Private property and its protection from arbitrary confiscation or control are implications of human dignity—because property is at its heart the fruit of our labors, which ought to be free. In that sense, we do own ourselves. But let’s ask a few pointed questions about what that ownership really means, how far it extends, and in what ways that ownership is conditioned by what we have ourselves received.
It is clear that no human being is really “self-made.” We are born to parents, without whose care we would quickly die. Human beings are dependent for longer than any other creature on the constant protection of parents. Nor, once we reach adulthood, can most human beings survive alone. We are physically and emotionally dependent on cooperation with others. Our very consciousness is constituted and formed into fullness through the mediation of language—of words and grammatical structures that we learn from others, who have themselves inherited them from the dead. Likewise, we are the beneficiaries of the hard work done by our ancestors in establishing an orderly society that protects individual rights, and creates the infrastructure for education and technology. Think of the immense advantages in lifespan, opportunity, health, and wealth that a modern American or European enjoys over a persecuted Nuba tribesman or a Brazilian living in a favela; can any of us rightly take credit for these? No, these are gifts that we have been given, and without them we would not have the knowledge, skills, freedom or physical safety that make possible our efforts at creating wealth. Two people with similar talents and comparable work ethics will fare very differently, if one of them is born on New York’s Upper East Side, and the other in an aboriginal community in Australia. The discrepancy between the opportunities offered to these two people ought to show us the measure of how much we owe to others, how little of the selves that we have become for which we can take sole credit.
We do not give birth to our bodies, nor create ourselves. We take a vast array of inherited gifts and opportunities and do our best to steward and make good use of them. Given that fact, our ownership of our labor and our wealth is not complete and absolute. That ownership is conditioned by what we owe to others who came before us. For that reason, adults are expected to care for their aged parents. But even more than paying back the care and opportunities we have received, we are expected to pay them forward, to offer the next generation the best chance to thrive in its own right. This debt is more than a moral truth; it is a fact of mammal biology, of a race whose young are born from the bodies of parents, not hatched from abandoned eggs and left to fend for themselves.
In light of these social, biological, and moral realities, we can see that we do not own ourselves outright, free of any liens or claims. By virtue of everything we have that sets apart from a stranded sailor alone on a desert island, we in fact owe a great deal to our parents (which might need to paid forward to our children), and significant debts to the society that shaped us, kept us safe, and made it possible for us to thrive. We owe the most to those who are closest to us, to our parents and our children, and to our direct benefactors. We owe a little less to those in our local community, and proportionately less to total strangers who are faraway fellow citizens. Our debt is least to people who live in distant countries with whom we interact little except to buy the fruits of their labor. However, we still owe them something, a debt that may seem to materialists as intangible or meaningless—but which in times of crisis can mean the difference between life and death, peace and war, coexistence or repression and terrorism. We owe every human being by virtue of his membership in the human family respect for his intrinsic dignity. We owe even distant strangers the recognition that they are different from machines, that their equal humanity is not affected by differences of wealth, race, or religion. We owe them the debt imposed by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.