01 April 2006

The fraud of self-ownership

I heard this on the radio again the other day, "A person owns themself and ought to be able to put what ever they want into their bodies." So, I guess they were talking drugs. I've heard this many times before, but it drives me up the wall.

You usually hear the "Each person owns himself" argument in support of drug legalization, assisted suicide, prostitution, or the like. But, I can't believe that anyone who makes this argument has fully thought through the implications. Because if a person owns themself, then a person could, well ... sell themself. Don't scoff. If a person has such total control over a piece of property that they may destroy it at any time for any reason, or for no reason, then certainly they could also give or sell that property to another person as well. Then, this new owner could also choose to destroy his property, could he not?

A natural objection here may be that no one would want to sell themselves. But, then, presuming what people ought to do with their own bodies was how this all started! But, for the sake of argument let's say that no one anywhere would ever sell themselves. We're still not out of the woods, though, because if you truly own yourself then that is just one more asset that can be liquidated in the event of unpaid debts or bankrupty. Granted, we have bankruptcy laws to protect people's barest belongings, but these laws are based largely on biblical traditions and should have no place in our system of law -- at least, that's what most self-ownership proponents would argue if they want to be consistent.

Let's take a moment to consider bankruptcy law all by itself. We as a nation may choose to incorporate a morally based element of debt forgiveness into our laws -- or we may choose not to. Regardless of what measure of debt forgiveness is required by the law, there can be circumstances under which a person of good will would take it upon themselves to forgive debts. The point I want to make is, even though there's general support for bankruptcy laws that give some moderate protections to debtors, they're just not crucial to our entire system. Take away all bankruptcy protection and people will get more careful, the market will adjust, and life will go on.

But, the pernicious concept of self-ownership very much is antithetical to our entire constitutional system of law. As mentioned in our country's founding documents, a person's rights are granted by God himself and the human person therefore has a special status in our system. It's for this reason that we must always oppose slavery, for example, even if some person wants to sell themselves into slavery. Slavery is a plain denial of the God given rights of each human, so we forbid it -- even if, paradoxically, a person desires to become a slave. To allow it or recognize it in any way strikes at a cornerstone of our entire system. And, when we forbid slavery we are not harming an individual in any way, but upholding the rights of all men by defending the dignity of each man.

As to the other issues often cited by self-ownership proponents, the argument of human dignity is not always an iron-clad rebuttal. The case of drug legalization is a good one to consider. If recreational drugs are a harmless amusement, then there's no grounds to oppose them. If they are just a form of protracted suicide or, indeed, of slavery, then we must oppose them mightily. That we are created by God and valued by God does not give an easy answer to all policy questions. My purpose is rather to take away the glib, simple-minded argument that a person owns themselves and may therefore destroy, even desecrate, themselves in any way they see fit -- ultimately devaluing all men in the process. We must uphold this central concept of human worth. The result will be that we must start again to give some real thought to the implications of our laws.

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