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Libertarianism, Egalitarianism, and Self-Ownership's Many Sides:
A Bibliographic Analysis Essay
Jennifer Borgerding
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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This paper will focus on the scholarship of the Libertarian and Egalitarian views of self-ownership and the contrast and similarities between them. The idea of self-ownership has been a controversial discussion since John Locke's casual reference to it in his First Treatise in the 18th century, and continues to be a heated debate between the afore mentioned groups. The most neutral interpretation found describes self-ownership as the principle that "distributes property rights to persons such that each person is allocated himself as his property" (Attas 2). Although the purpose of the author who developed this definition is to disprove both Egalitarian and Libertarian views, Daniel Attas also provides simplistic yet accurate descriptions of each group in his article, "Freedom and Self-Ownership". Attas marks the Libertarians as those who when the question arises of who should control which object, with regards to persons, it is settled naturally by the principle of self-ownership (1). While he claims Egalitarians are extremists with the idea and must accommodate it to their political moral theory at every level, and have taken much retribution to reconcile the principle with "radical distributive measures" (1).

Ronald Dworkin, author of "Sovereign Virtue" and self proclaimed Egalitarian, promotes his version of self-ownership through an equal society. "A political community must treat all its members as equals, that is, with equal concern and respect, and it must respect that sovereign requirement not only in its design of economic institutions and practices, but in its conception of freedom, of community, and of political democracy as well" (106). Because Dworkin understands that transitioning from an already established unequal society to his utopia would be quite difficult, he spends a great part of his article proposing "construct conceptions" to various political virtues and integrating politics with general accounts of ethics (107). His main aim through this is to convey why it is important for the human life to be successful and exactly what success in life means (107). However, "some people are the victims of luck" (Otsuka 40).

Michael Otsuka, renowned Libertarian and author of "Luck, Insurance, and Equality," refutes Dworkin heavily on the issues of self-ownership through complete equality and argues that "luck is at the source of many of the differences in the circumstances of individuals" (40). While Dworkin may have radical ideas, he set them to reality by compensating two kinds of luck: "Option luck," which is the consequences from a deliberate, calculated gamble that could have been declined by the persons of the gamble, and "Brute luck," which is "a matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles" (Dworkin qtd. in Otsuka 40). Oddly enough, Otsuka agrees with Dworkin on these points but continues to refute Dworkin on how they are applied to society. And although Otsuka uses little resources to support his claims, he manages to discredit Dworkin's complete work by maintaining that his ideals are unrealistic and inapplicable to today's society.

Another author that challenges the views of Dworkin, Mathew Clayton, successfully does so in the article "Liberal Equality and Ethics". He states that "Dworkin's conception of distributive justice, equality of resources, requires equality in the distribution of impersonal resources and compensation for personal resource deficits, or their consequences, to be determined by a fair hypothetical insurance scheme" (8). However, instead of relying heavily on the aspects of luck discussed between Dworkin and Otsuka, Clayton focuses more on the envy test devised by Dworkin. Although Dworkin's work is highly esteemed among Egalitarian philosophers, another writer on the subject, John Christman, takes a different approach to the Egalitarian concepts of self-ownership. He accomplishes this by exploring the concept and structure of ownership, presenting a strong argument for discarding the libertarian conception of property, presenting his alternative conception of ownership, and by exploring the implications of his alternative.

The principle of self-ownership has been a difficult sticking point for egalitarians because, while they must acknowledge the force of this principle, the also see that individuals are born with different talents and skills. Hence, allowing individuals to exercise their talents freely- an implication of self-ownership- implies under most conditions severe material inequalities will arise. Some egalitarians, in pointing out the moral arbitrariness of differential talents, simply deny self-ownership by assuming the public ownership of skills. Others in the tradition are more troubled by the conflict between equality and the undeniable intuitive force of the self-ownership postulate. However, this conflict is diminished, if not eliminated, when control ownership and income ownership are properly relegated to their separate normative spheres (147). In this paragraph, Christman uses references from Cohen and Dworkin to successfully frame his solution to the egalitarian stigmas of self-ownership.

While not a self-proclaimed Egalitarian, G. A. Cohen challenges the Libertarian concepts in his book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cohen's main purpose is to negate the scholar Robert Nozick on all fronts in his Libertarian defense of capitalism. Cohen uses an effective, deductive method of analysis that examines Nozick's arguments. Cohen explains that even if property rights have been achieved fairly, they frequently lead to an unacceptable amount of power over others. Therefore, Cohen explains that capitalist Libertarianism sacrifices the liberty of those who lack the conditions and power necessary for achieving true freedom between persons. Or as Cohen bluntly put it "each person possesses over himself, as a matter of moral right, all those rights that a slave holder has over a complete chattel slave as a matter of legal right, and he is entitled, morally speaking, to dispose over himself in a way such a slaveholder is entitled, legally speaking, to dispose over his slave" (68). Daniel Attas discusses Cohen's version of self-ownership in terms of P and X, and claims there is a negative and positive side to his conception. The negative being that:

Although P owns X, P may not use X in a way that involves the use of an object owned by another without that person's consent; and since P owns X, others may not use X in any way without P's consent. The principle of self-ownership that endows everyone with property right in himself implies, therefore, that: a self owning P may not use himself in a way that involves the use of any other self owning person without that person's consent and no one may use P in any way without his consent. (2) And what Attas finds positive about Cohen concept of Self-Ownership: If P owns X (and any income deriving from X) then: P may use X or consent to others using X in any way subject only to restriction; and P may dispose of or destroy X or consent to others disposing of or destroying X; and P may transfer his property right to X to another. Note that P may do any of either in exchange for others using or transferring their property in specified ways or unilaterally (2).

Attas's formulation of the self-ownership concept and the specific details it includes puts into perspective what all self-ownership implies, and thoroughly explains in a few simple paragraphs what some scholars took entire books to explain. Attas then points out that although the concepts of self-ownership are rarely argued for (an odd statement since much of his research is from people who are advocates of the concepts), the assumption should not be made that they are self-evident. Apparently, proponents of self-ownership, specifically Libertarians, resort to an appeal of intuitions attempting to strengthen their convictions for the notion of self-ownership to make it an adequate formulation of their moral outlook (2). Attas then proceeds to negate the "proponents" Levine, J.J. Thomson, Robert Nozick, and S. Munzer to prove his reasoning.

An author Attas agrees with, Hillel Steiner, brings up an important occurrence with rights today that may affect the views of Egalitarians and Libertarians alike. In his article "The Natural Right to the Means of Production", he brings up the recent explosion of rights (41), that is, making the word "rights" synonymous with interests of benefit. "Any justice principle that delivers a set of rights yielding contradictory judgments about the permissibility of a particular action either is unrealizable or must be modified to be realizable" (45). This kind of thinking infringes on older human rights that the classic liberals, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Locke, had fought for: the rights to life, liberty, and property (or the pursuit of happiness). Steiner then extends his argument to the more specific arena of property rights which, when well defined, informs people about what they may do with reference to particular material objects. This is where Attas starts to disagree with Steiner, because from his introduction to property Steiner then moves to his defense of " classical laisser faire liberalism of the natural rights-based kind" (46). This kind of thinking keeps definite lines between rights and interests and stresses less dependence on the government.

And lastly, a scholar who seeks to unite Egalitarians and Libertarians in his article "Self-Ownership and Equality: Brute Luck, Gifts, Universal Dominance, and Leximin", Peter Vallentyne. Although he starts his article by leaning heavily on the views of Egalitarians and the works of Van Parijs, he leads up to framing Egalitarian Liberalism. "Egalitarian Liberalism: Subject to the (nonempty) constraints imposed by a plausible conception of self-ownership, equality should be efficiently promoted" (323). To further advance the Egalitarian Liberalism concept, Vallentyne invents terms that distinguish luck and gifts. "The initial endowment of an agent consists of his or her (internal, nontransferable) personal endowment (capacities, vulnerabilities, etc.) and (external, transferable) situational endowment (wealth, situational opportunities, etc.) at the onset of adulthood (psychological autonomy)" (329). The definitions he uses for luck, brute and optional, he cited from Ronald Dworkin. Although this article is a thorough analysis of mostly Egalitarianism, it covers more than the strict aspects of it and seeks to unite the two feuding halves.

Although the works of both Egalitarians and Libertarians have well-formed arguments, it is difficult for an outsider to choose one side or the other. While the Egalitarians seek equality for all in a utopian society, it is unrealistic and almost impossible to apply to society. And the Libertarians seek to keep things mostly as they are in today's society when not all is well with ownership as pointed out by Hillel Steiner. While both sides argue it is probably best to take the side of Daniel Attas who sides with neither while picking up their good as well as bad concepts of self-ownership.

Works Cited

Attas, Daniel. "Freedom and Self-Ownership." Social Theory and Practice 26.1 (2000): 1-23. Proquest. Oklahoma State University Library. Article 55126734. 30 Sept. 2003 http://proquest.umi.com.

Christman, John. The Myth of Property: Toward an Egalitarian Theory of Ownership. New York: Oxford U P, 1994.

Clayton, Mathew. "Liberal Equality and Ethics." Ethics 113 (2002): 8-22. Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. New York: Cambridge U, 1995.

Dworkin, Ronald. "Sovereign Virtue Revisited." Ethics 113 (2003): 106-143.

Otsuka, Michael. "Luck, Insurance, and Equality." Ethics 113 (2002): 40-54.

Steiner, Hillel. "The Natural Right to the Means of Production." The Philosophical Quarterly 26.106 (1977): 41-49.

Vallentyne, Peter. "Self-Ownership and Equality: Brute Luck, Gifts, Universal

Dominance, and Leximin." Ethics 107.2 (1997): 321-343.

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