You Want Complete Ownership Over Your Own Body? Join the Cult of Modernity Today!

The Enlightenment has been credited with many things, including a revolution in the conception of rights as they apply to persons and property.  Property rights, by no means an invention of the Enlightenment thinkers, went from a matter of general contract law understood through the lens of Natural Law to being the basis of law in the first place.  The whole system of natural rights as defended by Locke, and less so by Hobbes, is reduced to an overly generalized interpretation of property rights.

The notion of a right to property is fairly simple.  A man’s ownership of any given thing is predicated upon some form of legitimacy; perhaps sawed some lumber and built a table, or he exchanged an agreed-upon amount of goods for one.  Or perhaps, in exchange for service, he came into ownership of a room in which the table was included.  In each case, the table in question is his by any reasonable standard.  If someone were to offer him a price for the table that he did not agree on, or if he simply did not wish to sell the table, then it would remain his; likewise, if someone attempted to take the table by force, it would be a violation of his property right, and he’d have grounds upon which to defend that right against the thief.  And of course, if he invites a stranger to dine with him on the table, the table does not somehow become co-owned by that stranger; the man has simply shared his use of the table with the stranger without sharing his claim over the table as his own.

This is all fairly intuitive stuff.  Anyone who has survived kindergarten understands the gist behind ownership, thievery, and sharing.  When it comes to tables or trinkets, rights to property are very easily understood.  When it comes to renting out apartments in which landlords and tenants are involved, it can get a bit muddier, but the general principle remains the same.  The landlord, responsible for the building’s upkeep and all the expenses that entails, allows the tenant to live under his roof; in exchange, the tenant is allowed claim to his own belongings under that roof.  A landlord confiscating his tenant’s personal belongings would be considered a violation, just as a tenant intentionally damaging the apartment would be.

This example is an important one when it comes to how property rights changed due, in part, to the writings of John Locke.  Locke insisted that property rights extended not merely to the objects one has the ability to own, but even to one’s own physical body (Two Treatises).  Perhaps a consequence of the Modern revolution marked by Cartesian dualism, the idea of physical self-ownership entered popular intellectual thought at the expense of sensible moral understanding—eventually, it would become one of the cornerstones of modern thinking that emerged from the Enlightenment and drove civilization into the welcoming fires of contemporary debauchery and bloodshed.

But what is the problem with self-ownership?  Most of us have grown up assuming it to be essentially a fact of life.  We’re each responsible for our bodies, we hurt when we get injured, we have to plan ahead in order to avoid getting sick, and anything we do with them is obviously something that reflects on our persons.  If we live in a purely materialistic universe, our bodies are our persons; if we live in any other universe, our bodies are either vessels of our persons or manifestations of them.  No matter what the case may be, actions our bodies take are our personal responsibility.

Or so it would seem.  Let’s backtrack to the issue of legitimacy for a second.  A man could say to own an object insofar as he has acquired it through reasonable means: he’s built it himself, or he’s purchased it with an exchange of wealth or service.  A third manner of de facto ownership is conceivable as well: he’s found a thing in the wild and, its previous owner nowhere to be seen, he took it as his own.  In the third case it is important to distinguish those items men create from those that they do not; man can own either one (such is the case with a table, as well as the lumber that made the table and the land that lumber once grew upon), but ownership of a natural object follows the same general principle as ownership over artificial objects.  The importance is that of meaning—property claims imply boundaries, boundaries imply borders, borders imply responsibilities of the owners to the things within them.

This is an important distinction that will be addressed shortly.  In the meantime, consider these aspects of legitimacy as applied to the human body.  A man does not physically create himself, and it’s madness to suggest that he does.  He is born from the acts of his parents, just as his parents were born from the acts of their own.  Additionally, there is no reason to believe that he has bartered or traded some service in return for a body; such belief is not only unwarranted but also less reasonable than considering life a gift from God.  Lastly, a person does not stumble randomly upon his body while aimlessly wandering around the meta-universal quiddity—and likewise, belief that he does is just as absurd as the previous point.

Returning to the third form of legitimacy I outlined above: the difference in meaning.  A man’s claim to a certain stone he found in the wilderness will be different than that of, say, a Rolex, or a Lamborghini.  The first is not one that shows signs of obvious ownership, unless the man happens to be trespassing on private property already.  The Rolex or the Lamborghini, meanwhile, do imply previous ownership by their very existence—someone had to build them, pay for them, and get them to that random patch of land in the first place.  This is why I mention that ownership over those things is legitimized de facto; until their previous owner sorts out the details of their circumstances, the finder is ultimately just a custodian of them.  Sometimes the previous owner never shows up.  Sometimes he’s dead and his estate has simply lost track of the items, or sometimes he has no estate to speak of.  In any case, it is a weaker—but not necessarily wrong—form of legitimacy to simply find a thing than to have purchased it or built it yourself.  Again, any kindergartner should be able to explain the general principle behind this.

So based on the forms of legitimacy outlined above, there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable claim to the idea that a man owns his own body.  And yet that seems insane—if you don’t own your body, who does?  You’re responsible for your body, and you have the freedom of will to do with it mostly as you please, and those things imply a form of ownership.  And it would certainly be unreasonable to assume that your parents own your body, or the State, or your employers—fundamentally, they’re all in the same boat you are with regards to laying claim upon their own bodies.

That’s where the whole gift-giving comes into play.  How does one explain, after the fact, the possession of a thing with regards to rights and responsibilities?  That’s a more complicated question than determining legitimacy, but keeping it on-topic, we have really only two possibilities when it comes to one’s body.  Either it has been given to you on purpose, or it’s simply an accident.  As I and entire systems of philosophy have addressed elsewhere, if it’s simply an accident then there’s no particular reason for things like rights, legitimacy, or even law, since meaning is a contrived and artificial attempt to explain things that ultimately have no reason for being—this is a popular school of thought for fifteen-year-olds and people who spend too much time on the internet.  If, on the other hand, your body was given to you on purpose, then it was either presented as a gift (as Christianity posits) or a curse (as many other religions tend to posit).  Eastern religions in particular, with their varying explanations of reincarnation and karma, tend to view the body as being a consequence of your person’s previous actions, but in general they do little to address where the person came from in the first place—why the person’s first body has come into existence to begin with.  It seems as though many of the texts imply it was simply a fluke—a more complicated rendition of the ‘it was all an accident’ thesis.

The Christian metaphysic, however, assumes the alternative.  Rather than a curse, the body itself is a gift—and yes, it is a gift even after the events and consequences of the Fall.  In brief, the Christian worldview recognizes that having a body isn’t your fault, per se, but it is your responsibility—and in fact, it isn’t all that bad, to have one, either.  But since it isn’t your fault, that means it isn’t completely yours.  Just mostly yours.

Consider the nature of gift-giving in the first place.  Being gifted a thing transfers—legitimately, to be sure—ownership of that thing from one person to another.  So we can conceive of it as a fourth category of legitimacy, and one stronger than our third “we just found it” category.  But it’s a special category, since gifts are given out of love or, at the very least, charity.  Likewise, gifts are not easily thrown away except by those who adamantly reject that love or charity.  Most of us don’t treat the gifts from lovers the same as they’d treat the items they’d bought with their own money.

This seems the most reasonable option given the above.  Where did the body come from, and how can you be responsible for it?  You can’t claim legitimate ownership over it as you can with other things that are governed by the rights of property, and you can’t claim that it’s a curse or a consequence of some previous action when you have no comprehension of such previous actions that would result in a physical body being born and living out your life.  Even assuming, on the basis of faith alone, that this particular body of yours is a result of a long series of previous moral consequences, that fails to answer the question as to why you have ever had a single body, much less several—or many!  And, for a plethora of reasons—most of which I have not covered here—it’s infeasible to simply assume that you have a body by accident.  That requires a greater leap of faith than any of the other alternatives.

Bringing this back to the point, how this pertains to property rights and your person is this: you own your body inasmuch as it is a gift from someone greater than you are and who loves you enough to give it to you.  And even more, it’s a gift from someone who wants you to use it well—after all, consider how you feel when you give others gifts of your own.  You may not have any say in how they use them afterward, but your intention is for them to enjoy them to their fullest capacity.  Just as you probably feel hesitant chucking a gift from a friend into the trashcan, you’d feel a little uneasy watching a friend do the same thing to a gift you’d just given to him—especially if you think it’s something he could use.

So the category of gift, as it pertains to legitimacy, remains a special category.  A man’s will being what it is, it is impossible to say that gifts are simply things which one presides over as a custodian, as then it wouldn’t be a gift but rather a loan.  But likewise, gifts have been given out of love, and to disrespect that intention is to ignore that love.  It turns a man’s receptiveness to bonds—to love—into an egoistic self-worship. You see some of this in children as they gradually mature into functioning free agents: children do not understand the nature of gifts until they are themselves put into a position of giving them to others.  Then it occurs to him that hey, maybe we shouldn’t abuse the things that are given freely and out of love.

And so we return to the original point.  To believe that your body is wholly your own, and that the rights of property apply to your body just as those same rights of property would apply to your table or your house, as Locke argues, is the beginning of the destructive self-love that has undermined the classical tradition.  Where one cannot recognize a gift—and the importance of that gift—one takes that gift for granted, and gifts taken for granted might as well be assumed to be simple accidents or mistakes.  Unwind the system of logic here and you end up in the same boat that the atheists end up with when confronted with their so-called accident that is the universe: alone, confused, and with only a hollow sense of meaning that you’ve done your best to invent.

Oh, right.  You end up in the Modern world.

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