The moral argument for a right to suicide is firmly grounded in property rights. To many readers the very notion that suicide and ownership of tangible objects are interconnected is farfetched. Upon a superficial assessment of the premise, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Once we get to the philosophical taproot of the concept of ownership the overlap between the two concepts becomes much more apparent. Fastened to the pillar of natural rights, the right of ownership is crucial in establishing all other rights. The ability to retain, transfer, and exclude others from one’s property lays down the framework for all other negative rights we cherish. For example, if a dinner guest offends us with an off-color joke at our house, we have the right to ask them to leave. The right of excludability. If the dinner guest is aware, we are offended by specific kinds of jokes, they fully consent to the conditions of the dinner party by opting to attend. Due to this variety of informal rule creation, there is no need to implement laws prohibiting offensive speech. Individual property owners can decide what types of jokes or language will be tolerated in their household.
The basis for ownership of tangible items goes back to an even deeper principle of self-ownership. If we do not own ourselves how can we possibly possess physical property? Either in the title or tangible form. The philosopher who bridges the gap between self-ownership and ownership of objects, locations, and intellectual property is no other than the great John Locke. At the most rudimentary level, we must own ourselves before we can possess any additional property. The extent to which this self-ownership is applicable is debatable. We can legally own ourselves. We have autonomy over (in most cases) our corporeal vessel that holds our inner organs. An individual can also exert control over their mind. Where does the right of an individual to own one’s self arise from? This merely the abstract pontification of an out-of-touch philosopher? Most who have read Locke would staunchly disagree with the prior inference. Locke developed a concise explanation linking self-ownership to an unwavering natural right.
In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689) he further expounds upon the natural basis for self-ownership. Arguably laying down the nascent substrate for the ethical arguments against slavery later on in the 19th century. The right to self-ownership is the result of divine providence. In Locke’s view, God gives us life and we are born free. For those who have more of a secular view of the world, it could state we are born free by our humanity. There is no grand authority that we must oblige by involuntarily transferring self-possession to as a result of cohesion.
“…Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. (p.11)..”
Locke establishes that no one person has the right to own another human being. The implications of the above quote go beyond the abstract conceptualization of self-ownership. Due to a person owning themselves they also possess the fruits of their labor. If you work and toil to harvest lobsters in the icy waters off the coast of Maine, whatever you catch is rightfully yours. Providing you are not capturing so many lobsters that you are preventing others from having a chance to obtain the seafood delicacy. Nor are you procuring so many they will go to waste (p.12-15). Through self-possession and possession of our labor and the results of our labor, the natural rights argument for property ownership is pithily conveyed.
John Locke was correct about all people being born free and having possession of overall commodities, lands, and intellectual property that they have rightfully obtained through their labor. Where he went astray was asserting that natural rights are inalienable. Regardless of whether we procure these rights from god or as a result of our personhood, you can alienate these rights. Whether or not it is ethically justifiable is completely contingent on the consent of the individual. We have a natural right to free speech for example. While at work we temporarily or indefinitely suspend (for the duration of our employment) our right to unfettered speech as a condition of employment. There is nothing illegitimate about this arrangement because it expresses a form of tacit consent. If you truly disagreed with the rules of the company you otherwise would not accept the job offer. Agreeing to conditions of employment can operate as a form of selling our natural rights. If we truly own ourselves and possess all of the natural rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution, why couldn’t we sell the title to our rights to other people? That is effectively what we do when after signing an employment agreement. Our natural rights cannot be transferred or relinquished unless we willingly agree to conditions or arrangements that nullify these rights.
One particularly controversial example of this concept was formulated by the Austrian economist and political theorist Walter Block. Dr. Block postulates that voluntary slavery is not incompatible with individual freedom. Such a position sounds antithetical to liberty, however, understanding the context is key. There is a difference between being forced at gunpoint into slavery and choosing to be a slave. Why would anyone choose to be a slave? They or a family member may owe an astronomical amount of money to a private individual and the only means of making restitution on their debts would be a lifetime of unpaid servitude. It highly unlikely that anyone in modern times would consent to such an arrangement. Being able to sell one’s self to another person demonstrates an unfettered view of self-ownership. The laws prohibiting voluntary slavery are essentially are equally as unjust as keeping involuntary slavery legal. We can’t say that we truly own ourselves if we cannot do as we please with our bodies. That includes opting to sell ourselves into slavery.
The question becomes how does the argument for voluntary slavery apply to suicide? Logically it is predicated on the very same principle of self-ownership. If you truly own yourself and no one else has possession of your body and mind, then you have a right to kill yourself. As jarring as this statement maybe it is nevertheless true. If we truly possess an object or an idea we can do as we please with it. We can sell the item or bit of intellectual property, or we can dispose of it. Nothing is stopping us from purchasing the latest iPhone at full retail price and then upon receiving the device, abruptly throwing it into a trashcan. While by the assessment of convention sensibilities such an action would irrational or foolish, no one has a right to prevent this behavior from occurring. Regardless of the perception of others, the notion of ownership prevents others from intervening. Some may criticize this example because it is comparing a replaceable item with the irreplaceable essence of human life. This critique is a fair one, however, that does not make this a false analogy. The operative condition is the concept of ownership not what the individual is choosing to dispose of. Regardless of the origin of where we obtain our natural rights from we do own ourselves. Much like anything else we own we have a right to dispose of ourselves. This is not making a moral judgment about the act of suicide in-of -itself. Nor is this a tacit endorsement of suicide. However, legality is no measure of morality. Nor is pressure to conform to societal norms. If we legalized heroin use and prostitution tomorrow, these activities would not necessarily be moral. But they would be legal. While these activities may be immoral, inferring an individual’s right to poison their body or engage in infidelity is also immoral. Immoral on a grander scale. When victimless crimes have codified sanctions, they are generally backed by the threat of incarnation, fines, or state violence.
The decision to commit suicide is a deeply personal decision that should not be felt in the hands of doctors, psychologists, and especially nor legislators. Attempts to intervene in suicide attempts are naturally transgressive against the individual’s property rights. If indeed, we truly possess self-ownership.