This article was last modified on February 3, 2010.


Nozick, Self-Ownership, and His Detractors: ?-1995

Some stuff on self-ownership, Robert Nozick’s endorsement of it, and others’ objections.

What is Self-Ownership?

Self-ownership “says that each person enjoys, over herself and her powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that she has not contracted to supply.” [Cohen: 12] Cohen believes this principle is the central tenet of libertarianism. Self-ownership “says that each person is the rightful owner of his own person and powers, and therefore of what he can get from others by placing himself at their service.” [Cohen: 65] Self-ownership “says that each person is the morally rightful owner of his own person and powers, and, consequently, that each is free (morally speaking) to use those powers as he wishes, provided that he does not deploy them aggressively against others.” [Cohen: 67]

It seems, further, that the self-ownership thesis “endorses the naturally unequal distribution of personal powers…” [Cohen: 170] After all, one man who owns himself does not own equally what another man owns in their self. The sad truth is that not all men are created equal: some clearly are capable of feats others are not. As full self-ownership contradicts equality and autonomy (in Cohen’s view), Cohen suggests Marxists reject the self-ownership principle and accept autonomy, which would allow for equality and some self-ownership rights.

The Marxist Problem With Self-Ownership

While self-ownership is traditionally seen as a libertarian principle, many Marxists would accept the concept, as well. A communist may accept self-ownership, or else how might he justifiably say the capitalist exploits his labor? If Marxists adopt the self-ownership principle, does this contradict their acceptance of the “communist principle” of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”? After all, communist redistribution may be said to violate someone’s right to their own labor no more or less than capitalist redistribution.

Cohen believes Marx makes an argument like the following: Radical equality without coercion is possible when and because there are no substantial conflicts of interest between well- and ill-endowed people because there is limitless abundance. In this view, Marxists can accept both equality and self-ownership, because there are enough goods wherein personal differences will not matter. This, of course, fails because the idea of “limitless abundance” is little more than a pipe dream.

Cohen says that others have interpreted Marx to be saying this: Radical equality without coercion is possible when and because there are no substantial conflicts of interest between well- and ill-endowed people because motivation has been socialized. Here equality and self-ownership can peacefully co-exist. But this, too, fails unless we believe that all men will someday act purely altruistically, which is unrealistic.

Cohen offers a solution to this dilemma, rejecting Marx and his interpreters while still allowing for socialist principles: Radical equality without coercion is possible when and because people are willing to observe the dictates of egalitarian justice because there is a pretty high material level, though less than limitless abundance. Here he rejects the nonsense of “limitless abundance” but still believes it possible to create more than is necessary for all mankind. In this scenario, which is still years away but theoretically possible, redistribution may encroach on self-ownership (which Cohen has rejected) but the effect would be so slight that no one’s autonomy would be negatively affected.

Sources

Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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