7 - Rights in abilities  pp. 242-261

Rights in abilities

By James Tully and Quentin Skinner

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In contemporary political philosophy the question of property or rights in one's abilities is posed within a broader problematic of property or rights over things. This problematic comprises three main concepts: (i) the self or subject and its capacities, abilities, powers, or talents; (2) the products of the exercise of abilities on nature; and (3) nature or natural resources on which abilities are exercised. Since the publication of John Rawls' A theory of justice eighteen years ago, philosophers have advanced three solutions to this set of problems; that is, three ways of relating selves and abilities, their products, and natural resources.

The first solution, self-ownership, is that abilities are necessarily or constitutively related to the self and, in virtue of this necessary relation, the self can be said to be in a juridical relation of ownership to its abilities. This in turn is said to ground the values of autonomy, individual liberty, and inviolability of the person. From these premisses two opposed conclusions have been drawn. One is that inequalities of private property in products and natural resources follow from self-ownership. The other is that liberal socialists should accept these premisses of self-ownership, and so the values of autonomy and individual liberty, but go on to show that ‘partial egalitarianism’ in products and natural resources is derivable from them.

The second solution, the disengaged self, is that abilities are only contingently related to the self and, in virtue of this contingent relation, abilities can be said to be in a juridical relation of being ‘common assets’ of the community.