Contra Locke on Self-Ownership

Guest Post by Michael Phillip

[L]ocke’s argument starts with the notion that we own ourselves. It does not rest on us being the creation of our own labour, but a notion of self-ownership. By “mixing our labour” with things acquired from nature we “create” property by a process of extension of our self-ownership.

There are a series of problems with this argument. First, if we own ourselves, do we really think that we can therefore sell ourselves, either entire or by amputation and alienation of bits? And, if not, in what sense is this ownership? Is there not something perverse about a concept which implies an acceptable separation of our physical self (in whole or in part) from ourself.

To be property is to be owned by something that is not itself and which can be passed on to others. So, to be property, even of ourself, is to be lessened from what we feel is the proper status of being a moral agent.

A notion of self-dominion makes more sense; we control ourselves and property extends from that control. By taking some unowned thing from nature, we assert control over it; it is the assertion and acceptance of control which creates property.

As ever, slavery provides a limiting case. The institution of slavery contradicts Locke’s notion that we own ourselves. Slavery is morally obnoxious (a violation of self-dominion, and so human autonomy, in the most profound sense) but it does not make slaves any less property. It is the acknowledged assertion of control over the slave that creates slavery, not the labour of the slaveowner (even if it is directed to that end) extending the slaver’s self-ownership to cover the slave.

Do we really think that the process of enslaving is a process of the slaver “mixing their labour” with the slave? Surely not; neither as a description nor as some act of legitimation. No amount of applied labour by the slaver makes slavery legitimate nor is it what makes slaves property.

The process of enslaving is a process of getting acknowledged control over the slave. The more difficulty involved, the more the slaver has to act to do so, but the effort required does not affect any “level” of being property, merely whether it is worth the bother.

Locke’s use of the term ‘labour’ directs attention to the effort and not to what is being effected. (Hence the connection to the labour theory of value, which makes the same error.)

Note: My position is that the necessity of cooperation determines property, not self owenrship. Michael (as usual) is correct. – Curt