March 01, 2008

Doing Moller Okin one better: Self-ownership is inconsistent

In the process of writing and reflecting on a recent post, I realised that libertarianism is inconsistent with a reasonable assumption about the existence of unwilling dependency workers. This post is a self-contained presentation of that argument.

Libertarianism, as that is understood by the political philosophers who call themselves libertarians, is based on two principles: self-ownership and non-interference. First, all persons own themselves.

(x)(Person(x) -> Owns(x,x))

Second, if x's claim of ownership of y would interfere with z's self-ownership (for example, x steals z's car), then x does not own y.

(x)(y)((Person(x) ^ (Ez)((Person(z) ^ Owns(x,y)) -> -Owns(z,z))) -> -Owns(x,y))

Call the conjunction of these two the general principle of self-ownership (GPSO).

Suppose Helen is an unwilling dependence worker: she does not want to care for Ben, her adult son with muscular dystrophy. However, without Helen's care, Ben is trapped in bed, and cannot exercise self-ownership. Hence, if Helen owns herself, Ben does not own himself. On the other hand, if Ben does own himself, it is because Helen was somehow forced, against her will, to care for him. So then Helen does not own herself. In either case, the second conjunct of the GPSO then implies that the first conjunct is false. This can be formalised:

(UDW) (Ex)(Ey)(Person(x) ^ Person(y) ^ (Owns(x,x) <-> -Owns(y,y)))
UDW + GPSO |- -GPSO


Strictly speaking, this does not show that the GPSO is inconsistent. But it does show that it is inconsistent with a fairly obvious fact about humanity: without care, often from unwilling dependency workers, dependent individuals cannot exercise the autonomy on which libertarianism rests. Given this fact of dependency, GPSO has to be rejected.

7 comments:

Andrew Bailey said...

"However, without Helen's care, Ben is trapped in bed, and cannot exercise self-ownership. Hence, if Helen owns herself, Ben does not own himself."
I see no reason to conflate ability to exercise self-ownership with self-ownership as such. Do you have an argument?

The ability/right conflation fails in other contexts, after all -- one can have a right to perform some act without an ability to perform that act (one is tied up, say). So why should the conflation hold here?

Noumena said...

If you can't exercise a right, generally speaking, then in what sense do you have it?

Take another look at your example: If I kidnap you, tie you up, and lock you in my basement, then you still have the right (I'm just denying you the ability to exercise it), so I'm not violating your rights. On the suggested account of rights, they don't set any limits on what I can do to you without violating your rights (except, possibly, kill you).

Andrew Bailey said...

"you still have the right (I'm just denying you the ability to exercise it), so I'm not violating your rights."

I'm puzzled by the 'so' here, since it just doesn't follow. To violate a right just *is* to prevent its exercise. Should you tie me up, you haven't taken away any of my rights, but you have violated them.

And preventing the exercise of certain rights (that is, to violate rights) is impermissible; so certain rights constrain permissible action.

Noumena said...

`To violate a right just *is* to prevent its exercise.'

Exactly my point: By not caring for him (which she does if she exercises her right to self-determination), Helen prevents Ben from exercising his right to self-determination; and that just is violating his right to self-determination. For the libertarians I'm familiar with, this (viz, violating his right to self-determination) is the same thing as denying him self-ownership. That's the move covered by the `and' in the quotation in your original comment, and that's the move I thought you were calling a conflation between a right and being able to exercise it.

Andrew Bailey said...

"Exactly my point: By not caring for him (which she does if she exercises her right to self-determination), Helen prevents Ben from exercising his right to self-determination;"

If you're hoping to undermine a libertarian notion of self-ownership, this certainly won't do. At least, you should direct your arguments at a notion of rights that libertarians actually subscribe to (I have in mind here slogans like, "negative rights only!")

Take the Ben case again. Speaking of Ben's property right in himself as something that could be violated by Helen doing her own thing is a bit disingenuous. Breezily switching from 'self-ownership' to 'self-determination' may be your problem here. Helen, in doing her own thing, may be harming Ben or even failing to satisfy duties she has to him--but it's not at all clear that in so doing she has violated his right to self-ownership. She hasn't actively and coersively prevented Ben from exercising self-ownership. Had she kidnapped Ben, say, that would be another matter. But in the story you told, she hasn't.

The standard classical liberal story requires, then, a distinction between omission and action, between negative and positive rights, etc. So be it. Perhaps you think there are no such distinctions; this much will require argument, though. Sliding between 'prevention' and 'omission' talk isn't enough.

Noumena said...

`Breezily switching from 'self-ownership' to 'self-determination' may be your problem here.'

The switch isn't mine. As I understand things, it's at the heart of the relationship between individual autonomy and property rights in Narveson and Nozick. For example, Narveson says that `Unless people are free to act in the world, then there can be no significant liberty to act at all. Being free to act in the world requires that one be able to act on objects in the world by making use of them. If we interfere with people's use of the world, then we are interfering with the actions that constitute a condition for significant freedom.' And so on.

Consider Ben once more. Is he free to act on the world? By the second sentence from Narveson, only if he is able to act on objects in the world by making use of them. But that requires Helen's assistance -- without her help, he can't get out of bed to get to objects in the world.

In any case, the logic here doesn't require me to move between self-determination and self-ownership. Just interpret Owns(x,y) as x determines the disposition of y (in accordance with Narveson's preliminary definition of ownership).

`The standard classical liberal story requires, then, a distinction between omission and action, between negative and positive rights, etc.'

Here's Duncan MacIntosh, favourably glossing Nozick in a response to Moller Okin: The basic principle of individual autonomy for Nozick's libertarianism `is the right to do as much as possible of what you want consistently with all other people being able to do as much as possible of what they want .... the only ones [rights] all could have are ones co-tenably haveable and exercisable by all; the only co-doable activities of people are those which do not prevent or preclude the doing of something else by another; which do not, in that sense, make him worse off (worse off in not being able to do something he wishes to do).' (My emphasis.) Similarly, when MacIntosh gives the `Kantian condition' which becomes the basis for Nozick's side constraints, it is that `those of all people must be jointly satisfiable'. He adds, explicating, `I may only do what I want provided you can still do likewise. This means that what we each may do depends on what all others want. We may only act to satisfy such of our desires as participate in a maximally large set of the aggregate co-satisfiable desires of all.' He then goes on to identify this with non-interference. There's nothing about negative or positive rights here; non-interference is understood entirely in terms of ability to exercise rights, and those are rights full stop. Further, Narveson seems to think MacIntosh has things exactly right.

(Quotes, etc., are from Malcolm Murray, ed., Liberty, Games and Contracts: Jan Narveson and the Defence of Libertarianism. If you want page cites, I can go back through and put them in tomorrowish.)

Now, maybe you think that this is a dead-end. (Perhaps you think that because of the problem I've identified here.) In which case, how would you rewrite the second conjunct of the GPSO?

Noumena said...

Typos, typos, typos ... please overlook :-)