Saturday, December 21, 2013

A few thoughts about ownership and self-ownership

In the normal sense of "own," if own something I am able to sell it and once I sell it I no longer have any claim over it or how it can be used. Having sold it, I have no interest in it, since I sell my interest in it when I sell it.
There are strange sorts of cases where a piece of property cannot be sold, where it is limited by an entailment, and where the master or mistress of the property can only benefit from its production during his or her lifetime. Think of Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey. I think our intuitions about these kinds of cases are to say that no individual owns the property, but that it is owned by a family, held in trust by an individual. If I am wrong about what our intuitions are in these sorts of cases, I don't think I am wrong to say that they are not normal, standard cases of ownership.
Also, in the normal sense of "own," a person is one of the things—or the only one?—that I cannot be said to own. Of course, it took humans a long time to discover this, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Now, there is a special kind of ownership going back to at least John Locke in the Second Treatise and adopted by liberals and libertarians since, a notion of self-ownership. It is this idea that because I own myself and my labor, that I can come to own property. Self-ownership is supposed to be the foundation for all other sorts of ownership.
The problem I see is that self-ownership just isn't ownership. Or, at least, it doesn't share the essential characteristics of ownership. And, since it is not the same as the normal notion of ownership, it cannot serve as a basis for it.
Namely, I cannot sell myself. I can sell my labor. I can enter into contracts. But I cannot sell myself in such a way that I become wholly the property of another human being and cease to have any interest in myself. I cannot alienate myself in the same way that I can alienate any piece of genuine property. Having sold my labor or my time, I always and everywhere maintain rights over myself. If I own myself—or if I have a property in myself—it is not the normal sort of ownership or property.
And, if it is a general truth that a person cannot be owned, then a person cannot be owned, even by himself.
In other words, whatever we mean when we say that we own ourselves it is not what we mean when we say that we own a house—it might be close to what we mean when that house is an entailed property, all of whose benefits we enjoy, but which we cannot alienate and hold in trust. And, since the two notions of property ownership differ in their essentials, they cannot serve as grounds one for the other.

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