One of the first things many anarcho-capitalists and right-libertarians say when they come across people who claim not to own themselves is to ask questions like ‘do you control your body?’ In doing so they seem to believe that if you answer yes then you believe in self-ownership and that if you answer no then you do not believe in self-ownership and so believe that people should be free to do whatever they want to others, such as murdering or raping. The idea being that any sensible person will accept self-ownership since they don’t want their beliefs to entail that immoral actions are permissible. Both of these claims are false.
Before I explain why I must first define self-ownership. Rothbard defines self-ownership most clearly as “the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.” For Rothbard “man has rights because they are natural rights.” A natural right is a right that an individual possesses irrespective of the right being enforced, recognised or there even being any mechanism of right enforcement. Thus to say that a person owns themselves is to say that they possess a natural right to exclusively control and hence own their body as property and in virtue of this ownership have a right to be free from coercion.
I shall now explain why both claims are false. The first claim is false because control and just ownership are distinct things. For example, the fact that a thief controls a bicycle does not negate the fact that someone else owns the bike. This is because ownership is not determined exclusively by control but also by individuals having the normative right to control. In the case of the thief, she cannot claim to own the bike not because she does not control the bike but because she lacks the normative right to do so. It is therefore not sufficient in an argument for ownership to merely point to the fact that a particular individual controls their body. One must offer arguments for why people ought to control their body and specifically for advocates of self-ownership, why people possess the natural right to control their body. Another reason why it does not follow from the fact that people do control their bodies that they ought to control their bodies is that to make this claim is to invalidly infer an ought from an is. Thus, one can quite consistently claim that one controls their body while nonetheless believing that they don’t possess a right to exclusively use and control it.
From this it follows that if by self-ownership we mean being able to control one’s body then self-ownership can no longer be used to argue for anarcho-capitalism and right-libertarianism. This is because a conservative could easily concede that people control their bodies while nonetheless insisting that the state ought to prevent people from engaging in homosexual acts, or a social democratic could concede that people control their bodies while arguing that private companies ought to be regulated by the state. It is because of this that anarcho-capitalists and right-libertarians must make sure to not conflate the ‘is’ of bodily control with the ‘ought’ of self-ownership.
The second claim is false for two reasons. The first reason is that it does not follow from the fact that people do not possess free will that people are morally insignificant and that there are no reasons not to interfere with other people. I shall demonstrate this with an analogy. It is arguable the case that sheep do not possess free will, but it does not follow from this alone that there are no reasons why people ought not to harm sheep. Since even though the sheep does not possess free will it can still suffer and this fact gives us reason to believe that sheep are morally significant in a way that a non living object such as a sock isn’t. Likewise, humans remain morally significant even if they do not possess free will, as they can still suffer and have their preferences violated. Given the moral significance of people, one could argue that people ought not to be interfered with, providing that they do not coerce others, because this has good consequences, such as people not suffering as a result of being coerced. The second reason is that that there is no contradiction between rejecting free will and accepting a very similar claim to self-ownership. One can argue that while it is true that people do not control their bodies people nonetheless possess a natural right to not be coerced because such a natural right does not rest on the truth of free will. Therefore, one can argue from a natural rights perspective and from a consequentialist perspective that people ought not to interfere with one another even if it is not the case that they freely control their bodies.
In summary, asking the question ‘do you control your body?’ is not an effective means of arguing for self-ownership because the answer yes entails control not self-ownership and the answer no does not entail that people should be free to do whatever they want.