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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 have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of his own body and life. According to G. A. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership is 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."
The philosophers 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 and individualistic political philosophies such as abolitionism, ethical egoism, rights-based libertarianism, Objectivism, and individualist anarchism.
For anarchist political philosopher L. Susan Brown, "Liberalism and anarchism are two political philosophies that are fundamentally concerned with individual freedom yet differ from one another in very distinct ways. Anarchism shares with liberalism a radical commitment to individual freedom while rejecting liberalism's competitive property relations."
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. Another 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 oneself into slavery is also preserved by the principle of self-ownership.
Labour markets and private property
Philosopher Ian Shapiro says that labor markets 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 sovereignty over himself while contributing to economic efficiency.
A common view within classical liberalism is that sovereign-minded individuals usually assert a right of private property external to the body, reasoning that if a person owns themselves, they own their actions, including those that create or improve resources. Therefore, they own their own labour and the fruits thereof.
Nevertheless there can be defense of self-ownership which can be critical of the idea of private property, specifically within anarchism. The anarchist Oscar Wilde said that "For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is...With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." Also Italian individualist anarchist Renzo Novatore said that "Only ethical and spiritual wealth is invulnerable. This is the true property of individuals. The rest no! The rest is vulnerable! And all that is vulnerable will be violated!"
Within anarchism the concept of wage slavery refers to a situation perceived as quasi-voluntary slavery, where a person's livelihood depends on wages, especially when the dependence is total and immediate. It is a negatively connoted term used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor by focusing on similarities between owning and renting a person. The term wage slavery has been used to criticize economic exploitation and social stratification, with the former seen primarily as unequal bargaining power between labor and capital (particularly when workers are paid comparatively low wages, e.g. in sweatshops), and the latter as a lack of workers' self-management, fulfilling job choices and leisure in an economy. With the advent of the industrial revolution, thinkers such as Proudhon and Marx elaborated the comparison between wage labor and slavery in the context of a critique of societal property not intended for active personal use, while Luddites emphasized the dehumanization brought about by machines. Emma Goldman famously denounced wage slavery by saying: "The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves."
John Locke wrote in his Two Treatises on Government, "every man has a Property in his own Person." Locke also said that 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."
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.
- G. A. Cohen. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge University Press. 1995
Notes and references
- Cited in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. 2004. Blackwell Publishing. p. 630
- L. Susan Brown. The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism, and Anarchism. BLACK ROSE BOOKS LID. 1993
- Shapiro, Ian. 2001. Democratic Justice. Yale University Press. pp. 145-146
- Harris, J. W. 1996. Property and Justice. Oxford University Press. p. 189
- Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man under Socialism
- Renzo Novatore. Toward the Creative Nothing
- Ellerman 1992.
- "wage slave". merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- "wage slave". dictionary.com. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- Sandel 1996, p. 184.
- "Conversation with Noam Chomsky". Globetrotter.berkeley.edu. p. 2. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- Hallgrimsdottir & Benoit 2007.
- "The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, 1917–1921: The State and Counter-revolution". Spunk Library. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- Proudhon 1890.
- Marx 1969, Chapter VII.
- Goldman 2003, p. 283.
- Olsaretti, Serena. 2004. Liberty, Desert and the Market. Cambridge University Press. p. 91
- Dan-Cohen, Meir. 2002. Harmful Thoughts: Essays on Law, Self, and Morality. Princeton University Press. p. 296
- Self-Ownership, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Philosophy of Liberty
- The Ego and Its Own (also translated as The Individual and His Property), the main work by German philosopher Max Stirner
- What is a sovereign individual?
- A collection of arguments against self-ownership