Front Page Titles (by Subject) Property Rights and Body Rights - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Property Rights and Body Rights - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Property Rights and Body Rights
“Natural Property Rights as Body Rights.” Noῦs 14(1980):171–193.
All property rights, Samuel Wheeler argues, derive from the natural rights of human beings to move and use their bodies. Following Alan Gibbard, Wheeler defines a natural right as a “right one has independently of institutional arrangements.” Thus, if a person has a right to body use, it is morally illicit for another to force him to move and utilize his body in any way, as long as that person is not infringing upon the bodies of others.
The right to free use of our bodies is essential, Wheeler asserts, to our right to exist as agents in the world. The right to agenthood must be considered absolute (not subject to degrees of violation). Otherwise, we become enmeshed in the problem of deciding how much of one's body may be interfered with before a substantive violation of body rights occurs. Since artificial body parts (pacemakers, man-made limbs, etc.) may be just as important to our agenthood as “natural” parts, no distinction can be made between natural and artificial parts of the body.
Extrapolating from the inviolability of artificial body parts, Wheeler argues that any property may be considered as incorporated into the body's agenthood function and, therefore, as inviolable. To begin with the most obvious example, if a person has eaten some unappropriated (therefore, no one's) food and converted it to protein, he now has exclusive right to use of that protein. This kind of incorporation is one way of changing non-property into a private possession, of turning what everyone has a right to use into something only one person has a right to use—if we have exclusive rights to move and use our bodies.
Continuing the same mode of argument, Wheeler establishes the body- and thus property-status of clothing, which serves in human beings as the equivalent of protective fur or feathers in animals. Houses play the same body role as shells in turtles and snails, and therefore have property status. Diamonds and sequined dresses may count for moral purposes as artificial plumage. Owning oil fields may be justified as an aid to the body's agent function of locomotion. Wheeler's argument thus asserts that there is no distinction between what is part of a person's body and what is his property. Things seem to group themselves into body parts and non-body parts. This represents, however, a purely accidental grouping and does not reflect any real difference in moral or metaphysical kind.
Wheeler stresses that the terms “rights” and “good” are logically distinct from each other. When a right has been violated, a wrong has been done. However, the wrong perhaps should have been perpetrated, because it was a good and necessary thing. Thus, the uncharitable owner of the world's total food supply could legitimately be coerced into parting with some of his provisions. Nonetheless, in Wheeler's view, such a violation of property rights would be on a par with taking the flesh of the only robust person against his will to feed the starving. In this article, at least, Wheeler avoids any attempt to draw a definite line distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate violations of rights.
Trade and transfer rights may also be justified within this theory, and, through transfer rights, the accumulation of great wealth. If a person enjoys exclusive rights to use of his body, he can legitimately trade parts of that body to obtain values significant to him. Theoretically, one could trade an arm for a kiss, thus exchanging a body part for pleasure.
If the rights we possess with respect to our natural bodies also apply to artificial body parts, we can trade or give away houses, clothes, money, diamonds, or whatever is rightfully ours. Nevertheless, a thing incorporated into a person's body becomes his property only if its incorporation has violated no one else's rights. Much actual “property” may well be the result of illegitimate incorporation. As a result, Wheeler admits, his theory may say very little about who owns what in the real world.