Self-ownership and the labour theory of property

V0003665 John Locke. Mezzotint by J. Smith, 1721, after Sir G. Knelle

In his Second Treatise, John Locke states the following criterion of appropriation (hereinafter W):

Whatsoever then he [man] removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. (Locke, 1690, § 27)

In this article I intend to defend the following argument:

(1) If W were valid, slavery would, in some cases, be morally justifiable

(2) but W is not valid, therefore

(3) Slavery cannot be justified on the basis of W

W is accepted almost universally by libertarian philosophers, and not only by them. If we take it as valid, however, it is possible to justify at least two forms of slavery:

1) The slavery of the human race towards God (assuming that God exists)

2) Child slavery to parents

Let us consider the first possibility. If God has created me, it follows that according to W my body does not belong to me, but to him. But then I cannot do what I want to do without his permission. For example, I cannot commit suicide. As Thomas Aquinas says:

Life is God’s gift to man, and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God, even as he who kills another’s slave, sins against that slave’s master, and as he who usurps to himself judgment of a matter not entrusted to him. (STh., II-II, q. 64, a. 5)

For the same reason, God, if He so wishes, can kill me (directly or through an intermediary person), even without just cause, for the same reason that I can destroy for no reason the furniture of my house. Aquinas writes that:

When Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God. “Who is Lord of life and death […] and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be.” (STh., II-II, q. 100, a. 8, ad 3)

Therefore, God can kill me, while I do not have the right to commit suicide, because, basically, I do not possess my body. My body was lent to me by God. I can inhabit and use it, but not destroy it. If I destroy it, it is as if I had killed a slave who is not mine. Now, if my body belongs to another, this means that I am essentially a slave.

The same conclusion can be reached by following the other possibility: that my parents are my legitimate owners. That they have generated me is an indisputable fact. It seems, therefore, that by accepting W, we have a strong argument in favour of parental ownership. The Roman institution of the patria potestas perfectly implemented this rule, making a child a slave. Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes that:

The lawgiver of the Romans gave virtually full power to the father over his son, even during his whole life, whether he thought proper to imprison him, to scourge him, to put him in chains and keep him at work in the fields, or to put him to death, and this even though the son were already engaged in public affairs, though he were numbered among the highest magistrates, and though he were celebrated for his zeal for the commouwealth. (Dion Hal., Ant. Rom., 2.26)

If the patria potestas is ethically justifiable, then having a child is the same thing as having a shovel.

W says that if I produce one thing, then I can say that it is mine. Now, there are cases where this seems to be true. Suppose that A takes home a block of marble to make a statue. In this case it seems quite reasonable to think that the statue is hers because she produced it with her work. But suppose then we find out that the block of marble from which she carved the statue was taken away secretly from the studio of sculptor B. Would it always be A’s statue? Obviously not because, in this case, the owner of the marble would have been defrauded of something that belonged to him: the marble on which A worked.

Can we at least say that A became co-owner of that piece of marble, since he sculpted it to obtain a statue? Not even. Rather, A should compensate B for the damage he has suffered. In fact, working his marble prevented him from doing what he wanted to do with it. This means that W is ineffective if the raw material that is worked is not already possessed by the worker.

Now let us suppose that A, instead of stealing the marble block from B, finds it in an uninhabited island. In this case the statue would be hers, without a doubt (and that is why Locke says that the thing must be removed “from the common state nature hath placed it in”). But – and this is the fundamental point – the statue would belong to A even before being produced: not as a statue, obviously, but as a block of marble, according to the principle of original appropriation. It is not, therefore, through work that A appropriates the statue. When the marble is worked, appropriation has already taken place. What is true of the statue also applies to people. The fact that I was generated by my parents does not give them any title of ownership over me.

It can be said: your parents have not only done the “work” necessary to put you into the world; they have also made available the raw material from which you are derived, that is, the spermatozoon and the egg. This material was from your parents before you were conceived. Is this not an argument in favour of parental responsibility? No, because from an ethical point of view, generation is the transfer of an unwanted asset.

I would like to clarify the meaning of this statement from a case that really happened to the philosopher David Hume. Hume had a house in Edinburgh that he rented to a friend who, in turn, sublet it to another person. On his own initiative and without consulting Hume, this person called a craftsman to make repairs at home. He then presented the bill to Hume, who refused to pay, because he had not given his consent to the works. This ended up in court. Hume defended himself by saying that if accept the principle according to which the beneficiary is obliged to pay for a work that he did not require, then any craftsman could have made unsolicited repairs in Edinburgh’s houses and then sent the bill to the owners.

Let us now look at a similar but imaginary case. Suppose a Marxist philosopher makes me have his own book without me having asked him for it, and then he expects to be paid. Do I have a duty to do so? No, for the simple reason that I have never asked him to send me his book. Assuming that a Marxist’s book is an object I like, I can have the obligation to thank him for the courtesy received. But my duty stops there. I am certainly not obliged to pay it.

Something very similar happens with the generation. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to come to the world. My parents have generated me freely, and I did not ask them to do so. They have made parts of their bodies available for me to begin my journey into life. But this transfer of assets, as in the two previous cases, also takes place without a request from the beneficiary. I did not ask to be born, for the obvious reason that I wasn’t there when mine decided to conceive myself. Of course, I have a duty to show gratitude to my parents for the fact that they have generated me, and also for having nurtured and looked after me. But I have no obligation to compensate them, let alone to work as a slave for them.

If what has been said is true so far, it follows that self-ownership begins with the first appearance of inner life. Before then we have, so to speak, an empty house placed at the disposal of parents waiting to be occupied by his first and only tenant. When the “home” is occupied, we no longer have a simple object, but a person, that is, a subject with rights.

Now, not only does this person not have a duty to indemnify his parents, but it is the parents who have obligations towards him. Again:he did not ask them to be born. But now that he has been put into the world, he needs care, because he is not able to look after himself, nor will he be able to look after himself for many years to come. The responsibility for this care falls entirely on the shoulders of those who have decided to put it into the world, and continues until such time as that person will not be able to dispose of himself, his actions and his possessions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities

Locke, John (1690), An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent, and End of Civil Government.

Thomas Aquinatis, Summa theologiae

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