Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Self-ownership and organ sale

  1. Things owned can be permissibly traded, barring special circumstances.
  2. Trade in persons is never permissible.
  3. Thus, no one owns a person. (By 1-3)
  4. Thus, no person owns herself. (By 4)

(By the same argument, God doesn't own us, either. We belong to God, of course, but not by way of ownership.)

Let's continue thinking about self-ownership:

  1. If x is not simple and I own every proper part of x, I own x.
  2. I don't own myself. (By 4 and as I am a person)
  3. I am not simple.
  4. So, there is a proper part of me that I don't own. (By 5-7)
  5. All my proper parts are on par with respect to my ownership of them.
  6. So, I don't own any of my proper parts. (By 8-9)
While I think the conclusion of this argument is true, I am less convinced by it than by the earlier argument. I think 9 is not completely convincing given dualism: spiritual parts perhaps aren't on par with physical. I am far from sure about 7. And I could see ways of questioning 5. Still, it's an argument worth thinking about.

Suppose the argument is correct. Then we have a further interesting argument:

  1. My organs are proper parts of me.
  2. It's wrong or impossible for me to sell what I don't own.
  3. So it's wrong or impossible for me to sell my organs. (By 10-12)
While I am sympathetic to the conclusion, I worry that this argument may equivocate on "organs". Aristotle says that a severed finger is a finger in name alone. Perhaps 11 is true of a kidney as it is found in me, but once the kidney is removed from me, the kidney perishes and a new kidney-like object—a kidney only in name—comes into existence. The kidney-like object is not a part of me, and it is this kidney-like object that is being sold, not the kidney that was a part of me. Still, this isn't clear: maybe the kidney that was a part of me is what is sold, since it is for the loss of it that I am being compensated if "I sell my kidney."

More worryingly, if the above argument were sound, it seems it would be sound with "organs" replaced by "hair". But it doesn't seem wrong or impossible for me to sell my hair. Perhaps, though, we should modify 9 to read:

9*. If I own any one of my living proper parts, I own all my living proper parts and a fortiori all my non-living proper parts.
Then the conclusion is weaker than 10:
10*. I don't own any of my living parts.
This could allow me to sell my hair and some gold atoms in my body, but not my kidney.


Heath White said...

People sell blood. (?)

Alexander R Pruss said...

They do, and it doesn't quite bother me as much. I think the reason it doesn't bother me as much may be due to not thinking of blood as a living part of an organ, which of course it is. So perhaps my intuitions about blood should be revised.

Or maybe this line of argument against organ sale is just a non-starter.

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose we each had 100 kidneys, but only needed one to live well. Then it seems we would not be much bothered by the sale of a kidney. Maybe we should still be, though?

Heath White said...

It seems to me that a big part of the reason selling blood is a non-issue is that blood regenerates. So you're going to have plenty pretty soon, unlike selling kidneys. Perhaps we should also be okay with selling skin grafts.

People also sell semen, which regenerates, but the moral issues surrounding that seem quite different to me than those surrounding the sale of kidneys.

William said...

Nice sorites on body parts:

Remove 1 teaspoon blood, that's ok.

Remove a vital organ--that is not okay.

So where to put the dividing line?
Probably at the point there is a significant decrease in function.

SMatthewStolte said...

If I am simple, I do not own any of my proper parts.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right. In that case the arguments after the first one don't work. But you also don't have parts to sell. :-)

Mark Rogers said...

And so a state, without the expressed consent of the individual, does not have the authority to harvest the organs of said individual living or dead.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes. Actually, I think one can also turn this around.

The state can take a part of our property in taxes. The state cannot take a part of our body in taxes. So our bodies aren't our property.

William said...

Have you read The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry? You can sell hair, which is part of the body, right?

Unknown said...


I do not know how you obtained premise 4 from 3 or any other previous premise for that matter. 'No one owns a person' is true; that, however, doesn't mean necessarily I don't (or any person doesn't) own my (or his) body (i.e., its constituents, whether dead [hair] or alive [kidney]). It seems to me that this is a puzzle which the Oxford philosophers would have abhorred, for, in part, there are, ill-defined terms (such as ownership and personhood). I would have been pleased, at least logically, were you to add to your syllogism the notion that God owns us; but, of course, you brought up that we belong to God. You could have, nevertheless, mentioned that we persons are of a nature that we own not our bodies (as they belong to God or to the earth from which they came); we, therefore, cannot exchange them as though their function can be, with discretion, used outside the (naturally or supernaturally) ordained state. I hope this makes sense, Professor.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I discuss the case of hair at the end of the post.

Claim 4 is a direct logical consequence of 3. Claim 3 says that *nobody* owns me. If nobody owns me, then in particular I don't own myself, since I'm somebody.

Unknown said...

Yes, Pruss. You are correct and I quite see that. However, one must still explicate what ownership is in relation to a person owning oneself. (It is a linguistic muddle!) I, frankly, don't see premise 3 as correct or in direct logical consequence of the preceding 2 premises; why cannot a person own himself? *Trade* in persons is impermissible but not necessarily or directly by that is ownership of a person, as one whose body he, tautologically, embodies. That is, he may own his body (say, by way of God's gift or nature's operations) but not have the legal, moral or whatever barring special circumstanced reason(s) to trade the parts or constituents of his body. I am, truly, trying to see how this all makes any sense; any thoughts, Pruss?

Mark Rogers said...


Christians that I am aware of do not believe they own their bodies, rather they (body and soul) are members belonging to a larger body.

Alexander R Pruss said...


If I own an item, I have a certain bundle of rights over it. Being able to sell the item is an important part of the bundle. Otherwise, it's not owning but something more like being a renter or a steward.