a revolutionary idea -- like Locke and self-ownership -- and explicates the idea in a particular way; but the idea then evolves beyond the original explication (or original expectation). The idea won't evolve randomly; often the idea unfolds in ways consistent with its original premises. One could easily see, for instance, if an individual owns himself, as Locke argues, that one does indeed have the moral and natural right to commit suicide or take drugs or do whatever he wants with himself-- his property -- so long as in doing so he harms no one else.

Indeed, in Bowers v. Hardwick, Justice Blackmun's dissent uses the self-ownership premise to argue for a "right" to commit sodomy because he believed, as did Locke, "that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole."

Or take Locke and religious liberty. As I wrote in this post:

Locke, although not the first to argue for religious toleration, is without question the most important philosopher to America's notion of religious liberty: Locke formulated the notion that men have unalienable free and equal rights of conscience. Madison and Jefferson could not have argued for religious liberty as they did had there been no John Locke. But Locke, in his personal position, didn't believe in extending tolerance to, among others, atheists or Catholics! However, when Jefferson and Madison took Locke's ideas, they expanded them in the spirit of Locke, to apply universally. After all if "all men" have unalienable rights of conscience, why shouldn't Catholics or atheists possess such rights equally? Are they not human? As such, "Lockeans" Jefferson and Madison asserted that religious rights extended to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."


Indeed, Locke gave what he thought were good reasons for not extending rights to Catholics and atheists; but as soon as his idea began to evolve in the minds of our Founders -- Jefferson and Madison -- they just didn't hold up. Similarly, there is no good reason to believe (or Feser gives us no good reason) that we must view the concept of self-ownership exactly as Locke argued in the 17th Century -- "that 'self-ownership' is really just a kind of shorthand for the leasehold rights God has granted us over ourselves as stewards of His property, and we have no right to do anything to ourselves which might damage that property." For one, Locke was, as Alan Kors once put it, an "archetypical empiricist," and proving that God exists (whether Locke's conception of God or Feser's) is no easy task.

Whatever theory for which we advocate ultimately will rest on a moral premise that is unproven and unprovable in an empirical sense. So it wouldn't therefore be unreasonable to "scrap" the God part of the self-ownership principle and simply assert that an individual belongs to himself simpliciter (and if it's because God says so, then it's because God says so). "[A]nd then draw logical and necessary conclusions from those principles." But when we do this, we might "discover" that, gasp!, an individual really does have "a right to engage even in immoral actions -- suicide, drug use, etc. -- as long as these do not harm anyone else."

1 comment:

The Gay Species said...

What an interesting collage of thouht. Most of it, I believe, rests on confusions and ideology that are no longer meaningful.

Yes, Locke, like Aquinas before him, believed in the ideology of "natural law" and "man's natural ends," all of which borrow heavily from Aristotle's Four Be-Causes: (1) First, (2) Formal, (3) Efficient, and (4) Final "causes." Too often, people confuse "laws of nature" for "natural law." The former concerns things like gravity, thermodynamics, conservation of matter, evolution, and other empirically established laws validated by experiment. Conversely, "natural law" is a philosophical notion that predominately concerns human action, and at least with Aquinas, concerns "natural inclinations." According to natural law traditions, nature teaches man to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. For an excellent overview of "natural law," see Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Pt. I-II, Q. 94. Natural law concerns, "a certain order that is to be found in those things universally apprehended." All precepts of natural law are grounded on the first precept that "the good is to be pursued, and evil is to be avoided." Like the principle of noncontradiction, this precept is universally apprehended to be true (simply because its opposite cannot possibly be true in any case).

If the natural law given by Aquinas in the Summa were the extent of the ideology, few would quarrel with it. Aquinas cites three examples of the natural law in operation: The first is self-preservation, which man shares with all living things. The second example is procreation, which nature has taught all living things, including man, to do in order to perpetuate the species. The third example is exclusive to humans; nature teaches man according to his natural inclination of reason to live orderly in society, tell the truth, shun ignorance, avoid offending others, etc. The natural law of man is thus the law of reason.

Alas, the natural law often does more than what's suggested thus far, and it is its extension that causes havoc. According to the theory, nature teaches man not only that he act, but that his acts "conform" (1) to what nature has shown man to act, and (2) what nature has determined is the natural end of those acts. It's these features of the natural law that screw up lives and make natural law untenable nonsense.

The obvious question to ask is, What does nature tell us to act as determined by man's natural ends. Elsewhere, Aquinas gives an example concerning sexuality. The "natural law" of penises is to fit inside vaginas and deposit sperm and semen so that progeny can be begotten. (He doesn't include the fact that penises are used by nature to excrete urine, but this use would also conform to the dictates of the natural law.) And the natural end (also "purpose") of penises and vaginas is procreation. That, according to Aquinas and natural law theorists, is what penises are "for," but more important, that is the only purpose of penises. They are natural tools in the order of nature to beget children, and children are the "natural end" of penile use. Any other use of penises is not according to the natural law of reason, for the precise reason that the "natural end" of penises is the begetting of children. Returning to the "do good, avoid evil" precept of the natural law, it is good to use penises for procreation, it is evil to use them for any other reason, because the other reasons do not match their "natural end," which is procreation (and I'll add urination). Thus, oral sex, sodomy, masturbation, indeed any other sexual act that does not intend to procreate is a misuse of what the natural law prescribes, because it does not serve its "natural end" (or "purpose"), which is procreation alone. That is what nature made penises for, and any other use is therefore against our rational knowledge of what penises are designed "for" and for what they are intended to be used in conformity with natural law.

The Roman Catholic Church still subscribes to this thinking in its entirety; that's why even contraception is morally wrong, because contraception works against the "natural end" of intercourse, which is begetting children. It's also wrong because the penis is used in a way that does not comport with what "we" believe penises are for, and that is impregnation.

John Locke's concept of the natural law is almost identical. As God's stewards, man is naturally inclined to preserve the lands which have been "leased" to men in order to serve God's purposes, or natural ends, which is stewardship of creation. Similarly, God has given "us" life, and it's not our "natural end" according to natural law to thwart someone's gift, such as God's gift of life. We individually do not "own" our bodies, God does. According to natural law, we are to nurish and sustain our lives as servants of God according to the natural law and our natural end. So, even if caring for property lent to us is not our final end, our doing God's will is, because our natural end is God's will that we do what God has commanded so that we will enjoy eternal bliss with God after this life. Suicide is upsetting our natural end and the natural law, because we've disordered our natural inclination towards self-preservation, but for Locke, we've also undermined God's eternal law as we've come to know it as the natural law. Anything that does not serve the purposes for which nature has taught us violates the natural law and our natural end and is therefore immoral.

I'm sure many readers will think this kind of reasoning is absurd. I certainly do. But many people still subscribe to the "natural law" and man's "natural end" as though they had been revealed by God, and therefore must be obeyed. Well, the Bible or any other religious book does not mention the natural law or man's natural end. These philosophical constructs originated in Aristotle and were applied to natural phenomena, not even to man. Aristotle in Physics describes how first, formal, efficient, and final causes operate in nature (for him, air, fire, water, and earth). Only insofar as man is a part of nature do these "be-causes" apply to man, and then only in an indirect sense. But modern science has done away with with first, formal, and final causes, leaving only efficient causality as a genuine feature of natural phenomena. So if the moralists want to piggyback on nature, they too have to abandon the notions of first, formal, and final causes, because scientific study of natue includes none of these. What's absolutely certain is that nature does not "act with some final end in mind." Yes, we still use the language of final causality, such as, "the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree," but that kind of speech is entirely figurative and immaginative. Nothing in nature has a "purpose" or "reason for" any of its phenomena occurring.

Another obvious problem is trying to derive "ought" statements from "is" statements. Claiming that one "ought" to do something is simply a valuation of something desirable; one "ought" not deceive, for example, is merely an evaluation we make about a human behavior. What occurs in nature, on the other hand, simply "is." Nature has no evaluative "oughts" in anything it does; it simply does what nature does, and accordingly we know it "is," not what it "ought" to do. Observations about nature concern statements of fact, not statements of value. Sure, we can say of some natural phenomena, "beautiful," but we can't tell nature it ought to be beautiful.

But the reverse is no less true. We cannot make a factual claim about nature into a normative "ought" statement about human behavior. We value honesty not because we "find" honesty in nature, but because we humans value honesty as valuable between two human beings. Yes, the penis does fit quite nicely into the vagina, but what about this statement of "fact" should lead us to statements of "ought?" Penises fit into mouths quite well, too, but does that "fact" make some kind of normative "ought?" Should we claim that because penises fit into the mouth that everyone "ought to do so," because it is a fact of nature? Penises also fit into anuses, so what about this "fact" should we establish an "ought" type of imperative? People obviously masturbate, but should we proscribe such behavior (ought not) because the intended orgasm does not fit the "natural end" of which orgams are intended (procreation)?

Hopefully, one sees how utterly confused all this kind of thinking is. Contrary to armchair philosophers of old, facts of nature teach us nothing about what things we regard as valuable moral behavior, much less establish moral "shoulds." And moral values teach us nothing about natural facts. Anyone who talks or thinks in this way is obviously confused.

So by what "objective" measure should we determine moral values? After all, that question is what led misguided moralists to look to nature for justification of their moral claims. Nature simply cannot provide that kind of objective standard; it's categorical confusion. Should we look to the God of the Bible? The jealous, wrathful, avenging Yahweh who sets up arbitrary oughts and yet does not obey them himself? Suicide, which is not mentioned in the Bible, is often considered immoral; why? Aren't we free agents able to do what we want with only a few guidelines?

Absolute moral imperatives are hard to come by. Using extrinsic features about the world won't help us with intrinsic values we hold. And one of the most valuable options we hold is that of life and death. As free agents, we get to choose either option in most cases. And despite prohibitions, proscriptions, eternal damnation, divine retribution, and lawlessness, some people choose suicide as their final option. Who are any of us to claim that the choice to kill one's self is "immoral?" What if the suicidal person doesn't think it immoral? What if the immoral suicide doesn't care that it's immoral? And what punishment can we extract from those who kill themselves?

Bottom Line: Humans obviously have autonomy and moral agency, and the freedom to take one's own life is an elementary feature of being human. Appealing to "natural law" or "natural ends" as moral reasons not to take one's own life are simply hollow objections. Whether or not we "own" our own lives is entirely irrelevant. I'm not even confident that such a statement makes any sense. Appealing to some other moral absolute is futile, if the will to die trumps the will to live. We do not choose time or place of birth, but our autonomy does allow us some choice in the time or place of death. We can let nature take its course, or we can use nature and force its hand. But neither natural law nor natural ends has anything to do with this fundamental autonomy. Self-preservation may be part of the "natural law," but autonomy and self-destruction are fundamentally a part of what it is to be a human