Self-Ownership Morality

A question I asked Dr. James Anderson a few years back…

Professor Anderson,

I’m am wondering if you can help me to respond to a skeptical friend of mine. I’m not sure how to go about approaching this. Thanks!

Me: So how do you decide what is ethical? What is your standard for differentiating between good and evil?

Him: I’m glad you asked. You see I think people own themselves, both de jure and de facto. Anything that violates that self-ownership is evil, and any book that presents as good anything evil is itself evil. So for instance presenting a demand that you take your son out into the wilderness and put him on a sacrificial alter against his will as good is evil. Ditto cutting off your wife’s hand in anything other than self defense.

I get that standard from the blatantly obvious fact that I both control my actions and enjoy/suffer the consequences. Control plus benefit = ownership. If you don’t own yourself then why are you using yourself without the express permission of the owner? If God exists why would he rightfully own a sentient being when giving it sentience clearly makes it an effective self-owner?

Dr. James Anderson’s Response: One problem is that your friend makes a claim – that control plus benefit entails ownership – that he doesn’t adequately support. Yes, it’s obvious that we have control over our actions (most of the time, at any rate) and either enjoy or suffer the consequences. But why think it follows that we are therefore the ultimate owners of ourselves? That isn’t a self-evident entailment.

On the face of it, all else being equal, if S creates X, then S thereby owns X. So if God creates me, God thereby owns me. Whether I am sentient or have control over my actions is neither here nor there; the creation-ownership principle still applies. Your friend asks the rhetorical question, “If you don’t own yourself then why are you using yourself without the express permission of the owner?”, he’s overlooking another live possibility, namely, that we are stewards of ourselves – that is, we enjoy a derivative and subordinate ownership. God is the ultimate owner, but has given us stewardship of various things, including ourselves. We have the right to treat these things as our own, in a qualified sense, but we are ultimately accountable to God for our use of them. All this to say, your friend is begging the question by excluding this Christian theistic scenario from the outset.

Another issue is that your friend hasn’t really answered the foundational question about the grounding of ethical norms. He states that violating self-ownership is evil, but he’s thereby assuming some objective standard of good and evil against which to judge such ‘violations’. Put simply: why is violating self-ownership evil? Why should we respect ownership? In a naturalistic atheistic universe, there is only matter and energy interacting with more matter and energy according to physical laws. What basis is there for saying that some configurations of matter are ‘good’ (e.g., the one in which my finger doesn’t poke out your eye) and others are ‘evil’ (e.g., the one in which my finger does poke out your eye)? Your friend is simply taking for granted that it’s possible to make normative judgments about human actions. Appealing to self-ownership as suchdoesn’t explain anything; it just raises the question why we should respect self-ownership. He simply assumes that we should.

You might also ask him how his view can account for the immorality of sadism. Suppose I would get intense pleasure out of your suffering, so I decide to torture you. If I have ultimate ownership of my body, then I have the right to use it in such a way as to stimulate it in pleasurable ways; in this case, by torturing you. Now your friend is bound to say that my torturing of you would violate your self-ownership. But that’s an entirely arbitrary and prejudicial stance. One might just as well say that your resistance to being tortured violates my self-ownership by withholding the pleasure that I have the right to enjoy. One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure. One man’s suffering is another man’s benefit (to use your friend’s categories). Why should we conclude, given your friend’s definition of good and evil, that your pleasure should be judged to be good and mine judged to be evil? The whole system collapses into ethical relativism.

Another reply from Bruce Baugus: There are many problems with this view of self-ownership even as there is a kernal of truth to it–just enough to make it plausible to someone who has not thought the matter out very well.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the problem is to point out that none of us live in complete isolation from anyone else–not from conception to death. Let’s say I “own” myself (your friend actually has something stronger than mere ownership in view, I think, but leave that to the side for the moment, as I will his ridiculous and easy equation of scentience with self-ownership), and that gives me the right, on his line of argument, to do whatever I want with myself and also means that I cannot violate anyone else’s right of ownership over themselves. But let’s say your son wants to commit suicide–is he free to do so? Does he have the right to take his own life because his life belongs to himself and no one else? This seems quite radical. Does he not have certain obligations to his parents, to society, and even to himself that limit his right to do whatever he wants with himself? So even if there is a self-ownership principle it cannot be easily converted into a right to do whatever one wants with oneself or an absolute denial of all claims upon me by others.

The principle he seems to be advocating is universally denied by all societies in their property rights laws because it is unworkable. I have no right to do with and on my other property anything I want because it is recognized that many things I might do would harm my neighbor or the community in some way. Why would we think that this does not include wht we do to or with ourselves?

Now, the point is not to deny that we have some kind of ownership overourselves or even that we don’t have the right to do whatever we please with ourselves (I am not sure your friend is making that argument from what you right)–the point is rather more basic: the very fact that we do not have the right to do whatever we want to or with ourselves means that we are limited in our ownership rights and that raises the question of where these limits upon our freedom to do as we please originate. That is the question of authority base–on what authority if my freedom limited? What objective authority is able to mediate between individuals.

If your friend responds that the authority is grounded simply in some kind of principle of respect for other people’s self-ownership it is worth pointing out that this settles nothing unless “respect” is defined in a very particular way–and that, once again, raises the question of authority. You cannot get around it just by trying to bury it under different terms.

Now, if authority is grounded in ownership (let’s grant him this point for the sake of argument), then recognizing that my freedom over myself is limited means that I am under the authority of another and thus another has some ownership rights over me. How does this change the matter? What if I am owned, either in part or in whole, by another. Then I become a trustee of property that actually belongs to someone else–or perhaps many others. Now I am responsible for my stewardship. You can continue down this line to show that Abraham may well have been obligated to do whatever God commanded because he and his son belong to God.

Finally, it may also be worth pointing out that God was only testing Abraham and did not actually allow Abraham to go through with what he had been commanded to do. in the end, Isaac’s life was spared by God and not demanded of him.

Finally, don’t let him get away with cheap shots–make him show you where in Scripture a wife’s hand is ever to be cut off.


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