A little while ago, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published its revised entry on Libertarianism, co-authored by Peter Vallentyne and myself. The entry focuses on libertarian theory in the narrow sense, a self-contained moral theory built on ideas about self-ownership and the possibility of private ownership of the external things.
Focusing on libertarianism in that sense of course leaves a lot of things out – including a number of views defended by people on this blog. Many of us reject the idea of self-ownership in its logically strongest form. The entry discusses some of the reasons why one might want to reject that idea.
Personally, I do not think self-ownership in its strongest form is all that attractive (Peter may disagree with me here, I am not sure). Still, I consider myself someone who believes in self-ownership. Compare this to ownership of land or resources. To say someone is an owner of land is to say something substantive. It may not rule out everything that the strongest possible form of land ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. There are many things we cannot do to an owner or his/her property without violating the owner’s rights. Real-life property rights know their limits, but they matter greatly nonetheless.
So too, I think, for self-ownership. As we point out in the entry, to deny the strongest form of self-ownership does not remove the real attraction of that ideal. Self-ownership gives expression to the unique position of dominion of every individual over him or herself, and the respect this demands in others. And while accepting, say, duties or liabilities to rescue moves us away from the ideal in its strongest form, it does not entail its denial. Real-life self-ownership may not rule out everything that the logically strongest form of self-ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. It prohibits treating people as if their bodies, talents, and efforts were a common resource for others to mine. And that, too, matters greatly.
The entry discusses a lot more, such as the position of non-human animals, enforcement rights, and the possibility of appropriation. On the latter point, Peter and I agree: any acceptable moral theory must allow individuals to unilaterally appropriate parts of the external world for their private use. We disagree on the distributive conditions attached to appropriation, but that is another topic for another day. For now: go check it out!
The article first appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarian.