The Self-Ownership Thesis

The following essay about the self-ownership thesis was written as part of my MA in Philosophy and tries to answer the question “‘The intuition that motivates the self-ownership thesis and that generates its inegalitarian consequences rests on the idea that I own parts of my body. However, though the relationship of me to my body is intimate, it makes no sense to conceive of it in terms of property rights.’ Is this true?

Of all my essays so far, this one received the lowest mark which might reflect that I was in a hurry to put my thoughts onto paper just before I set off for my walk across England this summer. I still think it contains some good thoughts though which I might develop further in the future:

I. The self-ownership thesis

The self-ownership thesis describes the “idea that I (rather than anyone else) own myself, and so I ought to determine the way in which my life proceeds, in the same way I determine what happens to my other possessions.”1 This ownership of oneself is then extended to the fruits of one’s labour2: “If I own myself, then […] I must own my talents, and […] I own whatever I produce with my talents.”3

The earliest statement to that regard can be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, first published in 16894: “[…] every Man has a Property in his own person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, […] are properly his.”5

One of the most outspoken contemporary proponents of the self-ownership thesis is the libertarian Robert Nozick6 who laid out his thoughts in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 19747.

The self-ownership thesis is relevant for many philosophical and ethical debates, for example (assisted) suicide8, prostitution, the selling of body parts9, but Nozick concentrates on taxation10. For him, “taxation of earnings from labour is on a par with forced labour”11 because if someone (usually the state) is entitled to (part) of one’s earnings, then that someone owns (part of) that other person12.

II. Does this idea rest on the idea that persons own parts of their body?

Although Sandel calls the idea of self-ownership “the moral crux of the libertarian claim”13 and the idea of owning one’s body, logically including the ownership of one’s body parts, is used by libertarian philosophers as one argument for their world-view, I would not say that libertarianism “rests” on the self-ownership thesis and even less on the specific idea of owning parts of ones body.

Quite a few authors though claim that self-ownership is an intuition14 which can be inspired by thought experiments involving body parts: Nozick15 and Wolff16 introduce the “eye lottery”, an example in which most people are born with two healthy eyes, but some are blind. Transplantation technology is so advanced that one of the two eyeballs of a healthy person could be transplanted into a blind person, so that both could see17. They compare the (forced) redistribution of eyes to taxation and hope that the reader’s shock at the forced removal of body parts will transfer to redistributive policies.

III. Does it make sense to conceive of one’s body in terms of property rights?

With me, this example fails to arouse any intuition for self-ownership, mostly because I find the comparison between an “eyeball lottery” rather poor, but possibly also because of a stronger intuition for some sort of equality or egalitarianism18.

The first fundamental difference is that in the eyeball lottery, people’s body parts/assets/abilities would be removed, whereas taxation of income only removes parts of the fruits. The assets or the abilities to work and gain income are not removed, they can continue to be used.

One reason why the eyeball lottery seems so gruesome is that it is not made clear who decides based on what who will have to give up one of his/her eyeballs, making it sound arbitrary. Taxation however is not based on an arbitrary lottery, but on one’s productivity, wealth and ability. Everyone (at least in countries with a rule of law) can know in advance how much taxes he/she will have to pay at a certain income level.

The later point is even stronger in a democracy where laws about taxation have been decided about by an elected legislature. Sandel19 points out that the respective taxpayer might not agree with this tax policy, which is a fair point. However, in democracies at least, everyone may participate in the debate about taxation. Also, whenever I read libertarians’ ranting against taxation, I wonder if they don’t use roads or libraries or don’t want to enjoy the protection by the fire brigade, the police department and by the military.

But even beyond the limited use of the “eyeball lottery” example, I don’t think that “ownership” or “property” is the right concept to think about our bodies:

Ownership in its usual and its legal sense extends to things exclusively20, not to persons. One reason for the necessity of the legal instrument of ownership is the desire to trade and transfer things with others. This transferability is therefore an important part of property rights, but not many wish to allow persons to be transferred into the ownership of others. This would constitute slavery. I don’t see what is gained by introducing a thesis that is in effect self-slavery and that would – if no limits are applied – permit voluntary enslavement21. When Locke and Grunebaum argue that such transfers are not allowed even under the self-ownership thesis because they undermine one’s authority22, they have to be asked why they don’t apply the same verdict to (equally voluntary) acceptance of low pay for his/her labour by someone in need.

From the nexus between ownership and trade stems another attribute of anything that is owned: it needs to be quantifiable and can be attributed a (market) value. While persons can of course be counted, they should not be able to be attributed a value as expressed in things, money or even other persons (as in: 1 Peter is worth 2 Pauls). Human dignity demands that human life is not measured in terms of value.

Of course one could argue that exactly because persons are different than things, self-ownership does not require the same elements as ownership of things. But then I have to ask: What is the use of the term ownership in connection with persons good for?23 If one owns something that is not transferable and cannot be attributed a value, that sounds like a rather empty right.

I cannot quite get rid of the suspicion that the term “self-ownership” is indeed designed to make something sound grander and more positive than it really is. It sounds like a noble principle that empowers every man and woman.

But self-ownership can be a hollow right: If one is born crippled or in a drought-ridden African country during a time of famine, one might in theory own oneself, but one is not – as the term implies – the master of one’s fate.

In response to the libertarians’ example of the “eye lottery”, I would like to present an example of a much harsher and gruesome lottery: the “lottery of life”. I was one of those who have been lucky in this lottery of life, because I was born in Central Europe during a time of peace and prosperity. Next month, I will turn 36 and I will thus have surpassed the average life expectancy of people in Swaziland. Had I not had the luck of being born in Germany, but had I been born in Swaziland, I would now be (statistically) dead. In the moment of a person’s birth, a large part of his/her chances in life are already determined24. A lottery doesn’t get much harsher than this, and unlike the example picked by Nozick to try to convince us of his aversion of taxes, this one is reality.

I suggest that, when looking at reality instead of made-up examples at least, the intuition for egalitarianism, fairness and social justice are stronger and more compelling than any intuition for self-ownership. Maybe it’s no coincidence that there are not many libertarians in the Sahel.

IV. Conclusion

However, having negated self-ownership, I cannot extend this verdict to libertarianism itself because I don’t think libertarianism rests on this.

Self-ownership seems to be more an additional argument which is derived from the opposition between being owned by others (which was a real possibility in Locke’s time25) and owning oneself. And this step I think includes a fallacy. For if a person cannot be owned by anyone else (a belief which has become axiomatic by now), it does not logically follow that this person owns himself or herself. Because it is absolutely possible that something or someone is owned by no one, cannot be owned. The fact that humans cannot be owned, by nobody, is freedom at its ultimate.

The concept of items not being able to be owned is nothing too unusual for even commercially inclined thinkers to accept, as they do for example with the air around us. If some of our most precious natural resources are free of any ownership, I don’t see why humans can’t be.

The idea of freedom itself is strong enough to be a solid foundation for libertarianism. It does not need the additional argument discussed in this paper, but it also cannot be discounted as easily.

1Pike: 117; Vallentyne 2010: introduction

2Sandel 2010: 65

3Pike: 121 describing Locke’s analysis

4Pike: 120

5Locke, 1960 edition of Two Treatises of Government, P. Laslett, editor, Cambrige, Cambridge University Press; quoted by Pike: 120

6Pike: 117; Sandel 2010: 62; Vallentyne 2010: introduction

7Pike: 117; Sandel 2010: 62

8Sandel 2010: 72-73

9Sandel 2010: 70-72

10Barry 1996: 2

11Quoted in Sandel 2010: 65

12Sandel 2010: 65

13Sandel 2010: 65

14Christman 1991: 11; Pike: 124

15Pike: 123

16Wolff, J., 1991. Robert Nozick: Property Justice and the Minimal State, Stanford, Stanford University Press; quoted by Pike: 123

17This example is also discussed by Christman 1991: 11.

18An intuition also mentioned by Pike: 125 and discussed throughout the study material

19Sandel 2010: 68

20For example § 903 of the German Civil Code

21Vallentyne 2010: section 1

22Vallentyne 2010: section 1

23Barry 1996: 4 seems to argue along the same line.

24The notion of luck is an element in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: Pike: 122

25For some context of Locke’s thoughts about self-ownership see Pike: 121



Sandel, Michael J. (2010) Justice: What’ the right thing to do?, London, Penguin.


Barry, B. (1996) You have to be crazy to believe it, The Times Literary Supplement, 25 October 1996, page 28 (reprinted as reading 5.1 for the Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, and quoted by the pages of the reprint).

Christman, John (1991) Self-Ownership, Equality, and the Structure of Property Rights, Political Theory, 19, no 1, 28-46 (reprinted as reading 5.5 for the Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University, and quoted by the pages of the reprint).

Study material:

Pike, Jon (year unknown) Self-Ownership, A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Chapter 5, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

The internet:

Vallentyne, Peter (2010) “Libertarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 edition), Edward N. Zalta (editor),

I am currently working on the last paper for this module, this time about the philosophy of punishment.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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5 Responses to The Self-Ownership Thesis

  1. Pingback: The Psychological Continuity Account | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

  2. Pingback: MA Philosophy at the Open University | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

  3. John Erickson says:

    Did you get any feedback on the low grade? I’d be interested to see your teacher’s viewpoint. The one thing that pops to my (much less educated) mind is, did you teacher want a more (not sure if this is the correct concept) philosophical bent? Thinking of possession of one’s self from the view of morals, values, and “right and wrong”, including what effect environment, upbringing, and “chance” factors like location and wealth of family (which you do mention above).
    Just idle curiosity from a bored brain. :D

  4. This is all very neat, too neat, not delving deeply enough into the subject matter, hence your low grade -I guess. I have no philosophy degree, so I tend to take a more practical approach:

    You westerners tend to see self ownership as one man owning ones physical body, much as one would a piece of clothing, a car, or any other inanimate object. Owning one’s body this way, reduces the body to a means, but a means for what? This kinda thinking falls short on many accounts, all of which I shall not name here. Real self ownership embodies freedom. Freedom from prejuduice, from other people’s judgement, from social conditioning, freedom to follow one’s own innermost desires. Freedom to just be, without worry. Freedom to be happy, regardless of external circumstances. Some traditions call this wuwei, a meditative state, nirvana sageness etc, though this may not always be accurate.

    I know this is far beyond the scope of the western tradition, which places sole emphasis on deduction, dialetics and neat logical statements. Our way is more practical, experiential. Like happiness, there is no logical way to understand real freedom, short of direct personal experience.

  5. Lillian Smith says:

    This ownership of oneself is then extended to the fruits of one’s labour2: “If I own myself, then […] I must own my talents, and […] I own whatever I produce with my talents.”3

    The earliest statement to that regard can be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, first published in 16894: “[…] every Man has a Property in his own person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, […] are properly his.”

    John Locke then would not have approved of Income Tax. And rightly so, it is an unjust tax which was first introduced as a temporary measure in the USA in the early years of the last century, coincidentally when the privately owned Federal Reserve Bank became the prime lender to the governemt. This tax was introduced to pay the interest on loans to the Federal Reserve.

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