The human will and body as inalienable.
A crucial component of the Non-Aggression Principle is commonly known as the right of “self-ownership.” The great libertarian theorist Walter Block contends that, since you don’t truly own something if you’re not allowed to sell it, self-ownership includes the right to contract oneself into slavery. I submit that Dr. Block is incorrect on this issue.
In some formulations, “self ownership” is conceived of as ownership of one’s will. Alternatively, in the formulation I subscribe to, as developed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella, “self ownership” is conceived of as ownership of one’s body. Sheldon Richman excellently refuted “voluntary slavery” 36 years ago with respect to “will ownership.” I have excerpted the relevant passage below, in hopes of rescuing this excellent contribution to libertarian thought from the obscurity it is currently unfairly suffering. Following the passage, I endeavor to concisely refute “voluntary slavery” with respect to “body ownership.”
In his 1978 Libertarian Forum article “Slaves Contracts and Inalienable Will,” Richman wrote:
“How can one give up one’s will? The will, after all, is the thing that makes a person a person. It is the self. It is that about a person which is aware, which intends, which values, which feels, which OWNS. Can one give up ownership to that about him which owns? What is giving up what? If the will is being given up, what’s doing the giving? If the will is doing the giving, what is it giving up? To say the will is giving itself away seems a peculiar, if not an absurd’, statement.
This becomes clearer when coupled with the fact that a person can never transfer control of his inseparable will. It is impossible for anyone to directly control another will. A will can only control itself and no other. If Jones commands Smith to perform an action, the action will be performed only if Smith wills it. Threats of force notwithstanding, Smith has to exercise his will to perform the action. Jones cannot exercise it for him.
(This by no means undermines the moral evaluation of coercive interaction. To say that an action is involuntary or “against one’s will” doesn’t mean that the aggressor exercised the victim’s will. It means that the victim would not have exercised it in that particular way were it not for the threat of force. In this sense, all actions are voluntary.)
This has devastating logical implications for slave contracts. If you can’t give up your will, how can you give up your right to exercise it? The right of contract is built on the foundation of the free and sovereign will. But if that’s so, there can be no contractual obligation where there IS no free and sovereign will. To invoke such an obligation is to be guilty of a logical contradiction or, as the Objectivists say, of the fallacy of the stolen concept.
This means that an unfree and unsovereign will—if there were such a thing—could have no obligation to obey its master.
We can take this one step further. Not only is there no obligation to obey, but an act of obedience would violate the contract because the slave would have to assume control, i.e. ownership, of the will. It may be objected that the master, in giving a command, is giving the slave permission to resume control of his former will for“ a specific purpose, just as you could give someone permission to borrow the car you just purchased for him.
But this objection doesn’t hold. Because in order to give the slave permission to “borrow” his will, the slave would first have to exercise it to listen to and grasp the nature of the permission. But how could he legally exercise a will to which he has no right before being granted permission? He would first have to get permission to use the will for the purpose of getting permission to perform the action.
But that obviously leads to an infinite regress of permission-granting.
To sum up, if slave contracts are somehow construed as valid, the slave has no obligation to honor his master and, indeed, has an obligation to refrain from honoring his master.
That which makes the contract legally binding—the necessity of a sovereign will—is what makes it invalid.
The whole contractual structure collapses in ludicrous contradiction because the philosophical rug has been pulled out from under it.”
I will let this admirable argument stand on its own. Now onto “voluntary slavery” with respect to “body ownership.”
Say I said to a neighbor, “I do give you the shirt on my back.” However, I continued to use (wear) it, did not remove it, did not give him permission to access my person to remove it, and later walked home with it and placed it in my closet, without permitting him access to my house to remove it. In such a case, the declaration of my words expressing title transfer would be belied by my actions, which plainly express that I have no true intent to transfer title to the shirt, and which therefore themselves constitute a contrary declaration. It would be as if I said, “I do and do not give you the shirt on my back,” which is nothing more than nonsense.
Say the neighbor paid me for the shirt. By doing so, he is essentially saying, “I do transfer title to this money to you, on condition of being transferred title to your shirt.” Since, I did not truly transfer title to my shirt to him, the condition is not fulfilled, and therefore he did not transfer title to his money to me; the money is still his. By holding onto both the shirt and the money, I have indeed defrauded him. But I owe him his money, plus damages, and not the shirt.
Similarly, if I said to a neighbor, “I do give you my body,” but I continued to use it for my own purposes (speaking, standing, breathing, etc), did not vacate it (commit suicide), and did not give him permission to expel me from it (kill me), my verbal declaration is similarly belied by my actions. I would have expressed, through my actions, that I had no true intent to transfer title to my body, which, again constitutes a contrary declaration. It would be as if I said, “I do and do not give you my body,” which, again, is nothing more than nonsense.
In fact the very act of speaking a declaration of transfer is a performative contradiction, because in speaking the declaration, I am asserting and thus expressing my continued ownership of my body.
And similarly, if my neighbor paid me for my body, and I accepted the money, I would have defrauded him and owe him his money plus damages, but not my body.
Since it is impossible to transfer title to your body without simultaneously contradicting the declaration of transfer with one’s actions, it is impossible to sell, or otherwise transfer, oneself into slavery.
Also published at Medium.com: