Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-pcn4s Total loading time: 0.434 Render date: 2022-05-23T05:36:53.997Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2010

Daniel C. Russell
Philosophy, Wichita State University


Many libertarians believe that self-ownership is a separate matter from ownership of extra-personal property. “No-proviso” libertarians hold that property ownership should be free of any “fair share” constraints (e.g., the Lockean Proviso), on the grounds that the inability of the very poor to control property leaves their self-ownership intact. By contrast, left-libertarians hold that while no one need compensate others for owning himself, still property owners must compensate others for owning extra-personal property. What would a “self” have to be for these claims to be true? I argue that both of these camps must conceive of the boundaries of the self as including one's body but no part of the extra-personal world. However, other libertarians draw those boundaries differently, so that self-ownership cannot be separated from the right to control extra-personal property after all. In that case, property ownership must be subject to a fair share constraint, but that constraint does not require appropriators to pay compensation. This view, which I call “right libertarianism,” differs importantly from the other types primarily in its conception of the self, which I argue is independently more plausible.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 For fairly typical discussions, see Vallentyne, Peter, “Libertarianism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised 2006, sec. 1Google Scholar; Taylor, Robert, “Self-Ownership and the Limits of Libertarianism,” Social Theory and Practice 31, no. 4 (2005): 465482, at 466–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Steiner, Hillel, An Essay on Rights (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 231Google Scholar.

3 See Rasmussen, Douglas and Den Uyl, Douglas, Norms of Liberty (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 209Google Scholar; and Mack, Eric, “How to Derive Libertarian Rights,” in Paul, Jeffrey, ed., Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), 288Google Scholar.

4 See, e.g., Van Parijs, Philippe, Real Freedom for All (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 1Google Scholar.

5 See Narveson, Jan, “Original Appropriation and Lockean Provisos,” Public Affairs Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1999): 205–27, at 214–15Google Scholar, who says that it is possible to read the proviso more narrowly as a ban on interfering with the use of extrapersonal goods already underway. But this strikes me as a theory of property—viz. that engaging with some such good is sufficient to gain title to it—rather than a constraint on property. In any case, even Narveson (p. 222) acknowledges that the “original intent” of the proviso has to do with fair shares. See also Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 176Google Scholar.

6 See Schechtman, Marya, The Constitution of Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; McKenzie, Catriona, “Personal Identity, Narrative Integration, and Embodiment,” in Campbell, Sue, Meynell, Letitia, and Sherwin, Susan, eds., Embodiment and Agency (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. Identity of this sort corresponds also to what Richard Sorabji calls sometimes “persona” and sometimes “identity”; see Sorabji, Richard, Self (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 On self-ownership and personal identity, see Feser, Edward, “Personal Identity and Self-Ownership,” Social Philosophy and Policy 22, no. 2 (2005): 100125Google Scholar.

8 Russell, Daniel C., “Happiness and Agency in the Stoics and Aristotle,” Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 22 (2009): 83112CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This section draws on several of the arguments I made in that article.

9 Seneca, Letters 113.23. See Annas, Julia, Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 99100Google Scholar.

10 Epictetus, , The Discourses, ed. Gill, Christopher, trans. Hard, Robin (London: Everyman, 1995), 1.1.23Google Scholar; italics in the original.

11 For discussion, see Gallagher, Shaun, “Dimensions of Embodiment: Body Image and Body Schema in Medical Contexts,” in Toombs, S. Kay, ed., Handbook of Phenomenology and Medicine (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001)Google Scholar.

12 See Gallagher, “Dimensions of Embodiment”; and Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Smith, Colin (New York: Routledge, 2002)Google Scholar. See also Johnson, Mark, The Mind in the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)Google Scholar, who argues that rationality and meaning involve “image-schematic structures of imagination that are extended and figuratively elaborated as abstract structures of meaning and patterns of thought,” and as such are among the “principle means by which the body (i.e., physical experience and its structures) works its way up into the mind” (pp. xxxvi–xxxvii).

13 Rybarczyk, Bruce, Nyenhuis, David L., Nicholas, John J., Cash, Susan M., and Kaiser, James, “Body Image, Perceived Social Stigma, and the Prediction of Psychological Adjustment to Leg Amputation,” Rehabilitation Psychology 40, no. 2 (1995): 95110CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Behel, J. M., Rybarczyk, B., Elliott, T. R., Nicholas, J. J., and Nyenhuis, D. L., “The Role of Perceived Vulnerability in Adjustment to Lower Extremity Amputation,” Rehabilitation Psychology 47, no. 1 (2002): 92105CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Fukunishi, Isao, “Relationship of Cosmetic Disfigurement to the Severity of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Burn Injury or Digital Amputation,” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 68, no. 2 (1999): 8286CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

15 See S. Kay Toombs, “Reflections on Bodily Change,” in Toombs, ed., Handbook of Phenomenology and Medicine.

16 I thank Mark LeBar for this way of putting the point.

17 Toombs, “Reflections on Bodily Change,” 254.

18 Indeed, note that the self behind John Rawls's veil of ignorance is stripped down even further than the formalized self as I have described it here. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971)Google Scholar.

19 For the idea that having rights like those associated with self-ownership is not the same thing as having those rights in virtue of being a self-owner, see also Steiner, An Essay on Rights, chapter 7, esp. 231, 245.

20 Narveson, Jan, “Libertarianism vs. Marxism: Reflections on G. A. Cohen's Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality,Journal of Ethics 2, no. 1 (1998): 126, at 21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Narveson, “Libertarianism vs. Marxism,” 21; see also Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 177; Rothbard, Murray, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982), 36Google Scholar; Mack, Eric, “Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism, Part II: Challenges to the Self-Ownership Thesis,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 1, no. 2 (1995): 243–44, at 247–49Google Scholar; and Schmidtz, David Schmidtz in and Goodin, Robert, Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 220–21.

23 Narveson, “Libertarianism vs. Marxism,” 6–9, 23.

24 Ibid., 4.

25 Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 215. See also Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 33–34, 41, 47, 56, 59, 64.

26 Likewise, Edward Feser argues that in order for one's use of some extrapersonal good to be protected as a matter of justice, one must have already engaged with that good so as to transform it in some significant way. See Feser, Edward, “There Is No Such Thing as an Unjust Initial Acquisition,” Social Philosophy and Policy 22, no. 1 (2005): 5680, at 61–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 214–15.

28 Narveson, “Libertarianism vs. Marxism,” 22; emphasis in the original.

29 Ibid., 22–23.

30 For example, G. A. Cohen argues that the poor do have a gun to their heads, “held by the state, whose protection of the property to which they are coercively denied access renders their freedom meager.” See Cohen, G. A., “Once More into the Breach of Self-Ownership: Reply to Narveson and Brenkert,” Journal of Ethics 2, no. 1 (1998): 5996, at 74Google Scholar.

31 Mack, Eric, “Self-Ownership and the Right of Property,” The Monist 73, no. 4 (1990): 519543, at 528CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Cohen, “Once More into the Breach,” 62–67.

33 See Mack, Eric, “The Self-Ownership Proviso: A New and Improved Lockean Proviso,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12, no. 1 (1995): 186218CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Schmidtz and Goodin, Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility, chapter 1.2.

35 Steiner, Hillel, “How Equality Matters,” Social Philosophy and Policy 19, no. 1 (2002): 342–56, at 351CrossRefGoogle Scholar; emphasis in the original.

36 And this is exactly what Narveson (“Original Appropriation,” 219) says: “given liberalism, we do not primordially own the world—only ourselves. And even that isn't primordial. We must argue even for that.” That is why Narveson can no longer hold the view that “a right to our persons as our property is the sole fundamental right there is”; see Narveson, Jan, The Libertarian Idea (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1988), 66Google Scholar; emphasis in the original.

37 Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 219. Here he fares better than Rothbard (The Ethics of Liberty, 99–100), who holds that parents own their children, although this ownership must be temporary and of a “trustee” sort, since “it surely would be grotesque for a libertarian who believes in the right of self-ownership to advocate the right of a parent to murder or torture his or her children.” Fair enough, but of course the whole question is whether children are self-owners in the first place.

38 See Mack, “The Self-Ownership Proviso,” 186, 189, 201.

39 See Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, chapter 6.

40 Rasmussen and Den Uyl, Norms of Liberty, chapter 9. See also Arneson, Richard, “Lockean Self-Ownership: Towards a Demolition,” Political Studies 39, no. 1 (1991): 3654CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brenkert, Robert, “Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Autonomy,” Journal of Ethics 2, no. 1 (1998): 2755 at 52–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohen, “Once More into the Breach,” 94–95.

41 Rasmussen and Den Uyl, Norms of Liberty, 89, 90, 98–100.

42 Ibid., 80–81, 133–34.

43 Ibid., 87.

44 Ibid., 98, 100.

45 Ibid., 106.

46 Ibid., 303–11; see esp. 306–8.

47 Otsuka, Michael, Libertarianism Without Inequality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Ibid., 19–21.

49 Ibid., 24.

50 Ibid., 25.

51 Ibid., 11.

52 Ibid., 27, quoting Arneson, Richard, “Primary Goods Reconsidered,” Noûs 24, no. 3 (1990): 429–54, at 448CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Otsuka, Libertarianism Without Inequality, 35–38.

54 Ibid., 38–39.

55 See, e.g., Long, Roderick, “Land-Locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 20, no. 1 (2006): 8795, at 90–91Google Scholar.

56 Mack, “Self-Ownership and the Right of Property,” esp. 534.

57 Otsuka, Libertarianism Without Inequality, 19–21.

58 This strong separation of self-ownership and extrapersonal ownership is particularly clear in 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): 201–15, at 201, 208–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who note that the egalitarian dimension of left-libertarianism is distinct from its libertarian dimension (i.e., self-ownership), and that these two dimensions are based on respect for the moral status of different things (things and persons, respectively).

59 This amounts to what Vallentyne (“Libertarianism”) calls “unilateralist” left-libertarianism. I shall not discuss the non-unilateralist alternative of joint world ownership, since it is generally—and, I think, rightly—held to be inconsistent with self-ownership; see, e.g., Cohen, G. A., Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mack, “Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism, Part II,” 243–44, 250–51; and Vallentyne, “Libertarianism.” For a dissenting view, see Jedenheim-Edling, Magnus, “The Compatibility of Effective Self-Ownership and Joint World Ownership,” Journal of Political Philosophy 13, no. 3 (2005): 284304CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 We can therefore set aside Steiner's worries (An Essay on Rights, 249–61) about giving a Hohfeldian analysis of the right of bequest as a right of deceased persons; for even if there turned out to be no such thing as a right of bequest, it would follow only that one could not make compensation for removing goods from the commons by giving up that right. It would not show that no such compensation is called for.

61 Steiner, An Essay on Rights, 235–36.

62 See also Vallentyne, Steiner, and Otsuka, “Why Left-Libertarianism Is Not Incoherent,” 209: Steiner holds “that unchosen germ-line genetic information is a natural resource and thus among the items subject to egalitarian ownership.”

63 Steiner, An Essay on Rights, 277.

64 See Hursthouse, Rosalind, “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 20, no. 3 (1991): 223–46Google ScholarPubMed.

65 Van Parijs, Real Freedom for All, 22–25.

66 Ibid., 9.

67 Ibid., 38.

68 To put this another way, a world in which ownership is constrained by agent-neutral welfarist values is not safe for self-owners. See Mack, “Self-Ownership and the Right of Property”; Mack, Eric, “Agent-Relativity of Value, Deontic Restraints, and Self-Ownership,” in Frey, R. G. and Morris, Christopher W., eds., Value, Welfare, and Morality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; and Mack, Eric, “Moral Individualism and Libertarian Theory,” in Machan, Tibor R. and Rasmussen, Douglas B., eds., Liberty for the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Libertarian Thought (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995)Google Scholar.

69 Mack, “Self-Ownership and the Right of Property,” 532–33; emphasis in the original. See also Mack, “The Self-Ownership Proviso,” 199.

70 See esp. Mack, “Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism, Part II,” and Mack, “The Self-Ownership Proviso.”

71 We saw a similar point made by Narveson in Section IV. See also Schmidtz and Goodin, Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility, chapter 1.2.

72 Russell, Daniel, “Locke on Land and Labor,” Philosophical Studies 117, nos. 1-2 (2004): 303–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 See also Mack, “The Self-Ownership Proviso,” 191, 209, 212–14, 218; Mack, Eric, “Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism, Part I: Challenges to Historical Entitlement,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 1, no. 1 (2002): 75108, at 98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mack, “Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism, Part II,” 245; Feser, “There Is No Such Thing as an Unjust Initial Acquisition”; and Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 221, 223.

74 See also Mack, “Self-Ownership and the Right of Property.”

75 I thank Ed Feser and Fred Miller, respectively, for raising these queries.

76 Narveson, “Original Appropriation,” 225 n. 2.

77 I thank Dave Schmidtz for raising this concern, and for the thought experiment.

78 I thank Tom Christiano for raising this concern.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *