Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can I Commit Suicide?

No, not me; merely an exercise in libertarian thinking.

There are so many thinkers / writers in the libertarian / Austrian community that I admire.  One of them pretty high up on the list is Wendy McElroy.  Her latest editorial, posted at The Daily Bell, is entitled “Can I Sell Myself into Slavery?  Her reply?  No.

As I hold to the view that a contract not otherwise violating the non-aggression principle must be held as valid in a libertarian world, I have, on this specific query, been on the side of Walter Block.

With this brief introduction, here we go:

Can a person sell himself into slavery? That is, can someone relinquish his humanity and become property?


Slavery is the social condition in which one human being owns another as property. This means the owner can use and dispose of the slave as he would other property such as a table or dog.

What are McElroy’s arguments against this possibility?

Of the various ways to argue against the possibility of a slave-contract, a powerful approach involves the inalienability of the human will. Free will is a defining aspect of man's nature. From the instant of awareness, he chooses. Sometimes the available options are limited or utterly unappealing but even the refusal to choose constitutes an act of choice.

Free will or volition is an inalienable part of man's nature in the same manner as his reason; it is inherent. The argument from inalienability does not refer to a moral or political objection to a man who wishes to dispossess himself of free will; it refers to the impossibility of his doing so. No one else can think for him or control his will and wishes; he thinks his own thoughts and feels his own emotions.

While there is some debate about the free will of man, I will accept this concept for purposes of this post.

One moment before I sell myself into slavery I exercise my free will by deciding to sell myself into slavery.  I am free when I decide.  One moment later I am a slave – but I did not decide to become a slave while I was a slave, I decided to become a slave while I was free.  Am I now forced to go back to freedom?  From which I choose to become a slave?  Back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball?

If my will is free, am I limited in my choices?  What kind of free will is that?  Does the NAP apply to actions I commit against myself?

Otherwise stated, without free will a man would cease to be a human being. This means that asking him to transfer his will to another person as property is as metaphysically absurd as asking a dog to become a cat.

Nobody is asking me to transfer my will, I just decided to do it.  Look, is my will free or isn’t it?

McElroy cites Rothbard, who disagrees with me:

"[T]here are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body....Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, 'stuck' with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will."

Is there basis in this in the NAP?  I cannot think of one.  I have free will the moment I make this decision.  Who has the right to stop me?  Which unwilling participant am I harming?  Me?  But I am willing the moment I decide.  And I still wonder if the NAP applies to actions I commit against myself.

Free will is a prerequisite for the concept of a contract; it is key to what gives the concept of contract its meaning. In his essay "Toward A Reformulation of the Law of Contracts," Williamson M. Evers observed that individual rights were "founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid."

I will see your invalid philosophy and raise you one: To state that I have free will and absolute self-ownership and then turn those against my desire to exercise free will and absolute self-ownership seems philosophically invalid to me. 

A slave-contract violates two defining aspects of what constitutes a contract. First, the ability to breach.

Someone offers to pay me $50 for a lifetime of service, with an out clause exercisable by me; alternatively, he offers me $5 billion (payable to whomever I designate) for a lifetime of service, but in this case I have to agree that under no circumstance other than death is it possible to breach the contract. 

I can’t take the offer?  Who is going to stop me?  With what initiation of force?

The second violation of what constitutes a contract is the lack of a transfer of value. A man may agree to transfer his will and, so, agree to become property but that transfer is a practical impossibility. Therefore, there is no transfer of value; there is no valid contract to be enforced.

Why is it a practical impossibility?  For $5 billion, someone certainly might agree to make the impractical quite practical.

I return to the question that is the title of this post: while I have free will, I decide to commit suicide.  Now I have done the deed.  Who is going to tell me I can’t?  Besides being too late, I ask: on what grounds?

Death is certainly a far more complete state of separation from my free will than is slavery.  Doubt me?   A slave can always choose death.  The dead cannot so easily choose slavery. 

Can I not commit suicide?


  1. It is trivial to recognize that a person may sell herself into slavery as easily as she may commit suicide. There are however at least two fundamental issues regarding contracts of indentured servitude: (1) how can they be enforced if broken and what damages if any may be recovered in case of breach and (2) to what extent should third parties be oligated to recognize property claims based on such contracts. It would not be the least bit unlibertarian to refuse to recognize another's claim of property on the life of another for a great many reasons. For example, one could reason that slavery to be consistent with the non-aggression principle requires a continuing, non-coerced voluntary subjugation of will by the slave. If so, it is unlibertarian to recognize or enforce such right by violent coercion after the former slave has withdrawn her consent. If this limit is observed, the relationship is just ordinary employment anyway.

    1. Why is it trivial?

      In many contracts, the method of enforcement is included in the agreed-upon terms. If it is important to the parties involved, they can include such a clause.

      It isn't clear to me what third parties have to do with it. The voluntary slave runs? The counter-party from whom he runs has a legitimate claim. How it is recognized and enforced is a question applicable to all voluntary agreements in a libertarian society.

      How does one legitimately withdraw his consent if he agreed to not withdraw his consent?

  2. One can sell oneself into "slavery." BUT in equity there is no libertarian court which would enforce the contract by an order of "specific performance." Consequential damages, maybe, but one should -- in equity -- be allowed to break the bonds of his chains. On the other hand, one is perfectly free to commit suicide. But, likewise, a promise to do so, even for consideration, would not be enforceable by the remedy of specific performance.

    1. Those who suggest that a "specific performance" clause violates the NAP are wrong. I address this in the post referenced above.

  3. It feels like there are two different arguments being made. Though I can enter into a contract to be someone's slave, I will forever be the one making the choice whether to obey or not obey, so free will hasn't been taken (or given) from me because I can't get away from it. It seems like this is the argument being made by Rothbard. But it seems like your argument is whether it breaks the NAP for someone to use force to get me to obey and thus enforce the contract. It doesn't seem like either argument answers the other. Am I missing something?

    1. I am not sure I fully understand your comment, so forgive me if my answer is not fully responsive.

      As to Rothbard, I believe he is saying that you can't give up your free will. While I agree that it is a human trait that cannot be eliminated, I don't know why I can't make this deal. I basically have agreed to suppress it in a large portion of my life.

      As to me: my issue isn't so much the use of force to get me to obey; my point is that I am free to enter into any contract (not violating the property / person of a third party).

      So, Rothbard suggests one cannot enter into such a contract, and I suggest one can.

      Again, apologies if I misunderstood your comment.