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Self-ownership (or sovereignty of the individual, individual sovereignty or individual autonomy) is the concept of property in one's own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to be the exclusive controller of his or her own body and life. According to G. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership "says that each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply."[1]

The writers William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson described those possessed of a mind conducive to self-ownership as sovereign individuals, which have supreme authority and sovereignty over their own choices, without the interference of governing powers, provided they have not violated the rights of others. This notion is central to classical liberalism, individualistic political philosophies such as abolitionism, ethical egoism, rights-based libertarianism, objectivism, and individualist anarchism. Sovereign-minded individuals would then seem to prefer an atmosphere consisting of decentralized administrative organizations acting as servants to the individual.

Friedrich Nietzsche uses the term sovereign individual quite differently in the work On the Genealogy of Morals.


Origin of the concept

Some have traced the concept of self-ownership to certain individuals such as John Locke, who said, the individual "has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did."[2] Or, as stated more succinctly by Locke, "every man has a Property in his own Person."[3]

Private property

Sovereign-minded individuals usually assert a right of private property external to the body with the reasoning that if a man owns himself then he owns his actions, including those which create or improve resources; he therefore owns both his own labor and the fruits thereof.[4]

Self-ownership and labor markets

Ian Shapiro says that markets in labor affirm self ownership, because if self-ownership were not recognized then people would not be allowed to sell the use of their productive capacities to others. He says that the individual sells the use of his productive capacity for a limited time and conditions but continues to own what he earns from selling the use of that capacity and the capacity itself, thereby retaining soveriegnty over himself while contributing to economic efficiency.[5]


The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is sometimes viewed as an implementation of the concept of self-ownership, as are some portions of the Bill of Rights.

Self-ownership could be viewed as a decentralized bottom-up philosophy, as opposed to totalitarianism being a centralized top-down system. Henry David Thoreau regarded self-ownership as a key component in achieving utopia, while libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick based his theory of property-ownership on the premise of self-ownership.

Disagreement about distinctions

The trouble of defining the border of the self can be seen in the debate surrounding abortion where the fetus could alternatively be seen as its own or as a part of the property of the mother's body, and the right of the woman to control her own body could therefore be viewed as being in opposition to what may be considered as "the fetus' right to live". This contrast is even more pronounced in situations where women are forced to undergo surgery in order to deliver a healthy baby. Even though self-ownership advocates civil rights, it does not extend these rights over others, an argument used by both sides of this debate.

In addition to the abortion debate, there are also debates surrounding euthanasia and suicide. However, some of these actions can be viewed as self-destructive which is somewhat removed from the original meaning of self-ownership, as this also meant taking responsibility for self. The debate is further complicated as many individuals recognize the right of ownership to include the right to destruction: that which one has constructed, one may deconstruct. Additionally, some cultures not only respect the act of suicide as an individual right, but also as an honorable action.

Discussion of the boundary of self with respect to ownership and responsibility has been explored by legal scholar Meir Dan-Cohen in his essays on The Value of Ownership and Responsibility and the Boundaries of the Self. The emphasis of this work is in illuminating the phenomenology of ownership and our common usage of personal pronouns to apply to both body and property; this serves as the folk basis for legal conceptions and debates about responsibility and ownership.

Defining the borders of the self can also be difficult if one accepts the notion that the self includes objects that are external to the human body, as is proposed in Andy Clark's essay, Natural Born Cyborgs.

The classically liberal view of self-ownership holds that money is alienable because it can be physically alienated from the body (taken, given, earned, payed), while labor is not because it can only be achieved by use of one's inalienable body. Alternatively, some anti-capitalists believe that, because money is the product of inalienable labor, it should be viewed as similarly inalienable, regardless of any voluntary contractual agreements made by the laborer. This leads to a disagreement about how far self-ownership, if affirmed, extends. From this springs the idea of a "wage slave" or a "debt slave," which are meaningless terms in one view, and violate the principle of self-ownership in the other.

Another third view holds that labor is alienable, because it can be contracted out, thus alienating it from the self. In this view, the freedom of a person to voluntarily sell himself into slavery is also preserved by the principle of self-ownership. [6]

Arguments for self-ownership

It has been argued by Austrian School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe that self-ownership is axiomatic. His reasoning is that a person contradicts himself when he argues against self-ownership. The person making this argument is caught in a "performative contradiction" because, in choosing to use persuasion instead of force to have others agree that they are not sovereign over themselves, that person implicitly grants that those who he is trying to persuade have a right to disagree. If they have a right to disagree, then they have legitimate authority over themselves.[7] However, it has also been noted that attempting persuasion in place of force does not necessarily acknowledge a right to disagree but may be a rational economic choice, as using force may have unfortunate consequences for the speaker as well.

The person argues that self-ownership is an undesirable condition, and currently he is only authorized by law to argue against the status quo that allows self-ownership. Moreover, someone that argues against self-ownership does not necessarily do it in an absolute way. Sovereignty does not need to be a black-and-white issue: for instance, the person could be sovereign to have opinions, but not to perform any kinds of acts. For instance, a person that thinks the consumption of drugs should be always illegal is against absolute self-ownership, but not necessarily in favor of full subordination.

In The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argues that 100 percent self-ownership is the only principle compatible with a moral code that applies to every person - a "universal ethic" - and that it is a natural law by being what is naturally best for man. He says if every person is not entitled to full self-ownership, then there are only two alternatives: "(1) the 'communist' one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another - a system of rule by one class over another." He says that it is not possible for alternative (2) to be a universal ethic but only a partial ethic which says that one class of people do not have the right of self-ownership but another class does. This, therefore, is incompatible with what is being sought - a moral code applicable to every person - instead of a code applicable to some and not to others, as if some individuals are humans and some are not. In the case of alternative (1), every individual would own equal parts of every other individual so that no one is self-owned. Rothbard acknowledges that this would be a universal ethic, but, he argues, it is "Utopian and impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man." He says the system would break down, resulting in a ruling class who specializes in keeping tabs over other individuals. Since this would grant a ruling class ownership rights over its subjects, it would again be logically incompatible with a universal ethic. Even if a collectivist Utopia of everyone having equal ownership of everyone else could be sustained, he argues, individuals would not be able to do anything without prior approval by everyone in society. Since this would be impossible in a large society, no one would be able to do anything and the human race would perish. Therefore, the collectivist alternative universal ethic where every individual would own an equal portion of every other individual violates the natural "law of what is best for man and his life on earth." He says that if a person exercises ownership over another person, that is, uses aggression against him rather than leaving him to do as he wills, "this violates his nature."[8]


A common criticism is that equality of condition is a desirable principle, therefore self-ownership must be rejected because it allows the generation of inequality of condition.[9]

Certain moral philosophies also view self-ownership as a right which can be superseded in favor of a greater good. Utilitarianism for example might say that a person's self-ownership may be rightly infringed upon in to facilitate a moral outcome.

After articulating the perceived difference between the natural need to work in nature and the unnatural need to work for a boss under threat of starvation, Simon Linguet explained the essence of wage slavery in 1763, describing how it undermined self-ownership in the sense of individual autonomy, by basing it on a materialistic concept of the body and its liberty i.e. as something that can be sold, rented or alienated in a class society:

“The slave was precious to his master because of the money he had cost him… Men's blood had some price in the days of slavery. They were worth at least as much as they could be sold for in the market…It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm labourers to till the soil whose fruits they will not eat, and our masons to construct buildings in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to those markets where they await masters who will do them the kindness of buying them. It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in order to get from him permission to enrich him… what effective gain [has] the suppression of slavery brought [him ?] He is free, you say. Ah! That is his misfortune… These men, it is said, have no master—they have one, and the most terrible, the most imperious of masters, that is, need. It is this that reduces them to the most cruel dependence. They live only by hiring out their arms. They must therefore find someone to hire them, or die of hunger. Is that to be free?”[10]

Philosopher Richard Chappell offers a critique of self-ownership that centers on positive liberty. He posits that the concept is hollow, neither producing nor describing any substantive control over one's own life, thus creating a limited and shallow conception of freedom, or negative liberty.Quoting Will Kymlicka Chappell says

"How can I be said to own myself if I may do nothing without the permission of others?"[11]

Some critics may view it as contradictory that some views of self-ownership allow for voluntary slavery or debt slavery. It is also worth noting that philosophical concept of determinism is also used as an argument against the concept of self-ownership by proposing the absence of free will.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Cited in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. 2004. Blackwell Publishing. p. 630
  2. ^ Olsaretti, Serena. 2004. Liberty, Desert and the Market. Cambridge University Press. p. 91
  3. ^ Dan-Cohen, Meir. 2002. Harmful Thoughts: Essays on Law, Self, and Morality. Princeton University Press. p. 296
  4. ^ Harris, J. W. 1996. Property and Justice. Oxford University Press. p. 189
  5. ^ Shapiro, Ian. 2001. Democratic Justice. Yale University Press. pp. 145-146
  6. ^
  7. ^ Terrell, Timothy D. Property Rights and Externality: The Ethics of the Austrian School. Journal of Markets & Morality, Volume 2, Number 2 • Fall 1999
  8. ^ Rothbard, Murray Newton. The Ethics of Liberty. NYU Press. 2003. pp. 45 - 45
  9. ^ Elster, Jon & Moene, Karl Ove. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge University Press. p. 115.
  10. ^ Marx, Karl (1863). "Chapter 7". Theories of Surplus Value.  
  11. ^ Chappell, Richard (2005-06-05). "Self-Ownership". Philosophy, et cetera.  

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