Thursday, December 7, 2017

Utilitarian Case For Self-Ownership

I broach the subject of property rights quite often in my articles. I’d say probably 65% of my content is about property rights, and for a good reason. Property rights are foundational to civilization itself. The framers of our Constitution recognized this fact. The third, fourth, fifth, and 14th amendments to the constitution deal directly with issues involving property rights and the first amendment deals with property rights indirectly. For instance, the fourth amendment prohibits police from conducting ‘arbitrary searches and seizures’ and requires probable cause justification to search a person’s property. Similarly, the fifth amendment prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of their property without due process; the 14th amendment applies this same standard to state and local governments. The third amendment prohibits the government from quartering troops on private property, in peace times, without the owner’s consent. The first amendment deals indirectly with property rights by enshrining the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, both of which require the recognition of property rights, especially freedom of assembly. I’d argue that the 13th amendment, the one that supposedly abolishes slavery, also deals with the subject of property rights, though not in the same manner in which we are accustomed to thinking about it. I would contend that it concerns the property one has in one’s own body and mind: self-ownership. It did after all make the once widespread practice of directly owning other people, for any reason except restitution, illegal. I’d further contend that it gave the government a legal monopoly over slavery, but this would detract from the subject at hand. My main point here is that the constitution recognizes self-ownership, not consistently mind you, but it is in writing. Of course, the constitution isn’t an infallible document; it was not handed down to James Madison by God himself in Philadelphia, so ultimately, we should defer to moral law when the constitution does err or omit certain moral rights.

Property rights arise from two facts of life: the division of labor and the scarcity of desirable resources. They are adopted because they are useful for the efficient allocation of resources, and nothing more. The human body is a scarce and desirable resource. As strange as this may sound people’s bodies have a market value, and we know this from prior experience. Slavery, for instance, has been around for thousands of years and still persists today under the form of sex trafficking and human trafficking. People also claim ownership over others, or rather parts of them, through illegal organ harvesting, and we face the ever burgeoning problem of figuring out who owns your DNA. The principle of self-ownership isn’t just a metaphysical tautology, it’s a principle for disputing competing claims over bodies. The alternatives to self-ownership are twofold; either you presume that the human body (and mind) is unowned or that people can assume ownership over others. Obviously, most people who object to self-ownership also find chattel slavery repulsive so they would choose the former alternative, but this would still place the human body in the same category as other unowned resources and imply that things like slavery and nonconsensual organ harvesting are amoral. For instance, we recognize that the act of cutting down a tree for wood is amoral in itself. We would hold a similar regard for the act of breaking stones. Saying that the human body is unowned places actions against a human body in the same category as cutting down a tree or breaking stones; it would imply that these actions are amoral in themselves. Slavery and organ harvesting would have to be considered amoral under that assumption. The only palpable option is to assume self-ownership.

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