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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 February 2020

Ben Bryan*
Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno


This essay defends duty-sensitive self-ownership, a view about the special authority people have over their bodies that is designed to capture what is attractive about self-ownership theories without the implausible stringency usually associated with them.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2020 

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For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay I’m grateful to Bill Glod, Tristan Rogers, Stephen Stich, Kevin Vallier, and workshop participants at Bowling Green State University and Chapman University. Special thanks to David Schmidtz, Bas van der Vossen, and the other contributors to this volume.


1 Vallentyne, Peter, Steiner, Hillel, and Otsuka, Michael, “Why Left-Libertarianism Is Not Incoherent, Indeterminate, Or Irrelevant: A Reply to Fried,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, no. 2 (2005): 205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In their defense of self-ownership, Vallentyne, Steiner, and Otsuka draw on the formulation of full self-ownership that G. A. Cohen gives in his well-known criticism of self-ownership. See Cohen, G. A., Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), chap. 4.Google Scholar

3 Sobel, David, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem,” in Timmons, Mark, ed., Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics: Volume 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 98122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Sobel, David, “Backing Away From Libertarian Self-Ownership,” Ethics 123, no. 1 (2012): 3260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Sobel, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem,” 118–22.

5 Mack, Eric, “Elbow Room for Rights,” in Sobel, David, Peter, Vallentyne, and Wall, Steven, ed., Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 194221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 The following discussion of Value-Sensitive Self-Ownership and the problems with it follows Sobel, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem,” 118–22.

7 Sobel, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem,” 121.

8 Ibid., 120.

9 Schmidtz, David, “Property and Justice,” Social Philosophy and Policy 27, no. 1 (2010): 82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Eric Mack, “Elbow Room for Rights,”195.

11 Mack, “Elbow Room for Rights,” 197.

12 Mack, “Elbow Room for Rights,” 199.

13 Some self-ownership theorists may be willing to bite the bullet and claim that interfering with Andy is wrong. One of the attractions of a strict conception of self-ownership is that it starts from a simple first principle and works down from there. Someone attracted to this method might be willing to accept the unsettling implications of an attractive first principle. That seems plausible enough when the stakes are relatively small; one might be willing to bite a few bullets if the principle that leads one to do so is especially attractive. I have trouble imagining, however, that any first principle is more plausible, attractive, or obvious than the claim that it is permissible to bump into someone against his will to save a million lives. I do not, however, have much to say to persuade philosophers who are willing to bite such bullets. The view I develop below will seem to them unnecessarily concessive.

14 The classic formulation of the cabin case is in Feinberg, Joel, “Voluntary Euthanasia and the Inalienable Right to Life,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 7, no. 2 (1978): 102.Google ScholarPubMed

15 It may be tempting to think that the duty of others to save Alice is what explains why others may interfere with Andy for Alice’s sake. But that won’t do the work. Others’ duties to Alice don’t obligate Andy. The fact that I have a contractual duty to deliver something to Alice by a particular time, for example, does not mean I can shove Andy out the way to deliver it on time.

16 One might worry that people who are currently unable to help can have no duty to help. I cannot fully address this here, but will note that it seems wrong to me to think that duties go away when one cannot currently act to fulfill them. If I stole something from you and am currently asleep, I have a duty to return it, which permits others to take it back from me and return it to you. We might instead say that when interference is permissible depends on what enforceable duties people would have, were they able to fulfill them. For present purposes, not a lot hinges on this difference, as duties still do the underlying work. For a fuller treatment of this matter, see Victor Tadros, “Duty and Liability,” Utilitas 24, no. 2 (2012): 264–68.

17 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 [1689]), I.42. Italics in original.CrossRefGoogle Scholar All references to Locke’s Two Treatises indicate the number of the treatise as Roman numeral, followed by the number of the section.

18 A similar duty to assist the poor (at least when they are poor by no fault of their own) seems to be presupposed by Locke’s “An Essay on the Poor Law,” Locke, John, Political Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 182–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 This view about paternalistic interferences and consent is not new. Donald VanDeVeer defends a view along these lines, arguing that we can interfere with people for their own good when they would consent if they could. He calls this “hypothetical individualized consent” (to be distinguished from hypothetical rational consent). Donald VanDeVeer, Paternalistic Intervention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 75. Nor is the view compatible only with Duty-Sensitive Self-Ownership. A self-ownership theorist who doesn’t wish to concede that we have any enforceable positive obligations could still accept this view about paternalism.

20 Of course, the fact that people have the right to destroy themselves does not mean that it is right for them to do so.

21 II.6. Italics in original.

22 Arneson, Richard, “Self-Ownership and World Ownership: Against Left-Libertarianism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 27, no. 1 (2010): 188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Arneson proposes this view as a more authentically Lockean alternative to left-libertarianism. Arneson, “Self-Ownership and World Ownership: Against Left-Libertarianism,” 192–95. Sobel cites Arneson as an example of the kind of view he has in mind when he formulates Value-Sensitive Self-Ownership. Sobel, “Self-Ownership and the Conflation Problem,” 117, note 37.

24 It’s not clear, however, that this view would place the kind of limits on people’s authority over themselves that the secularized neo-Lockean should want. Arneson suggests that the secular argument for limitations on people’s authority over their own bodies could appeal to people’s duties to themselves as rational agents (“Self-Ownership and World Ownership: Against Left-Libertarianism,” 188). It’s not obvious that self-regarding duties of this sort would have the same implications as the consequence-sensitive view Arneson proposes (unless people’s duty to themselves as rational agents is simply not to do harm to themselves beyond some threshold).

25 One might wonder why defenders of Value-Sensitive Self-Ownership cannot make sense of this by claiming that only people’s other-regarding behavior is sensitive to values. The problem with this view is that it is difficult to square with the idea that it is value that does the work in justifying interferences with people’s bodies. According to Value-Sensitive Self-Ownership, what makes an interference with someone’s body permissible is that the interference produces sufficiently good consequences in comparison to the costs. Claiming that other-regarding affairs are value-sensitive and that self-regarding affairs are not, however, means claiming that the value of states of affairs sometimes can and sometimes cannot justify our interfering with someone. If the costs and benefits of an interference with someone for their own sake and the costs and benefits of another interference with them for someone else’s sake are precisely the same, then to support the claim that one of these interferences is permissible and the other is not, one would have to appeal to something other than the value of the resulting states of affairs. The most obvious story to tell is that there are some outcomes that people have duties to produce and others that they do not. But to accept that story is just to accept a form of Duty-Sensitive Self-Ownership, on which people have a duty to promote good outcomes for others, when the goodness of the outcomes exceeds some threshold in comparison to the cost. (This form of Duty-Sensitive Self-Ownership, however, has the same unsettling implications about aggregation that Value-Sensitive Self-Ownership has.)

26 Mack, “Elbow Room for Rights,” 199–200.

27 Mack, “Elbow Room for Rights,” 198. He explores this style of argument in more detail in relation to property in Mack, Eric, “The Natural Right of Property,” Social Philosophy and Policy 27, no. 1 (2010): 5378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 Singer, Peter, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972): 229–43.Google Scholar

29 I owe this observation to Sarah Stroud, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” in Timmons, Mark, ed., Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics: Volume 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 206207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 This view might have more plausible implications about cases than views like Singer’s, on which we have extremely demanding views about duties to rescue. As Sarah Stroud has pointed out (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” 232–33), while easy rescue seems required if we look at individual cases, it’s not so obvious that people are obligated to help when such cases are iterated. If someone lives by a shallow pond, it’s not clear that they do wrong by not spending every waking moment of every day saving lives. If it’s difficult to show that we are morally required to help in such cases, it’s harder still to make the case that this duty is enforceable and other people are morally permitted to make us help.

31 For example, we might worry, as Sobel does in a reply to Mack, that the fundamental right to live one’s life one’s own way is too vague or needs further working out in order to do the kind of work Mack would need it to do. See David Sobel, “The Point of Self-Ownership,” in Schmidtz, David and Pavel, Carmen E., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Freedom, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 124–40.Google Scholar

32 Locke, Two Treatises, II.4. Italics in original.

33 Locke, Two Treatises, II.6.

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