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The Good Society 12.3 (2003) 50-57

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[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hand, we may say are properly his.
John Locke, Second Treatise, V, 27
[E]ach individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person. The "human" rights of the person that are defended in a purely free-market society are, in effect, each man's property right in his own being. And from this property right stems his right to the material goods he has produced.
Murray Rothbard, Power and the Market
Each person has exclusive ownership of herself and nobody has any property rights in another person. Decision about the use of personal abilities are for the individual alone to make, provided that her exercise of self-ownership does not violate the equal rights of others.
John Cunliffe, Origins of Left-Liberalism

The transition from natural law to natural right in the modern era may have taken its final turn through the medium of the idea of "property in oneself" or "self-ownership"—what we will call the self-ownership thesis (SOT).1 So many of the sensibilities of modern natural rights are conveyed by the idea of self-ownership: individualism, equality, inherent worth, and spheres of personal sovereignty, to name a few. The idea of a sphere of autonomous individual sovereignty so especially characteristic of modern natural rights is at the core of the meaning of a concept like "self-ownership"—a concept which actually pre-dates "autonomy"—because the SOT gives pride of place to the individual. Furthermore "self-ownership" is not inconsistent with the idea that there is something of moral importance that we possess by nature. That a moral order independent of both convention and political power exists is a theme common to both natural law and natural rights.

Yet even if the SOT were the vehicle through which the transformation from natural law to natural rights was expressed, it would not follow that the SOT would have any substantive content of its own. Self-ownership might, for example, bring together (or bring to mind) a cluster of concepts that do the real work, but which gain a certain accessibility by being linked together by one term or concept. We shall be exploring this idea in what follows, not in an historical sense, but in a conceptual sense. What does the SOT mean and does it do any real work? Or is the term shorthand for more complicated concepts or political perspectives which themselves do the work or depend upon frameworks or principles provided elsewhere? While we cannot explore these questions to their fullest, we do intend to look into some possible meanings and implications of the concept and thus the extent to which self-ownership is a primary or derivative principle.

The citations from Locke and Rothbard that open this paper are typical versions of the self-ownership thesis. This thesis is regarded, by friends and critics alike,2 as the fundamental principle for natural rights classical liberalism and contemporary political libertarianism. It is not, however, just found on "the right." Left leaning thinkers use the concept as well, as our final opening citation indicates. The Locke and Rothbard citations, however, are closest to our own position on politics and natural rights, so we shall concentrate on interpretations linked to that political perspective. What is meant by Locke's and Rothbard's claims? Are they defensible? And, most importantly for us, is the SOT the basis for the claim that human beings have individual rights, or is it merely the assertion of the claim that human beings have individual rights? These questions we will address.

Let us begin by considering these statements:

"This is my body."

"These are my faculties, talents, and energies. I possess them."

"This body, these faculties, talents, and energies are mine, not yours."

It is evident...


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