Is it my body? Do I have a right to do as I please under any circumstances? Why do we have government in the first place? In light of these questions and recent controversies, I show how personal sovereignty is not a basis for human rights.
Cake, and its supply or lack thereof, has become a hot political topic lately. And the zany types of relationships which have given birth to a series of ‘cake-gates’ are set to become ever more zanier. Let us not get too caught up in the food-fight, however. Lets look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is that these relationships, along with the associated cake (and pizza) -wars which have been spawned, are part of a three century odd continuation of the idea of ‘personal ownership.’ Those with radical demands for contemporary society are the heirs (if not the soul-mates) of a tradition going back to the England of the 17th century, to that of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.
Back then, it was all about owning property. Nowadays it is more common to hear things like ‘I can do what I want,’ ‘it is my life,’ ‘it is my body,’ or ‘he/she can do what they want, so what does it matter to me?’
Intellectuals will wordsmith these kinds of statements but the message is equivalent. All these sentiments originate in a belief that what a person does, or how a person chooses to live their life, is no different as to how they dispose of their property.
Since there is a radicalized principle of property ownership – and by property we mean not just a house or building but a person’s very body – there can then be a ground for human rights, or a version of these rights in any case. That is because human rights must start from some grand principle, an ideology, of where the government stops and the freedom of Man begins.
As an example of this property ownership, take abortion. This is a political battleground in the US (and in my home country of Ireland). The proponents of ‘choice’ will tell us that a woman’s body, because it is her personal property, is outside the jurisdiction of the State and therefore she can dispose of her ‘property’ in any way she pleases.
The one problem with this argument is that it has never been acknowledged in any constitutional document (not one I am aware of) that a person has an absolute right to do with themselves as they please … even if their actions do not physically affect others. Neither am I aware of any universally acknowledged declarations stating that this is, or should be, the case.
But, of course, times change don’t they? We can imagine a world where such things are possible and such a possibility can become a reality?
No, we can’t. If such a suggestion were taken seriously, i.e. if personal ‘sovereignty’ was taken to its limit, there would neither be government nor legal orders.
You see, the reason why we have governments and law is that people don’t have absolute sovereignty over their bodies. If people had such wide-ranging control, there would be no society, and no progression to political society. Civilization is based on a suppression of human desires, not on drawing up lines of battle between the individual and the government, which the individual has instituted with other like-minded individuals in the first place.
Nevertheless, the myth of personal sovereignty is undoubtedly powerful. There is a collective dream that we can live without either governments or law and this is buried deep in Western civilization – it is a Stoic ideal. But practically it is unrealizable and confined to songs like John Lennon’s Imagine for good reasons.
As it stands, every government, no matter how Liberal or professing of tolerance, has the right to limit what you can do with your body. Any government can control what you eat, drink, watch, listen to, touch, taste, etc… This is a fact. So when it comes to family matters, which any State must be concerned with first and foremost and which define the current battlelines, there is no logical reason why there couldn’t be intervention in principle.
The myth of personal sovereignty has deep resonance and is culturally embedded. Even opponents of many progressivist ideals would accede to the notion in some shape or form. It is darkly amusing to observe people who say they have a right to do what they want with their lives demanding pizza and cakes from people who say they can do what they want with their businesses. And it is understandable why the idea of personal sovereignty is so widely accepted. It trips off the tongues off politicians. Furthermore, everyone thinks that they can surf the tide of personal ownership to their own benefit. But personal sovereignty is illogical and neither is it widely accepted, at least formally.
Seductive as the image of freely interacting men and women may be, it must be stated clearly that human rights cannot be based on such radical notions of personal ownership. Hence, to have your cake and eat it is not a human right.
Colm Gillis has authored two books. HIs latest book is entitled The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt and is available here.