Some political theorists think we own ourselves. The idea is especially prominent among libertarians, who often claim to find it in John Locke, the English social contract thinker who so powerfully influenced the American founders. Just for these reasons, some readers might be interested in the following after-the-bell conversation.
I’m sorry to say that it was interrupted, because my student had to go to his next class and I had to go to mine. But it stopped at an interesting point. I’ve cleaned up the ums and ahs and made the transitions cleaner.
“Prof, I thought you said during class today that you disagreed with people who say that John Locke based rights on self-ownership. Would you please go over that again?”
“Sure,” I said. “Early in his book, Locke says we have rights because we don’t own ourselves. He says that ultimately, each of us belongs to God. You have rights against me because I’m not to treat you as though I own you. I have rights against you because you’re not to treat me as though you own me.”
“But doesn’t he say later that we do own ourselves? I mean in his big chapter about acquiring property. I’m reading that in another course.”
“I don’t think so. As I read him, what he actually says in the chapter about property is that we own the fruits of our own labor because God authorizes us to appropriate things from the common stock of nature.”
“But saying that we own our own labor seems like saying that we own ourselves. What if he really does think we own ourselves?”
“Well,” I answered, “in that case he would hold two conflicting theories of rights at the same time, wouldn’t he? And they can’t both be right. One, in the earlier part of the book, says I have rights because I belong to God -- He’s sovereign. The other, in the chapter on property, says I have rights because I belong to myself – I’m sovereign.”
“So which theory do you think he really believes in?”
“I can’t read his long-deceased mind, but I would like to think he believes in the first one.”
“Why would you like to think that?”
“Just because it’s a better one.”
My student seemed surprised.
“Really? Why would you say it’s a better one?”
“Because if each of us is sovereign, then each of us can do whatever he can get away with. That wouldn’t be an explanation of how we have rights, but of how we don’t have rights. No matter what the other fellow is doing to you, you haven’t any moral claim that he not do it. All you can do is try to stop him -- and he’ll try to stop you from stopping him.”
“I see that. Hmm. It does look like maybe the first theory would make more sense.”
He considered a moment further.
“But so what if it’s a better theory?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that people today aren’t going to be comfortable with having God in the picture.”
“Maybe some people won’t be,” I said. “But what if He’s already in the picture?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I mean that what to do if people are uncomfortable with God is an important question – but it’s a different one than the one we’ve been asking. Who we really belong to doesn’t depend on whether God makes us uncomfortable. Does it?”
Like every conversation, this one is presumably
To Be Continued