self ownership

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    To whom may be interested:

    I was reading through some stuff at the Imaginative Conservative site and something has been nagging me for some time about the self and property rights. In some back and fourths on these forums, I mentioned my concern regarding self with regard to land owners being able to dictate the actions of individuals that find themselves on their land and of debt payments being satisfied by ones labor as adjudicated, for instance.

    The following resonates with me:

    The Imaginative Conservative

    “…self-ownership is viewed as the ultimate protection against slavery, which is the opposite of self-ownership. So between freeing us from the wills of others, which would inhibit our humanity, and insuring that no one can enslave us, which would end it, we find the whole of Liberal polity. But let me suggest that self-ownership accomplishes neither goal. Indeed, once the idea of any kind of ownership of a person is admitted, slavery is an unavoidable consequence. For if you can own yourself, you can also sell yourself. And if another can get ownership of you by sale, they can get it by other means; they can “repossess” your body for debts, or create economic conditions under which you have little choice but to sell yourself in return for subsistence. What is owned by one, can be owned by another.” John Medaille

    Later in this essay, the following, however, is a strange rationalization to me:


    “To answer this, I think we must go back to our origins, which are undeniably tied up with the fact of “gift.” But how could our parents give us the gift of life, and all the other gifts, except that they “owned” these things. And here, I think, we find the answer to this whole riddle: they claimed ownership of these things by giving them away. We never deny that we received life from our parents and thus we affirm their ownership of something that may be given. In giving us food and love, they assert these things were theirs to give, and in accepting them, we affirm their ownership. Thus we come to a great paradox: we own that which we give away; we affirm the self in the gift of self.
    …The price the buyer pays, when it is a just price, is the gift the seller gives to the producers; the commodity the seller surrenders is his gift to the buyer, and the size of that gift is the gap between use and exchange values. Thus, even in our mundane transactions, the element of the gift remains; an attempt to eliminate this gift destroys both economic rationality and the basis of a rational social order. Gift, that is, grace, is not a mere platitude, but a practical principle of economics and politics. To deny this in favor of the cramped rationalism of possessive individualism is to replace the economy of grace with what John Milbank called ‘a mean little heresy‘” John Medaille

    Can you help me reconcile my dilemma?

    Sincerely, Patricia


    Dear Patricia,

    Slavery has to be one of the oldest and most widely accepted social and political institutions. The issue of self-ownership and its relation to the possibility of self-enslavement is a complex one. Historically, people have in fact sold themselves into slavery whether or not that was something that was either ethically desirable or even ethically possible.

    I’ve read the Medaille’s passages but, frankly, I don’t understand just what point he is trying to make.

    Could you perhaps frame your dilemma in your own words so that we can see as clearly as possibly just where your perplexity lies?

    Best wishes,

    Gerard Casey


    I think that my idea of dignity precludes the notion of voluntarily selling oneself into slavery. The problem is–who is to stop it? It is sort of like finding prostitution to be an assault against the human condition–but, again, who is to stop it? Perhaps if it is the belief of the people that we do not own ourselves, we could not feel pressure to sell ourselves anymore than we feel pressure to murder someone that we perceive to be causing us great distress. In a community of such believers, is it conceivable to have a law that prohibits these transactions? As long as the person is free to leave those communities, then would it be anti-freedom for them to be established? I guess it all comes down to self-governing. The second part of the passage about gifting oneself is how we come to own oneself does not feel right to me. I think this could be an affront to human dignity, as well, so I’m not sure how the author rationalizes this. I imagine gifting ourselves could be a form of slavery, too. The pressure to gift oneself for the benefit of the community, for instance. Perhaps it is the Conservative in me that is addressing this. The Liberal in me probably has more to do with the notion that no entity, save my conception of God, is in a better position to use me than myself.


    Also, my concern is with the notion that if we can be put up for sale by ourselves, then does it follow that our debts can be adjudicated by the prescribed abdication of ourselves to our lender? Or should the lender just have to suffer the loss by his trust in one’s ability and willingness to pay him back? Of course, secured loans, would be reasonable in this case (if one cannot pay one back in the contracted period of time, a piece of property would serve to fulfill the contract). But, not oneself–this just strikes me as the line between property and commerce and what it means to be human. Like when people say that we are born with rights–I’d say that we were born with the dignity that precludes the gifting or selling of oneself. I do not equate this with the gifting or selling of what one produces–because that is the product of his labor and not his labor itself. Does that make sense to you?


    I suppose one would argue that producing for a paycheck is the same idea. But, I don’t know, ultimately you have the option to fulfill that arrangement–unlike slavery.


    Owning oneself and Property rights: In general, for me, the notion of rights, liberties and property come to a wall with me when all land, as property, is owned and the people who do not own land are subjected to the landowners even if he finds an acceptable relationship. I don’t think I’ll ever really reconcile this. It is a paradox of life in my estimation.

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