About This Blog

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was the greatest economist of my time. His greatest works can be accessed here at no charge.

Mises believed that property, freedom and peace are and should be the hallmarks of a satisfying and prosperous society. I agree. Mises proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the prospect for general and individual prosperity is maximized, indeed, is only possible, if the principle of private property reigns supreme. What's yours is yours. What's mine is mine. When the line between yours and mine is smudged, the door to conflict opens. Without freedom (individual liberty of action) the principle of private property is neutered and the free market, which is the child of property and freedom and the mother of prosperity and satisfaction, cannot exist. Peace is the goal of a prosperous and satisfying society of free individuals, not peace which is purchased by submission to the enemies of property and freedom, but peace which results from the unyielding defense of these principles against all who challenge them.

In this blog I measure American society against the metrics of property, freedom and peace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Self-ownership Does Not "Exist"

James E. Miller has published an interesting article. Miller is "editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada." Miller's article poses the question: Does Self-ownership Exist?

As most libertarians, Miller is quick to answer in the affirmative:
"Rationally, the principle of self-ownership is true because of the human conception and natural understanding of possession."
Libertarians are attracted to the concept of self-ownership because it easily forms the bedrock of the libertarian philosophy of individualism, non-aggression and the perceived absolute, natural right of private property. That's a lot of heavy, philosophical lifting for a principle based on a "human conception" and a "natural understanding." I have a human conception and natural understanding of Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that's not enough for me to be certain that Casper "exists." It's time to rationally examine the principle of self-ownership.

First of all, we must define the concept of self. It is true we all have a human conception and natural understanding of the self as the essence of one's individuality as a human being. Of course, we cannot perceive our self objectively. All we know about our self must be gleaned through the filter of our own subjectivity. From this subjective viewpoint we learn that we have a special relationship with the physical body that encapsulates our self. We quickly perceive that this body does what our self tells it to do. So we come to view this body as an integral part of our self. Some might even go so far as to contend that this body is our self and vice versa. But if this were the case, how is self-ownership possible? Can a self logically own a self? Such a notion is obviously pointless and absurd.

In order to "rationally" conceive of self-ownership, one must necessarily imagine that we humans consist in reality of two separate parts: the body and something wholly distinct from the body, such as the mind or the soul in which the self lodges. Thus, by this view, the body is simply the means used by the self (the mind or the soul) in the process of human action in the real world. But this imagined view of the self presents problems of its own. How could a mind or soul (our disembodied self, as it were) exist in the real world? Wouldn't this self have to be wholly spiritual or supernatural? And if this were the case, how would such a self interact with the non-spirit and natural world? Wouldn't such a self require some sort of real and tangible mechanism or tool in order to act in the real world? Enter this flesh and blood body of ours which somehow, it is imagined, encapsulates the disembodied mind or soul. It's all a very difficult and complicated theory to imagine, but of such is the concept of self-ownership formed.

The problem with this line of thinking is that there is no absolute line of demarcation between the self and the body. One might suggest that the mind (or soul, which we will deal with a bit later) is encapsulated in the brain and, as such, the brain is really the mystical self of which we speak so glibly. But this doesn't solve the problem. If the brain is the mind, then the mind is the body because the brain cannot exist separate from the body which nourishes and sustains it. We are once again confronted with the original redundancy that our self is our self.

So, it doesn't really make sense to think of the human being as a dichotomy between mind and body, or self and body. Our self is, in fact, our mind and body considered as a single, unified one. Thus, by this measure, the concept of self-ownership is absurd on its face.

How would this argument turn if, in fact, each human being had an immortal soul and the dichotomy was not between body and mind, but body/mind and soul? The first problem, of course, is defining and discovering the nature and existence of the soul. Virtually all humans would agree, if they give any credence at all to the concept of soul, that the soul is a spiritual or supernatural entity. As such, evidence of the existence of the soul does not exist and may never exist. Thus it follows that self-ownership of the body by the soul cannot "exist."

However, even if we grant the independent existence of the human soul, could it rationally be construed as the primary self which has ownership over its host body? The answer to this question is no, not "rationally." Why? Because the will of the soul can only be manifested and observed through the actions of the body. For example, my soul might use my body to argue that every human being has a soul. However, what if I argue that the very idea of a human soul is fantastic and absurd? Is it rational to conclude that my soul is directing my body to argue against its own existence? What control can a soul really have over a body if it cannot control speech?

Do libertarians really want to rest their argument for the existence of the principle of self-ownership on such supernatural whimsy?

In fact, the concept of self-ownership has no solid, rational basis. In truth there is no dichotomy between mind and body, or soul and body, or self and body in the human individual. The idea of self-ownership is, therefore, absurd.

However, there is another, more compelling argument which exposes the concept of absolute and natural self-ownership as so much nonsense: the concept of ownership makes sense only in the realm of human, cooperative action. It has no logical foundation in individual action.

Man acts. He uses means to attain ends. Individual human action does not imply ownership, but purpose and control, i.e., the ability to use means to attain desired ends. The concepts of property and ownership arise from concerted human action, or cooperative human action.

To illustrate this truth, consider Crusoe  alone on a desert island. He controls all the resources on the island. He is able to use these resources as he desires to attain his chosen ends. He and he alone benefits from his action. The issues of theft, property and proper ownership do not arise. If Crusoe comes to refer to the island and its resources as "his," it is not a logical reference, but a reference learned from his past experience living in cooperation with other humans.

Once Friday appears on the island, circumstances change. Like Crusoe, Friday will begin to use means to attain his chosen ends. If Crusoe and Friday choose to live on the island but not cooperate, they will use what resources they want regardless of the other's presence. They may fight over commonly desired resources. On the other hand, they may choose to cooperate as only humans can.

Individual human beings cooperate for the same reason they act: to attain desired ends. They decide that these ends are best attainable or only attainable by mutual action. Mutual action entails a division of labor. Crusoe might be an expert fisherman and Friday might be an expert carpenter. They might agree to act in concert, or to exchange the products of their labor, realizing they would both be better off as a result. However, before they undertake cooperative action, they must agree on certain ground rules. They must agree not to murder each other or steal from each other.

Why? Because human beings act with purpose. They use means to attain ends. Each cooperator expects to receive a portion of the ends produced by cooperative action. Obviously, murder and theft would deny one cooperator or the other his portion of the ends of their mutual action. It follows that cooperative action is impossible without prohibitions against murder and theft. When Crusoe and Friday agree to cooperate, they agree at the same time to moral ground rules which imply rights of life and property for each actor. It is only after Crusoe and Friday agree to cooperate that the concept of ownership and personal sovereignty can occur to either.

Prior to his agreement to cooperate with Friday, Crusoe being a bright and reflective human being might imagine that his self is able to control his bodily movements, that his self is able to will his arms and legs to move as he wants them to move, but the concept of self-ownership as the foundation of a libertarian philosophy could not occur to him. The concept of self-ownership could only occur to him after his experience cooperating with Friday.

NEXT: Is the concept of self-ownership an essential prerequisite to living a life based on property, freedom and peace?

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