Self-ownership and despotism: Locke on property in the person, divine dominium of human life, and rights-forfeiture

Social Philosophy and Policy 36 (2):242-263 (2019)
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Abstract

:This essay explores the meaning and normative significance of Locke’s depiction of individuals as proprietors of their own person. I begin by reconsidering the long-standing puzzle concerning Locke’s simultaneous endorsement of divine proprietorship and self-ownership. Befuddlement vanishes, I contend, once we reject concurrent ownership in the same object: while God fully owns our lives, humans are initially sole proprietors of their own person. Locke employs two conceptions of “personhood”: as expressing legal independence vis-à-vis humans and moral accountability vis-à-vis God. Humans own their person in the first sense. As original proprietors of their own person, individuals are entitled to subject themselves to self-chosen authorities, thereby incurring obligations of obedience. But they may not choose just any authority. Divine ownership of human life delimits personal self-ownership by restricting the ways in which humans can dispose of their persons: we cannot possibly consensually subject ourselves to absolute and arbitrary power. Locke’s rights-forfeiture theory for crime makes slavery and despotism nonetheless potentially rightful conditions. I argue that, paradoxically, divine dominium of human life underpins both the impermissibility of voluntary enslavement and the justifiability of penal slavery. My analysis helps explain why modern Lockean theories of self-ownership that reject Locke’s theological premises have adopted an ambiguous stance toward despotic rule.

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