In his critique of libertarian political philosophy, Gerald Cohen defined self-ownership as having every right over what happens to oneself that sheer logic allows. On that definition, though, if we own ourselves, then we are forbidden to do anything that might cause even an unwanted particle to fall on each other—and that is pretty much everything. So much for self-ownership. Notice that ownership doesn’t work like that, though. People own cars, but this doesn’t forbid people to do anything that might stir up dust that lands on someone’s car. Ownership includes just those protections that we need to count on for social life to be something we can all be thankful to be part of. And on its more “classical” understanding, this is exactly how self-ownership works too, where the protections concern bodily integrity and personal freedoms. This chapter explores that more classical approach—self-ownership as an institution of ownership—focusing on three main themes:

The very idea of owning oneself,

Ownership of one’s productive capacities, that is, one’s labor, and

The relation between self-ownership and other rights, including ownership of things.

Very often the current conversation about self-ownership is really a proxy for another conversation, usually about redistribution; and, of course, what we make of self-ownership has to have political implications eventually. But this chapter considers self-ownership just as a key concept—a way of framing social and political issues, not a corpus of conclusions about them.