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Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott- The Body as Property and the Limits of Self-Ownership: An Asymmetry in the Concept of Property

Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott- The Body as Property and the Limits of Self-Ownership: An Asymmetry in the Concept of Property

January 26, 2018 -
1:15pm to 3:00pm
Encina Hall West, Room 400 (GSL)
Event Speaker: 
Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott, Ethics in Society Fellow, Stanford University

The human body is unique in being the site of transmutability between the abstract realm of persons and the concrete realm of objects. A person can donate her blood or sell her hair; prosthetic limbs can be attached to the body and become part of the person. These cases point to a certain continuity of rights of disposal over the person and rights of disposal over property. One might think this counts in favour of some theory of self-ownership. However, libertarian views of self-ownership have been controversial for assuming that if property rights are fundamental, full self-ownership must come with powers to alienate any part of oneself just as one can sell an item of property. What is required is some account of the continuity of the form of what one might term ‘ownership rights’ of the person over herself and other objects, without collapsing into the view that a person’s rights over herself are simply property rights.
This paper makes the case that property need not be a univocal, gradable concept in the typical Hohfeldian sense that the absence of any particular ‘stick’ in a property right bundle implies less than ‘full’ ownership. Rather, I suggest there may be reasons internal to a general justification of property rights that limit the extent of powers included in ownership of different kinds of object (including parts of one’s body). This will depend on the way in which we relate to the object in question, and be variable across different contexts. Rejecting a univocal view of property in this way allows us to make space for a new approach to property and self-ownership: one which can make sense of various uses of the body as property without committing to the view that our relation to those parts is exhaustively characterised by an ordinary property right.


Hannah is completing a PhD in philosophy at University College London. Her main research interests are in moral and political philosophy, with a particular focus on concepts of property and self-ownership. Her doctoral thesis addresses questions around ownership of the human body and the extent to which we ought to be able to treat aspects of ourselves as property. She argues that such questions require us to engage seriously with the fact that as embodied beings, the categories 'object' and 'person' are not mutually exclusive, while resisting the conclusion that our bodies are fundamentally our property. The thesis develops an institutional approach to property that provides a robust theoretical basis for distinguishing ourselves as inalienable, some aspects of our bodies as potentially so, and external objects as straightforwardly so. Her broader research engages with the range of conventions used to regulate uses of the body, including property, contract, consent and promising.