In a question and answers video Stefan Molyneux answered the following question:
“Where is the logical step between humans exhibiting ownership of themselves and self-ownership becoming a universal principle? How do property rights emerge simply from exclusive usage of our bodies?”
Before we address Stefan’s response let us first understand what the question is in fact asking. In order to do so we must understand two things – what the difference between an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’ statement is and what self-ownership means.
The difference between an ‘is’ statement and an ‘ought’ statement is as follows. An ‘is’ statement is a statement about what ‘is’ the case such as the proposition ‘dogs are animals’. An ‘ought’ statement is a statement about what should or ought to be the case such as the proposition ‘all dogs ought to be happy.’ One cannot however infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ since there is nothing within a descriptive statement about how things are that entails a normative statement about how things ought to be. One cannot infer from the ‘is’ that ‘petting makes dogs happy’, the ought that ‘one ought to pet dogs’. This argument contains the implicit ought that ‘people ought to maximise happiness’ and is only a valid argument if this ‘ought’ is true. Instances in which people infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ therefore contain an implicit ‘ought’ which the arguer is not making explicit. One cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ but one can infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and an ‘ought.
The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy defines self-ownership as “the central libertarian principle that each person is the rightful owner of his own person and powers. Each person is therefore free to use these powers as he wishes, as long as he does not direct them to harm others. Other individuals and groups cannot restrict one’s freedom without one’s consent, and one may not use one’s powers to force anyone else to supply products or services. Self-ownership is moral sovereignty, similar to human autonomy.” [p.638 in pdf]
While the analytic Marxist G.A Cohen writes in his book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality that “the libertarian principle of 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.”
Self-ownership is therefore a normative claim that a person ought to own their body as property and in virtue of this ownership have exclusive rights of control and use over their body.
The question asked of Stefan contains two questions. The first question is how does one infer from the ‘is’ statement that people exercise exclusive control over their body the universal ‘ought’ statement that people ought to exercise exclusive control over their body. The second question is how does one infer the ‘ought’ statement that people ought to own private property from the ‘is’ statement that people exercise exclusive control over their bodies. Both questions are asking Stefan, how do you infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.
Stefan’s answer is as follows:
Self-ownership being a universal principle to me would come out ‘you simple cannot argue against self-ownership without using self-ownership’. Let me say ‘I Stef reject our ability to control our own bodies’. Let’s just say I put that statement out there. Now forget about the content, everybody just chases the content as if the content just magically appeared like the ten commandments or something like that, sky written by herons with their tails on fire. Forget the content of the argument first look at the form of the argument. I Stef am saying ‘I reject the principle that we control our own bodies’ – well what have I just done, I have exercised control over my breath, larynx, my throat, my tongue, my teeth, my lips, my jaw and all of that kinda good stuff in order to make an argument. I have exercised very specific self-ownership to argue against the exercise of the possibility of self-ownership. This is a logical fail, self-detonating argument, normative contradiction (I think Stefan meant performative contradiction), whatever you want to call it. It fails.
It’s like when I look into your eyes and say ‘language has no meaning’ – I’ve just exercised the meaning of language to say that language has no meaning. It’s a self-detonating argument. Nobody can argue against self-ownership without exercising self-ownership. If I write it, if I type it, I still exercise self-ownership. It’s like people who type into a chat window that ‘it’s always unjust to have exclusive use of property’, you just typed with your keyboard, you have exclusive use of the property of the property of your keyboard to make that argument. Forget about what people say, look at the process of them saying it, that’s where the true philosophy and universality appears.
So it is logically impossible to argue against self-ownership without exercising self-ownership. That’s what makes it a universal principle, not like physics which exists independently of our mind, it’s simple you cannot argue against it, sorry, not possible. And an argument that I create that travels through the air and into your ear, I have now adjusted the property of matter, like creating sound waves, that go through the air, float into your ear, affect your thinking in one way, positively or negatively. So I have created an argument and put it out into the world and people then say Stef’s argument or your argument is correct or incorrect or whatever. But they fully recognise not only that I exercise self-ownership but I am responsible for what it is that I have put into the world, the argument is mine, it is my argument which has gone out into the world. I have created sound waves that represent my argument through the exercise of self-ownership. That self-ownership and creation of property in the outside objective world – you can’t argue against it! You can try but you’re an idiot. If you don’t understand this principle you’re not fit for philosophy.
Stefan’s response fails on a number of grounds.
Firstly, it is not answering the question. For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to the descriptive proposition that people exercise exclusive control over their bodies as bodily control. He at no point explains how it is that one can infer the proposition that people ought to exercise bodily control, that is to say self-ownership, from the fact that people do exercise bodily control. Nor does he explain how one can infer the proposition that people ought to have property rights from the proposition that people do exercise bodily control. He instead only defends the proposition that people do exercise bodily control and that since this is the case people have a right to property. Two things can be noted about this. One, Stefan is not defending self-ownership, since given the earlier definitions, self-ownership is a normative claim that people ought to own their body as property and not the descriptive claim that people exercise bodily control. Two, his answer to the question of how does one infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ itself infers the ought of property rights from the is of bodily control.
Secondly, his defence of bodily control makes the question begging fallacy. A question begging fallacy occurs when a person makes an argument in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true.
He begins with premises no reasonable person would deny e.g. people speak, people make arguments, some people make arguments for bodily control and others make arguments against bodily control. He then argues that to deny bodily control is to make an argument and therefore is to exert bodily control. He has the clear implicit premise that the only correct explanation for the facts that people speak/make arguments etc is that people control their bodies since if he did not assume this he would not draw his conclusion that bodily control is exerted in human action. He however offers no arguments for why this is the only explanation but assumes that it is as a part of an argument for bodily control and therefore an argument for why bodily control is the only correct explanation. He therefore clearly assumes the truth of bodily control is his argument for bodily control and is thus making the question begging fallacy.
Thirdly, he uses the ambiguity of language to move from the use of the word ‘responsible’ to the use of the word ‘own’ and from this argues that one creates property when one makes arguments. This appears to be because one ‘owns’ one’s arguments by which he actually means is responsible for them existing. He uses the word ‘own’ as a synonym of ‘responsible’. Therefore, Stefan is arguing that one owns what one is responsible for. It is true that a person is responsible for an argument in the sense that they are the primary cause of the argument, since they consciously willed that the argument be made and in some loose sense of the word ‘owns’ the argument as it in some sense ‘belongs’ to them. But such vague meanings of the words ‘owns’ and ‘belongs’ are very much distinct from the sense of ownership and belonging which Stefan is arguing for, which is private property. If we consistently apply the premise that people own what they are responsible for bizarre conclusions follow. A murderer is responsible for murdering a person and therefore owns their murder, a thief is responsible for stealing an apple and therefore owns their theft or Pol Pot is responsible for the Cambodian genocide and therefore owns the Cambodian genocide. Yet such statements feel intuitively queer and are demonstrable false because property rights establish rights of use and one cannot exercise rights of usage over an event which has already occurred be it sitting down or genocide. Responsibility does not therefore necessarily entail ownership.
Responsibility does not even entail property rights in instances of a person building a house with their own bare hands. This is because the descriptive fact that a person is responsible for an action and performed said action, in this case building a house, does not entail the prescriptive claim that this person ought to own the house that they created and have rightful control other the house. Stefan only argues that the person built the house and at most is recognised by others and himself as the just owner. He does not offer reasons for why it is the case that this person justly owns the house that they built.
To conclude, Stefan’s defence of self-ownership fails because a) he does not defend self-ownership but instead defends bodily control b) his defence of bodily control makes the question begging fallacy. Stefan’s defence of property rights fails because a) he infers an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and b) his argument that property is created through responsibility fails because people do not own everything which they are responsible for and descriptive claims of responsibility do not entail prescriptive claims of just ownership.
Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy  : pdf found here http://libgen.org/book/index.php?md5=110655C96DDDB1BA2B7EDAC5DEB8E72A
Stefan’s Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgmEnLkFl3o