Who Owns Your Mind?

Here's a question I've never really thought about much before: Does the mind/body problem have implications for the concept of personhood and self-ownership? That is, do the answers we give to the mind/body problem potentially conflict with or necessitate the answers we give to questions about personhood and self-ownership?

Gene Callahan writes,

I've always thought the concept of "self-ownership," so loved by many libertarians, is a little screwy: Man is not a good he owns, he is himself. To the common comeback, "If you don't own yourself, then who does?" my answer has been, "No one, just like no one owns arithmetic or the night sky.

In the comments, Brian N. objects on the grounds of dualism. If our minds (consciousness/will/ego) are distinct from our physical bodies, then Gene's criticism fails. Even if it is incoherent to say that we own our minds--since our minds are identical to our selves--we may nevertheless still own our bodies. Perhaps the phrase "self-ownership" is misleading; we don't really "own" our selves, if our selves are understood as our minds. But we do own our bodies. Maybe we should call it "self-body-ownership" instead.

Also in the comments, Stephan Kinsella raises another possible objection: To say that you own something is to say that you have the right to control it. (Stephan is not using these terms in a normative sense. Ownership here is equivalent to mere possession, i.e. the capability to control. I can legally own something--have the legal right to control--even if I am not morally entitled to control it.) Unlike (the logical properties of) arithmetic and (the emergent beauty of) the night sky--both of which we can say are owned by no one because no one controls them--human bodies can be controlled by human will, and must be controlled by human will if there is to be any human action at all.

But just because human bodies can be controlled by human will does not tells us which human wills' should have the right to control which human bodies. Stephan gives the example of a prisoner, who in some respects controls his body (he can choose to think about pink elephants, or twiddle his thumbs), but also lacks control of his body in many other ways (he cannot travel very far, nor eat when and what he wants to). Incidentally, some libertarians, such as Kinsella and Hoppe, offer reasons why the right to control a given human body should (usually) be given to the human mind--i.e. the person or self--who happens to occupy that body - essentially arguing in favor of "self-body-ownership" and against, I suppose, "other-body-ownership."

Note, though, that these justifications of the concept of self-ownership depend upon a belief in some form of dualism. Not the version of dualism which posits that the mind consists of different "stuff" than the body--a theory both materialists (who believe that the mind is an extension of the physical body) and idealists (who believe that reality is in the mind) reject, but a more basic version of dualism - a version perfectly compatible with materialism and idealism. This more basic version of dualism posits a conceptual distinction between the mind and the body, a distinction that allows us to say that the self resides in--or is identical to--the mind but not the body.

However, Brian's and Stephan's explanations of self-ownership do not seem to work for those who reject this specific distinction between mind and body. Gene seems to hold such a position, when he rejects these arguments and writes that

man does not "make use of his own physical substance," man is the union of particular physical and spiritual realities.

This claim is ambiguous. Is Gene saying that a person just is the union of both mind and brain? Or is he saying that a person is the union of mind, brain, as well as the entire non-brain physical body, even the parts of the body that aren't required to keep the brain functioning (arms, legs, etc.)? If the latter, certain difficulties immediately arise: people who are born lacking--or later in life lose--parts of their physical bodies are not really persons at all, under this theory. If particular physical realities--parts of our body that are not our brain (and not necessary for our brain to function)--are necessary for personhood, then it seems like any entity lacking these non-brain body parts is not a true person. They didn't lose the use of their limbs; their limbs were part of the union which constitutes self, so they must have lost a necessary part of self - logically necessary, not just necessary to perform certain tasks. And this is not just a problem for limb amputees; it is a problem for all of us: we are all losing parts of our bodies (and gaining new parts) every instant. My body does not consist of the same matter it did 20 years ago, or even 20 milliseconds ago.

Even if Gene's claim is the former, that a person consists of the union of both mind and brain, but not the rest of the body, it is still the case that my brain is not the same brain it was 20 years ago, or 20 milliseconds ago. To avoid this difficulty, Gene could say that a person consists of the union of both mind and a brain, but it doesn't particularly matter which brain a person has, as long as it has a physical apparatus with all of the necessary features that constitute a functioning brain (thereby allowing for a mind). So a person at time t2 is the same person as a person at time t1 if and only if both of these persons share the same mind and have some form of a physical brain, even if they don't share the same physical brain.

But what does it mean to have the same mind (even if we grant different physical implementations of brains) at time t1 and t2? I do not have the same thoughts, perceptions, memories, emotions, will and imagination that I had 20 years ago. Am I a completely seperate person from my past self? Maybe the persistence of mind over time is achieved through a single stream of consciousness. We might even grant that this single stream of consciousness can tolerate interruption through sleep or coma and yet still be considered the same stream of consciousness--the same person--upon waking up. But what about an amnesiac, whose consciousness is completely different after suffering from a brain injury? Can we still say this is the same stream of consciousness? Is it really the same person before and after the amnesia, if there is a total loss or change of memory, personality, emotion, perception and thought?

Putting these questions aside, it seems like the most charitable interpretation of Gene's statement is that a person consists of the union of both mind and brain, but not the rest of the body (except perhaps those parts of the body necessary to keep a brain functioning). This is reasonable. After all, minds can't exist on their own, just floating out there in space - minds require brains. This interpretation means we must qualify Gene's original claim that "man does not 'make use of his own physical substance'" and interpret it to mean that there is some part of man's physical substance which he does not make use of - some part of his brain (but not all parts, only whichever parts constitute self - perhaps only the parts necessary for maintaining a stream of consciousness). He does not make use of this part of his brain because he just is this part of his brain.

But this more reasonable interpretation requires adopting the self=mind+brain identity and rejecting the self=mind+brain+non-brain body identity. And if self does not include the rest of the non-brain body, then it is unclear why Gene's argument should act as a rebuttal to Brian's and Stephan's dualistic claims that we can indeed make use of, and therefore stake claim to, many parts of our physical body--our arms, our legs, etc.--because they are not essential to our personhood.

The only way to make Gene's argument work as a rebuttal to Brian and Stephan is to interpret his statement in the less charitable, less reasonable way: that a person is the union of mind and brain, as well as the entire physical body, including those parts nonessential to a functioning brain. But then we are back to the amputee objection: if my arms and legs become detached from my body, am I no longer a person, since these limbs constituted an integral part of my identity as a person (and not as a nonperson)? Can I not coherently stake a claim of ownership to my nonessential body parts, perhaps for the purposes of organ transplantation? I understand, based on Gene's argument, why I cannot coherently stake a claim of ownership to my essential body parts that constitute or are necessary for the proper functioning of my mind, and I certainly cannot transfer ownership of my self--if my self is understood as my stream of consciousness--to someone else. But it is not clear to me why, according to Gene, I cannot stake claim to--and even transfer ownership of--body parts nonessential to the existence of self.

Maybe self-ownership is a little screwy. Maybe even self-body-ownership is a little screwy. Perhaps we should adopt G. A. Cohen-style communal-body-ownership, redistributing nonessential body parts the same way we redistribute income. But even this is a form of ownership: a form of control over physical bodies, albeit communal control. In order to have any kind of human action at all, some person (or group of persons) must have the ability to control, and therefore have ownership of, at least part of the body. So it cannot be the case that each and every part of our bodies are unownable.

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The right to exclude

A property right can be formulated as a right to exclude others. Something is your property if and only if, and to the extent that, and in the way that, you have the right to exclude others from it (from using it, from touching it, from standing on it, from travelling across it, etc. - exclusion is not just one thing but is the negation of various things, it involves preventing any of various different things from happening). Our property rights are usually not complete (we probably do not have the right to stop others from farting in the direction of our property, say) and they don't always come in the same bundles (easements pry off some of the rights to some property).

To say that a person's body is his property, is to say that he has the right to exclude others from it. If you claim that a person's body is not his property, then you are claiming that he has no right to exclude others from it. You are saying, for example, that he has no right to stop others from ass-raping him.

This formula does not seem to me to require dualism. It is not incoherent to say that we own our brains if we are our brains, etc. Let's apply the formula: we can easily imagine an animal fending off an attack by another animal. This surely does not require dualism to conceive. But this animal is excluding the other animal from access to itself. If self defense does not require dualism, then the right to self defense surely does not either.

So what about the formula of property as control? Doesn't it capture something that the formula of property as exclusion misses? No, I don't think so. The formulation of property as exclusion gets us what we expect. Typically we think of owners as controlling their property without interference from others, and the exclusion formula easily accomodates this. If something is my property and no one else's property (it is not jointly owned with a spouse, say, and no one has an easement which might stand in the way of some use, and so on), then no one has a right to exclude me from it. So I can (if I am physically able) touch it, stand on it, shake it, turn it upside down, and (this is important) no one has the right to stop me. That's what we were expecting.

"Right" to self-defense?

There is a common but wrong-headed notion that we need a "right" to do various things. People spend a great deal of time trying to justify their right to do this or that. But you don't need a right to self-defense, because defending yourself is of no concern to anyone but you and your attacker. The terminology of rights doesn't even apply.

For all the flowery talk by those who believe in mythological "natural rights," all rights are just privileges. There are no innate, inalienable rights. A right is something everyone else grants you, and you in turn grant them. Rights exist only by virtue of their recognition by others; only those liberties which concern others would require that a right to enjoy them be granted.

For example: a right to privacy. Since I can hardly prevent the rest of my community from barging into my home all at once and rummaging through my personal effects, my right to privacy can only come from a mutual agreement that we will respect one another's privacy. Moreover, in the absence of a community of potential snoops, I don't need a right to privacy -- the term becomes meaningless.

But it is of no concern to the rest of my community whether or not I defend myself. It's not as though I can choose to "go around defending myself," so as to become a menace to the community; the choice is forced on me, and it is mine to make. I must show that my attacker presented an imminent threat to my life, to show that I'm not a murderer (which would be of concern to the community), but I need not justify or even explain my response to that threat.

Dubious assumptions

DD - your philosophy of rights is based on some questionable assumptions about what rights are. You write:

But you don't need a right to self-defense, because defending yourself is of no concern to anyone but you and your attacker.

Translated, you are saying you don't need a right to self-defense, because you already have a right to self-defense. You don't recognize that this is what you are saying, presumably because you have bought into some dubious ideas.

In a nutshell, you are a natural law adherent struggling to get free of the grip of some bad ideas, specifically this one:

A right is something everyone else grants you, and you in turn grant them.

That philosophy is actually an anti-realist stance on rights. It is a stance of people who don't really believe in rights. It is ironic that you are relinquishing rights to these people - to those who don't believe in rights. And you, who actually believe in rights, express your belief by denying "rights" - what you are really denying, of course, is the anti-realist stance on rights.

I must show that my attacker presented an imminent threat to my life, to show that I'm not a murderer (which would be of concern to the community), but I need not justify or even explain my response to that threat.

Again you in effect contradict yourself. To show that your attacker presented an imminent threat is to justify your response.

No

"you are saying you don't need a right to self-defense, because you already have a right to self-defense."

No, I meant exactly what I said: I don't need a right to self-defense because the concept of rights does not apply.

A bird doesn't need a right to sing. I don't need a right to speak. Some people have a bizarre need to demonstrate a "right" to do things when it isn't even necessary. If I'm alone on a deserted island, I don't need a right to defend myself from a wild animal. If a pirate ship maroons a stowaway on my island and he attacks me, it's the same. If I'm mugged in a metropolis, same again. It is of no concern to others. But I'm repeating myself.

"You don't recognize that this is what you are saying, presumably because you have bought into some dubious ideas. In a nutshell, you are a natural law adherent"

No, I was quite explicit that "natural rights" (and law) are mythological nonsense.

"That philosophy is actually an anti-realist stance on rights."

No, I made it quite clear: rights are nothing more than privileges. That is reality in a nutshell. If you believe in some alternate reality, you've got an uphill battle to demonstrate it.

"Again you in effect contradict yourself. To show that your attacker presented an imminent threat is to justify your response."

No, I gave the reason why I need to demonstrate a threat: because murder concerns the community. I'm not petitioning the community for a right to self-defense, I'm setting it at ease so it may wash its hands of the matter. You can look at it backwards and call it a right to self-defense if you like, but you'd be wrong, as demonstrated already: I don't need such a right an a deserted island, so I don't suddenly need one when the population increases around me. The difference is that the community doesn't want to live in fear, so (in my hypothetical world where things make sense) I grant the community the right to know why I've killed a man, and others reciprocate if necessary. It's part of the responsibility of living in the community.

"Rights" are things that only arise when the community has a vested interest in the matter, because the other members want those same rights. In effect, all rights are positive. So-called innate negative rights are just mythological hooey. Proponents of that concept unnecessarily twist and turn to separate negative from positive rights, because they believe in phantoms called "natural rights." They ought to relax and dispense with all that foolishness, because all rights are privileges. The things they're attributing to natural, innate, negative rights are things they need not demonstrate a right to do, just as other animals need not.

Public goods and common goods

What about public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous, such as a view of the night sky) and common goods (non-excludable but rivalrous, such as fishing)? Both are non-excludable, and yet there can be property rights (legal or moral) to both. I can have the right to fish in a given area without having the right to exclude others from doing the same. I can have the right to view the night sky without having the right to exclude others from doing the same.
On dualism:
To say that I have a right to exclude others from something is to say that others do not have the right to exclude me from this thing, correct? But what does it mean to say that someone does or does not have the right to exclude me from my mind if I am my mind? It might mean that someone does or does not have the right to kill me, as killing me would destroy my mind, and vice versa, but killing me is not excluding me from my mind; me and my mind cease to exist simultaneously. I can never be excluded from my mind if I am my mind, as my mind and my self stand or fall together.
The dualism comes into play because it is coherent to say that I have been excluded from the parts of my body that are not essential to self, but it is not coherent to say that I have been excluded from the parts of my body that are essential to self. I and my essential self cannot be separated.

Who owns the sky?

What about public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous, such as a view of the night sky) and common goods (non-excludable but rivalrous, such as fishing)? Both are non-excludable, and yet there can be property rights (legal or moral) to both. I can have the right to fish in a given area without having the right to exclude others from doing the same. I can have the right to view the night sky without having the right to exclude others from doing the same.

I'm not sure what the problem is. Let's look at your last sentence. If you have the right to view the night sky, then this is precisely the same as saying that no one else has the right to exclude you from viewing the night sky. So to say that everyone has the right to view the night sky and that no one has the right to exclude anyone else from viewing the night sky is saying exactly the same thing twice. And both can be expressed succinctly thus:


No one owns the view of the night sky.

So, I don't really see the problem. You do, I notice, say that "there can be property rights", which suggests that you want to say something like, "everyone owns the view of the night sky". That statement is suggested by a notion of property as a right to control or access - the idea then is that since everyone has the right to access the view of the night sky, then everyone owns it. But this is, if anything, a pretty good example of why I tend to shy away from the positive notion of property as a right to access, to use, to control. To me, it feels odd to say that everyone owns the view of the night sky, and since this is a consequence of a positive notion of property, but not of a negative notion of property, then this is reason to go with the negative notion.

By the way, in case you thought I was just cooking up a pet theory of property, I didn't invent the idea. Google it. You'll find stuff like this:

The ‘right to exclude’ has for long been taken to be a defining feature of property as a social and political institution. - Chicago Law School Faculty Blog

I may have taken it farther than it is usually taken (it seems to me sufficient to capture the essence of property), but any discussion of property needs to at least be aware that this is "a defining feature" (even if not, as I tend to think, the essential feature).

To say that I have a right to exclude others from something is to say that others do not have the right to exclude me from this thing, correct? But what does it mean to say that someone does or does not have the right to exclude me from my mind if I am my mind?

No, it does not mean that. In fact it is quite possible to have the following arrangement: Bob has the right to exclude Tom from a certain plot of land (call it The House), but Tom also has the right to exclude Bob from The House. Thus, neither Tom nor Bob may legally enter The House with out the other's permission. I'm not saying this is common, I am just saying this is possible, it is not logically inconsistent. Still, something like this is fairly common: when two people own something valuable together, while I'm not sure what the law is, nevertheless as a matter of what feels right to them, often neither one will want to do anything momentous with the common property without consulting the other. In effect, each one is treating the other as having the right to exclude him from the common property.

So my answer is, no, your right to exclude others from something has no strict logical relationship with their right to exclude you.

But let me indulge the notion anyway. Does it make sense for someone to exclude you from you? Yes. At least it can easily make sense. Remember that as I mentioned earlier an act of exclusion is not general but is a denial of something specific. You might, for example, have the right to cross a bit of land but not the right to linger. So an act of exclusion is not necessarily brute bodily exclusion. It can be the prevention of a specific act, while some other act is allowed. Thus, the fact that you are identical to yourself does not mean that it makes no sense for someone else to exclude you from you in some way. It might mean that they prevent you from doing something specific with yourself.

The dualism comes into play because it is coherent to say that I have been excluded from the parts of my body that are not essential to self, but it is not coherent to say that I have been excluded from the parts of my body that are essential to self. I and my essential self cannot be separated.

But brute bodily separation is not the only kind of exclusion.

Great response

I really like the tone and content of this discussion; I don't really feel passionate (as I usually do) about having the better argument in the end. That doesn't mean I'm intentionally engaging in sophistry, only that I care less than I usually do about ultimately having the better half of the argument. Playing devil's advocate is interesting enough.

I agree that it does feel odd to say that everyone owns the night sky, especially since this statement doesn't seem to be incompatible with its own negation. But isn't that what people often quip about the tragedy of the commons? If everybody owns it, nobody owns it. Part of the problem here is that common goods and public goods (as well as club goods like cable television, which is excludable but non-rivalrous) are missing at least one of the two features of private property - rivalrousness and excludability. (Together, the four forms of property--private, common, public, and club--exhaust all of the possible combinations of the presence or absence of excludability and rivalrousness.)

But just because three of the four forms of property lack one or both of these qualties doesn't mean that private property is the only coherent form of property. Large swaths of economic theory deal with forms of property that are not fully private - environmental economics is a prime example. While it's true that excludability is a a defining feature of private property, it is not a defining feature of property in general.

Your example with Bob and Tom is a good one - I grant that this form of mutual excludability combined with mutual ownership can and does occur. The specific example that comes to mind is a safety deposit box in a bank that requires two keys to open; one key owned by the bank and one key owned by the renter of the box. Neither party can open the box without the cooperation of the other, both parties have the right to exclude the other from opening it, and both parties can claim some portion of ownership of the box.

However, I don't think this is relevant to the issue of self-ownership as we shall soon see...

Thus, the fact that you are identical to yourself does not mean that it makes no sense for someone else to exclude you from you in some way. It might mean that they prevent you from doing something specific with yourself.

Does it make sense to say that someone can prevent me from doing something specific to myself when that specific activity is the very same activity that makes me a person and not a nonperson? If personhood is understood as the ongoing activity of a stream of consciousness, then how can "I" be prevented from engaging in this activity while still remaining "me", if this activity just is me?

If the interference in question is preventing a specific activity distinct from the activity that constitutes personhood, then we can coherently say that the interference is preventing me from doing something to my self, because I am not that activity. The problem here is that I am defining personhood or self as a certain kind of activity, so a self cannot be distinguished from, by excluded from doing, the very activity that constitutes it. No kind of exclusion, including brute bodily separation, can exclude "me, the activity" from "the activity that is me". They are the same thing.

Economics versus law

Large swaths of economic theory deal with forms of property that are not fully private - environmental economics is a prime example.

Economics deals with goods and services, not necessarily property. A large part of economics deals with the familiar market economy in which private property is voluntarily exchanged, but if economics deals with something else, that doesn't particularly incline me to want to call it "property". Any change in the world that I prefer to some alternative is a legitimate subject for economics, and it need not involve anything that I own, or have part ownership in. It happens to be the case that much of the time our preferences involve our own owned property, but not always.

Which is not to say that only private property is possible. There is a legal and moral difference between unowned land which no one has the right to exclude me from fencing off, and commonly used land which someone has the right to exclude me from fencing off. Take for example shared roads which have never been claimed by anyone but have been used in common since time immemorial. If someone decides to gate it off so that he can start charging a fee to pass through his gate, or even just for the hell of it, as a long time user of the road I have the right to prevent him from doing that. Meanwhile, I don't have the right to stop people from using the road as a road. In contrast, if a would-be farmer fences off some land that no one is using, then I have no right to stop him. The latter is unowned (at least until the farmer claims it). The former, we might say, is owned in common. The difference can be described in terms of the right to exclude.

Does it make sense to say that someone can prevent me from doing something specific to myself when that specific activity is the very same activity that makes me a person and not a nonperson?

Rather than get into this, I want to clarify that how this matter is resolved is not relevant to the coherence self-ownership. Even if we conceive of exclusion as the brute separation of two physical bodies, and even if separating you from yourself is incoherent, still your right to keep others away from you physically is not rendered incoherent by the incoherence of the notion of someone else keeping you away from yourself physically. So self-ownership as the right to exclude others from oneself is not rendered incoherent. What is rendered incoherent is ownership of someone by someone else, insofar as that is purported to include the right to exclude the owned person from himself.

Without implying that you made this argument, but just to preemptively address a certain potential line of argument: the mere ability to recombine concepts to create an incoherent idea, does not make every idea rendered with those concepts incoherent.

Self-Ownership

Isn't this just semantic quibbling? Self-ownership is shorthand for the right to exclusive control over your body and mind. If it doesn't map exactly to the concept of ownership as applied to other things, that doesn't strike me as particularly interesting.

Pretty Much

NT.