Is self-ownership axiomatic?

In my recent post on Murray Rothbard, I addressed the question of whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership could be said to be axiomatic. Let’s pursue the question a little bit further. In particular, let’s pursue the question of whether it is even plausible to suggest that the principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense of “axiomatic.”

Notice that I am not asking whether the principle is true; nor am I asking whether there are any good reasons, of some sort or other, to believe it. Those are separate questions. I am asking whether, if it is true and justifiable, its truth and justification are plausibly of the sort that strict axioms enjoy. Again, what I am asking is whether the principle is plausibly axiomatic in the strictest sense.

What sense is that? One traditional way of thinking about it is this: A principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense if any proposition you could give as evidence for it would be less obviously true than the principle itself is. The law of non-contradiction is a standard example. Nothing you could say in defense of the law of non-contradiction is as obviously correct as the law of non-contradiction itself is. Call this special characteristic of strictly axiomatic propositions “self-evidence.”

So, is the libertarian principle of self-ownership axiomatic or self-evident in this sense? Before you answer, keep in mind that the principle says far more than merely that (say) your right hand belongs to you. When you look at your right hand and judge, spontaneously and quite correctly, “This is mine,” you might initially be inclined to think that the principle of self-ownership must be right. Indeed, maybe it is axiomatic!

Not so fast. Your right hand is indeed yours, as is your right foot, your right eye, and every other body part you can name. All well and good – and not terribly controversial. But what exactly does that entail? Does it entail that you are entitled to do absolutely anything you want with those body parts, provided you do not infringe the liberty of others? Does it entail that you can even do things that are immoral – on the grounds that since it’s your body, you have the absolute right to abuse it so long as you harm no one else? More to the point, is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you can do these things?

Let’s be more specific: Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that, so long as you harm no one else in doing so, you have an absolute right to do the following: Commit suicide; inject yourself with heroin, even repeatedly, to the point of addiction; have a major body part surgically removed for no reason other than that you just feel like doing so; deliberately engage in self-deception (it’s your mind, after all); and, in general, do to and with yourself things you believe it is immoral to do?

Consider further: Suppose your adult child or best friend informs you that he has decided to do one of these things. To take a clear and fairly simple example, suppose he has become a devout follower of Schopenhauer and has decided, on well-thought out philosophical grounds (rather than some fleeting whim, say), to commit suicide. And suppose you try to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you must not use force to prevent him from killing himself – such as by stealing his glass of hemlock, locking him in a padded room, or whatever? Because that is what the libertarian principle of self-ownership entails.

Again, to avoid irrelevant objections, keep in mind that the question is not whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership, radical implications and all, is true or in some way defensible. The question is whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident, whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident that one has a right to do the things mentioned above, and an obligation to refrain from keeping others, even children and friends, from doing any of them.

When we keep in mind what the principle entails, I think it is quite obvious that the principle is not strictly axiomatic or self-evident. Indeed, this is, I submit, so obvious that it is remarkable that anyone would suggest that it is – as Rothbard may have (though, as I noted in my earlier post, it is not at all clear that Rothbard really meant to use the term “axiom” in anything other than a loose and popular sense). Unlike the law of non-contradiction, it is quite easy to doubt whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership is true; indeed (and again unlike the law of non-contradiction) probably most people on considering it would judge that it is not true. Of course, that doesn’t show that it isn’t true, but it is very strong grounds for doubting that it is self-evident or strictly axiomatic. More to the point, any argument one could appeal to in order to convince the doubters that the principle is true would obviously have to appeal to premises that are more evident than the principle itself is – in which case, it simply cannot be said to be strictly axiomatic.

Perhaps the rhetoric of property led Rothbard astray here. In some contexts, saying “It’s my property” does indeed crisply settle the question of whether one may carry out a certain course of action. But not in all contexts. In everyday life, we are all well aware that the fact that you own your back yard (say) does not entail that you have no obligation in justice to allow the fire brigade access to it in order to get to the burning building behind it, or to avoid using it to engage in dangerous scientific experiments. Conversely, we are well aware that the fact that you have these various obligations does not entail that you don’t “really” own your back yard after all. In everyday contexts, that is to say, we are well aware that to say “X is my property” simply does not entail “I can do absolutely anything I want with X provided doing so violates no one else’s property rights.”

It is only when, after the fashion of “rationalistic” approaches to moral and political thinking of the sort Burke and Hayek criticized, we abstract away from the complex details of human life that property rights can seem have such extreme implications. (It happens, as Wittgenstein might put it, when we “sublime the logic of our language [concerning property].”) Property rights are not all-or-nothing. For almost all theories of property historically – and certainly for classical natural law theory, which is in my view the correct approach to moral questions generally – private property rights, even when very strong, nevertheless come with various qualifications. (For those who are interested, I develop and defend such an approach in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” which is forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy. As I argue there, the correct approach to property rights rules out both the level of government and taxation that socialists and egalitarian liberals favor, but also the extreme laissez faire position of libertarianism. It is, in short, conservative.)

To suggest that you either go along with Rothbard or you are logically committed to going the whole hog for socialism is just too silly for words. Rothbardians seem to think their man (or maybe some precursor like Lysander Spooner) was the first thinker in history ever to think about property in a consistent way. In fact all he did was simply invent a grotesque caricature of the idea of private property.

(I recall once asking a radical libertarian what he thought he would be obliged to do if his own adult son informed him that he intended to commit suicide and he could not talk him out of it. Troubled, he thought for a moment and then replied that he hoped he would have the courage to do the right thing and allow his son to kill himself. “This,” I thought, “is a young man whose mind has been rotted out by theory.” But, being young and childless, it was merely theory, and we can have good hope that he will reconsider: Growing older and having children are pretty good cures for extreme libertarianism, though unfortunately not infallible ones.)

Anyway, if this judgment is mistaken, appealing to a purported “self-ownership axiom” is not going to show that it is.
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