The Self-Ownership Illusion - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Self-Ownership Illusion

Well it certainly seems like we own ourselves.  But do we?

For the Christian, the answer is simple. As 1 Corinthians 6 teaches us, “or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”  Since we were created by God to glorify God, we cannot claim to own ourselves.  We can debate about whether we are free to choose whether or not to believe in God, but the Bible makes it clear what our claims to self-ownership are worth.

Yet there is convincing evidence for the nonbeliever as well.  Indeed, the concept of full self-ownership is misguided and dangerous.  Consider a fetus.  Even before she is born, she relies on another.  Once she is born, she is in almost constant interaction with other human beings.  It is not a stretch to say that she immediately has certain obligations to some or all of these fellow persons and they to her.  She is helpless on her own.  She cannot reject the help of others, even if she so desired.  As she grows up, she gets a job.  She might not realize it, but in doing so she relies on public infrastructure, national defense, the international economy, and countless other things.  Herein lies the confusion of self-ownership.  It’s easy to think we own ourselves and our labor on a personal level.  Yet when we look at the workings of the economy, our societal relations, and the world as a whole, how can we ignore our vast interconnectedness and universal reliance on others?  So many things are out of our control.

The illusion of self-ownership eats away at the fabric of our society.  Without obligations to others, we become isolated rational actors, without hope for community, altruism, or morality.  While living in a capitalist, liberal, technologically advanced society, we act like we own ourselves and live in a state of nature.

The other extreme is flawed as well.  Many theories of justice, most notably John Rawls’, assume that everything we produce is part of a joint social product, which should then be divided “fairly.”  Yet this account does not get human nature right either.  While self-ownership makes everything private, these theories make everything public.  Now, don’t think I’m misconstruing the Rawlsian claim.  He does not advocate for equality of welfare.  Rather, the error of his view is in its assumption of a joint social product.  It is in the idea that we all start out deserving equality from “society.”  Yet his definition of society fails to take into account place, culture, commonality. Instead, he talks in universal terms about abstract society and what we owe to that society– however large and disconnected from our real community.

What both fail to grab is the duty owed to one’s place, one’s community. In the first instance, we have a duty only to ourselves. In the second, to some abstract notion of society. Both fail to grasp the truth.

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