Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anarchy Without Adjectives: Don't Wanna Be Owned By Myself

This is the second post in a series explicating my objections to a presentation, "Anarchy without Adjectives," which I attended last Tuesday. For this post to make sense, you will probably want to read the previous post wherein I outline the content of the presentation, and present some of the problems I see with the notion of justified ownership that the speaker put forth. Today I continue with an assault on the fundamental assumption of initial argument, that we each own ourselves.

Although the speaker noted that many people simply accept this assumption from the get go, for those less inclined to agree that we obviously own ourself he presented an argument by elimination. His argument went as follows: suppose someone else were to own you. Why, then you would be obliged to ask their permission before taking any action, as you would be using their property. Alternatively assume that each person owned equal share in every other person. In this case you would have an even harder time getting anything done, as you would have to ask every other person on the Earth, or perhaps simply a majority of them, for permission before enacting a course of action. Personally, I find these arguments compelling, and agree that no other person ought to have ownership over myself. But does that imply that I own myself? Indeed, what does it even mean to talk about owning one's self?

To answer these questions, let us consider the conclusion of the presenter's argument, that individuals should not have limitations placed upon what they do with their property. In order to reach this conclusion, we must accept that self ownership means that individuals should not have limitations placed upon what they do. However, very few world views hold that individual should act without limitation, and here I regret that I have not studied Nietzsche's philosophy more. Most tellingly, even the presenter's argument placed limits on what individuals should do, namely, individuals should not infringe upon the ability of others to utilize their property however they see fit.

If I truly own myself, from whence does this caveat arise? During the presentation the speaker asserted that ethics was more than a matter of preference, a point I, as an ethicist, find rather attractive, so I shall not argue it, although I am not sure that it is true. However, if it is true then the speaker must posit some moral obligation on us forbidding our interference with the property of others. If the source of said obligation cannot be discerned, then it seems reasonable to expect that it may present further restrictions upon our actions.

What I mean is the following: if something obliges us to let others do what the will with their property, now with the caveat that this extends only as far as others follow this same principle of non-interference, then what is to say that this something, shall we call it ethics, respect, or politeness, further obliges us to provide for the health of those about us, insofar as it does not infringe upon our ability to provide for our own health? Indeed, as long as this obligation stems from an unspecified source, one has no hope of nailing down what other obligations we may or may not have.

This seems to leave two options if one wishes to salvage this line of argument. One might discern the origin of our obligation to let others do what they will with their property, then outline whatever auxiliary obligations this original cause also entails. Or one might simply give up on the obligation to let others do what they will with their property entirely, but this seems to lead to one of the nastier forms of anarchy, wherein might makes right and people do entirely as they will if no one is able and inclined to stop them. I think either case highlights the difficulties inherent in making atomizing statements like, "everyone should be free to do with their property as they will," in a world where we are all so fundamentally interconnected. This, to me, is the foundational flaw with all reasoning in this vein, our actions cannot be considered in a vacuum, they will inevitably have repercussions on others, so giving one individual sovereignty must necessarily diminish the sovereignty of others.

Since the school week begins again tomorrow, it is not clear when I shall continue with my response, but rest assured, I have more thoughts on this topic to present for your scrutiny.


Tim said...

I'm up late reading your blog! Really enjoyed this series. Next time you're in Oregon I'd love to talk about this!

Kenny said...

Wonderful! Conveniently enough, my sister now lives in the Portland metro area!