Self-Ownership and Open Lifespan: the libertarian problem of benefiting from maximum healthy longevity technology, part 1

Introduction and quick stating of the problem

The full self-ownership principle – FSO from now on – is known as a core libertarian principle. It is expressed throughout appealing to the concept of full self-ownership of individuals and guaranteeing them a stringent set of exclusive rights to the control and use over themselves as persons, their bodies, abilities, labour and use of their time.

Healthy longevity technology is aiming to provide biomedical tools to expand the healthy and maximum lifespans of people as much as possible.

Amongst peoples supporting healthy longevity many are libertarians, and several actually see libertarianism as a good (if not the best) ideological fit to support healthy longevity technology.

The argument am going to hash out here in details is that assuming the availability of such a technology the FSO principle must be rejected as maintaining human bodies and persons throughout maximum longevity limits amounts to such a dependence on this technology as to lead to the loss of full control over those bodies and lives.

Self-ownership concept and thesis

My detailed encounter with this concept and principle is through GA Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cambridge University Press, 1995. which deals with this topic in a very critical manner apropos of Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

I’m going to introduce the thesis via Cohen’s formulation:

The libertarian principle of self-ownership says that each person enjoys over herself and her powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that she has not contracted to supply.

p12 GA Cohen: Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality

For the sake of our argument to work, let us assume initially that the concept of self-ownership is not incoherent or inconsistent, nor it is irredeemably  vague or indeterminate to use Cohen’s phrasing from Chapter 9. When trying to provide solutions (ways out) for the argument raised, I’m going to elaborate on more details of the concept, showing it to be more complex than it initially seems and pointing towards components that can be in tension with each other.

Let me quickly formulate in my own language how I ‘translated’/understood the self-ownership concept.

The first, closest aspect of our full control of ourselves is over our physical bodies, and the second aspect, is over our abilities and powers embodied in our bodies. This second aspect plays a bigger role in philosophical discussion, but my argument will focus on the first aspect.

However I would already like to suggest a way to unite these two different aspects by adding a temporal, dynamic component. Control over our bodies is realised throughout activity sequences in time, let’s call this physiological time, while control over our powers is realise as labour through activity sequence in time, our labour time.

Another distinction that can be used is to distinguish the ‘control’ and ‘use’ aspects, when former is more of a negative/protective role so bodies and powers are not controlled by others, and latter is more of a positive/proactive role on how to use our bodies and powers to achieve tasks. I will use these distinctions in the argument and discussion.

From the Cohenian formulation of the principle I would like to extract one implication, call it the ‘default technological independence’ thesis, that is the most relevant for our argument to work:

Full and exclusive right of control over our bodies means that the body’s normal maintenance cannot depend on a human-made technology provided by others for default healthy life, even if it is a contracted one.

This implication is a logical implication/entailment of the principle as the described scenario is obviously one where the bodily control aspect is lost both in normal physiological and labour life-time.

On the other hand, it excludes current critically/terminally ill clinical situations, when somebody is on a life support machine in an emergency room as that does not apply in normal, default mode of life-time. We are not going to discuss the case of coma for an analogy as the self-ownership principle does not apply there to draw any kind of conclusions from.

Just to comply with common analytical philosophical knowledge (and not sure GA Cohen has ever been part of the mainstream, perhaps as a luck egalitarian?) here’s how the Libertarianism SEP entry, written by Bas van der Vossen, formulates the FSO principle. Please note the ratio of positive/proactive and negative/protective elements.

On this view, the key libertarian starting point is that people have a very stringent (perhaps the most stringent possible) set of rights over their persons, giving them the kind of control over themselves that one might have over possessions they own. This includes (1) rights to control the use of the entity: including a liberty-right to use it as well as a claim-right that others not use it without one’s consent, (2) rights to transfer these rights to others (by sale, rental, gift, or loan), (3) immunities to the non-consensual loss of these rights, (4) compensation rights in case others use the entity without one’s consent, and (5) enforcement rights (e.g. rights to restrain persons about to violate these rights).

Libertarianism SEP entry

Open Lifespan Possible World

Here we consider Open Life as a possible world, where Open Healthspan Technologies are developed and accessible enough that all people can choose to go through continuous interventions to counteract the biological aging process and have a fixed, small but nonzero mortality rate due to external causes of death.

Open Lifespan is open-ended, indefinite healthy lifespan, ‘Open Life’ is a life lived with Open Lifespan. Open Lifespan is based on Open Healthspan a technological possibility to counteract ongoing biological aging processes in the human body, to keep age-associated functional decline and increasing mortality continuously at bay.

From the point of view of the current problem, the thought experiment should focus on breaking the maximum longevity barrier, so individuals having the chance to live well beyond normal expected lifespan.

Open Life can refer to an individual life looked from a personal standpoint. But it can refer to an alternative, counterfactual possible world where all (most) people have Open Lifespan, so an Open Life Society. 

Concepts, abbreviations used below: 

Open Lifespan (OL) Citizen: citizens living in an OL society.

Open Healthspan (OH) Worker: OL citizens working in the core OH industry of OL society.

Stating the problem as an argument against full self-ownership

  1. (FSO principle) The libertarian principle of self-ownership says that each person enjoys over herself and her powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that she has not not contracted to supply.
  2. (FSO-> Default Technological Independence thesis) Full and exclusive right of control over body means that body’s normal maintenance cannot depend on a technology provided by others for default healthy life, even if it is a contracted one.
  3. (Counterfactual scenario, possible world) Assume an Open Lifespan World where OH technology is accessible.
  4. (Counterfactual scenario, relevant detail 1): Libertarian holding FSO principle starts using OH technology.
  5. (Counterfactual scenario, relevant detail 2): OH technology is providing additional healthy lifetime for libertarian.
  6. (Counterfactual scenario, relevant detail 3): OH technology pushes libertarian over maximum known longevity, so provides extra lifetime that could not have been reached with other tools.
  7. (violation of Default Technological Independence thesis) Extending lifetime over expected limits with a new technology means that person’s normal, default bodily maintenance depends on a technology provided by others.
  8. (violation of FSO principle) Libertarian individual does not have full control anymore over their body.

Conclusion: Full Self-Ownership principle cannot be maintained for X at the same time significant lifespan extending technology is provided for X.

Part 2 of this study will formulate and discuss briefly the different solutions to this problem.