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“Can God Own Your Soul?”

Here’s my reply to Bob Murphy’s post “Can God Own Your Soul?”:


I’m not surprised you bring this up–you raised a similar notion as some sort of criticism of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics years ago in this piece. In my reply thereto, I noted:

MC introduce supposed “counterexamples” of God and slavery. … As for God – you can’t just posit that God owns everyone and “therefore” we are not self-owners. Moroever, even if God does own us, it could be that we are still self-owners vis-a-vis each other. In any event, this in no way refutes the conclusion that only the libertarian norms can be argumentatively justified in discourse.

If there is a God, since He is Good, we can assume he’s libertarian and has decreed a libertarian moral law within his universe. So even if God owns A and B, A still has a better claim to A’s body than B does.

By the way, I’ve noted elsewhere a connection between God and IP in my Radical Patent Reform Is Not on the Way (noting that 13.7 billion years ago, “God invents the universe. He does this without permission of anyone else. He doesn’t look in the Celestial Patent Office filings first to make sure he is in the clear.”).

Also, in my How We Come To Own Ourselves, I discuss the issue of why children are self-owners–the parents (mother, really), as the creator and initial owner of the material of the baby’s body, would seem to be the baby’s owner, as master to slave. This is similar to the argument that God owns us, as his creations. (But I think God has even more of a claim, since not only is He purported to have created us, but he maintains a type of omnipotent domination over all creation.) One argument I use is that the parent arguably owes freedom or manumission to the child, just as she has an obligation to feed, shelter, etc. this new person she has created. A similar argument could be used for God: if He is good, certainly he would also not create a being with natural needs (including self-ownership, freedom) and then keep them enslaved. But the main argument I use is that the child has a better connection to his body than his parents do. But can this be said of God? I don’t think so. He has a special omnipotent dominion over all creation; in some sense they are parts of His body. Do I have a better link to “my” body than does God? I doubt it. So… sure. He has a better claim to my body, and has a “right” to be the owner/master to humans. But would it be moral for him to do this? I don’t think so, and since God is Good, then He never would. So in some sense it’s a moot point.

And this highlights part of the problem of positing this “God” thing. It’s such a bizarre, incoherent idea that of course it introduces logical problems, just as assuming 1=2 would, just as dividing by zero does. I don’t think there is a God (or anything supernatural; and confess that I find such beliefs to be completely irrational and mostly incoherent), but if there were one, I don’t see the problem saying He owns us. Ownership means the right to control. If God really created the universe …. and is omnipotent etc., etc., can He be said to NOT have the “right” to control it? I mean once you introduce these loopy assumptions anything is possible. If each person “is” or has a soul, then God owns—has the right to control—your body, as well as your soul, sure. What is the argument otherwise—that the soul is not a scarce resource because it is not “physical”? But presumably the soul actually has an identity, a nature, and is subject to certain causal rules in its own spirit-realm too, over which God also has dominion. [Update: see also my post The Ontology of the Omniverse.] The little dilemma or puzzle about how souls can be scarce or owned is nothing compared to the metaphysics and ontology of a God-filled universe. Again, if you posit a God, you open up a can of worms.

You also write, “I loved C. S. Lewis’ line: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” So when it comes to us being “really” free etc., I think it ultimately has to do with our wills or souls, not our physical bodies. This is part of my problem with some libertarian arguments over self-ownership; they often seem to conflate one’s physical body with one’s ego.”

I disagree with this. The libertarian argument about self-ownership is an argument about who has the right to control your physical body. It does not matter for this argument if you have (or “are”) a soul or not. Whehter or not you have or are a soul, the question remains: who has the right to control your body: you, or some other person? Obviously, you; and using “self-ownership” to denote this view makes perfect sense. (As I discuss further in What Libertarianism Is.)

Update: I just recalled also an interesting related discussion by Guido Huelsmann in his article The A Priori Foundations of Property Economics:

“Rothbard referred to this fact as self-ownership, meaning that each individual by its very nature owns himself.15 …
15. 15Terrell (1999) has criticized this notion on theological grounds, arguing that human beings do not own themselves, but belong to God. God is therefore the true owner of our minds and bodies and human beings are only temporal stewards or caretakers. This argument misses the mark, however, even though it is pertinent in its own right. Rothbard does not argue that human beings own themselves in some ultimate sense. His point is that the immediate control that each individual has over his mind and his body can be distinguished from the immediate control that other individuals exercise over their minds and bodies. For this to be true it plays no role whether God owns us, whether we control our
property by His grace, etc.”

[The Terrell paper is: Timothy Terrell, “Property Rights and Externality: The Ethics of the Austrian
,” Journal of Markets and Morality 2 (2) (1999); see also Terrell’s working paper The Origin of Property Rights:
A Critique of Rothbard and Hoppe on Natural Rights
, at note 19.]

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Bob Murphy November 29, 2009, 6:11 pm

    I have a problem (naturally) with that part where you directly criticize me; see here.

    But I think your own views on self-ownership have been consistent. To my recollection, you are always very precise about people’s disposition over physical things (called “bodies”) and so forth.

    I can’t point you to a specific example, but I know I’ve seen people saying things like, “You have to own yourself because your will is inalienable.” (I think Rothbard says this, and everyone who disagrees with Walter Block on selling yourself into slavery.)

    If we agree that one’s will and one’s physical body are distinct, I don’t find the above argument compelling. I can certainly agree to sell my kidney, and I can agree to sell you 100 shares of IBM stock in 12 months’ time at $50 per share (through selling you a call option), so why can’t I sell you the legal ability to decide how my whole body will be used in the future to yield labor services?

  • Conza88 October 30, 2012, 10:21 am

    = I think theological noncognitivism clears all this up (it does for me anyway). Happy to be shown otherwise. Going with the flow though; I believe Mises touches upon the issue on pg. 63 text, pg. 93 pdf+ entitled: “The Limitations on Praxeological Concepts” (http://mises.org/Books/humanaction.pdf)? Definitely interested in your thoughts.

    Re: “But I think your own views on self-ownership have been consistent. To my recollection, you are always very precise about people’s disposition over physical things (called “bodies”) and so forth.”

    = Yep. Some fav’s; http://conza.tumblr.com/tagged/slavery

    “I think a careful reading of Rothbard shows that his view does not rest on “impossibility” (as I used to think). Instead, I think Rothbard was not talking about the case of commission of crime, but only the narrow context of a would-be voluntary slave who has not committed aggression. Rothbard notes that it is impossible for the slave to get rid of his will, and “therefore” the promise to be a slave is not binding, i.e. his body is not alienable. I think what Rothbard was getting at is this: in the normal, default situation, each person IS a self owner BECAUSE he has a will: i.e., a direct control over his body. This direct control is the natural position, and gives the person a better claim to his body than anyone else. That is WHY he is a self owner. Hoppe later makes this argument explicitly: the reason we are self-owners is that each person has a unique and direct connection to his body: his direct control over it–or, as Rothbard says, his will. Now Rothbard is implicitly recognizing that the slave who promises to be slave still has his will, as he did not literally alienate it. Therefore, he still has the best link to his body, and thus he is still its owner. Now it is true that it is possible for someone to alienate their rights to their body, despite still having a will: by committing aggression. When you commit aggression you overcome the default presumption that you have the best right to control your body; now your victim has a better right to your body, despite your having the direct link to and direct control over it. But the point is the would-be voluntary slave never did commit aggression, so for him, he is able to change his mind.” – Stephan Kinsella (http://tinyurl.com/98u6y8f)

    Re: “If we agree that one’s will and one’s physical body are distinct, I don’t find the above argument compelling.”

    = Distinct in what sense?

    “…Now, in the idea of self-ownership, who is doing the appropriating of the “self”? Can the “self” appropriate the “self?” What does that mean? This is where this literature has sometimes gotten confusing. The answer is there, but it’s not always clarified as well as I think it could be.

    Much of the confusion stems from a double meaning attached to “self” (sorting this out is also a resolution path for the larger “mind-body problem” controversy, as Ken Wilber has suggested). To unpack this, I define the “self” as the subject, the actor. That subject can claim the physical body associated with itself, which is the “self” as an object, that is, “empirically” measurable in the physical world. Thus, the human being considered as an acting person is a SUBJECT and not any kind of physical “object.” An acting person is not just a body, not just an empirical object, like a kidney or a stone (or a kidney stone…). A subject as contrasted with a physical object is not measurable or claimable as property at all. This (subject) “self” is an intangible like an idea (the basis of anti-IP thought too, is that ideas are not scarce objects and can therefore not be properly owned). The acting person has a physically observable aspect, but is not reducible to physical substance. We are subjects-and-objects by nature….” – Konrad Graf (Continued: http://conza.tumblr.com/post/30150211860/self-ownership-and-original-appropriation)

    Re: “… so why can’t I sell you the legal ability to decide how my whole body will be used in the future to yield labor services?”

    = “We have to think of it, as Evers and Rothbard argue, as transfers of title to owned resources. And we have to recognize that these owned resources are only scarce, physical goods—not “labor.” You do not own your labor. You own your body. That gives you the right to perform actions (labor), but you do not own your actions. If I perform an action that you like, and pay me for, you do not own my action. You do not even “receive” my action. You simply prefer that I engage in it, for a variety of reasons.

    In other words a labor contract may be viewed as an exchange only economically, but not legally. Economically, the employer gives up title to money, in “exchange” for you performing some action. But legally, it’s not an exchange at all, it’s just a one-way transfer of title: a conditional transfer of future title to future money, conditioned on the occurrence of a certain event happening (namely: that the “employee” does a certain action). That is, if you mow my lawn, then title to this gold coin transfers to you. Again, the transfer of title in this case is both expressly conditional and future-oriented. Title to the coin transfers only if the lawn is mowed, and I still own the coin.

    The performance of the action triggers the transfer of money from the employer, but the action is not literally “sold” because the employee did not “own” his labor, and the employer does not own it after it is performed. We have to stop thinking sloppily and overusing metaphors.”
    — Stephan Kinsella, A Libertarian Theory of Contract

    Apologies for the walls of text/links elsewhere – in a rush.

  • myth buster October 6, 2016, 10:53 pm

    The difference between asserting self-ownership in an absolute sense and affirming that God owns us because He created and sustains us concerns what is licit for a man to do to himself. The one who asserts absolute self-ownership claims the right to do as he pleases with his own body, so long as he harms no one else, but the one who affirms God’s ownership of him testifies that it is forbidden to commit suicide, use recreational intoxicants or masturbate. It follows then, that one who recognizes God’s sovereignty and ownership of man considers it lawful to restrain a demonstrably suicidal man against his will and keep him restrained until he is no longer suicidal.

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