alienation and markets

Some — those who I will call extreme antipaternalists — claim that anything is alienable. I can give away my organs, or I can have sex with someone for money. Others carve out a distinction within alienation: the difference between a gift and a sale, or, in technical terms, the difference between market alienation and alienation period. To me, it seems that alienability implies market alienability but not vice versa. If I can give something away then I can give it away for something in return. If I can sell something however, that does not necessarily mean I can give it away (thought I can’t think of a good example off the top of my head of when the sale of something seems allowed but not the gifting of it). In any case, the antipaternalist claims that a possessor of something can choose what to do with that thing, including giving it a new possessor.

A more moderate position is that some things are alienable, and some things are INalienable. The prime examples are listed in our constitution. We have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Here though, inalienable might mean, not that we can’t give them away, but that no one can take them away. However, I think this is a misreading. One might choose not to exercise one’s freedom, but one could not give away one’s right to liberty: that would just be slavery. Plausibly, one could not give away the right to pursue happiness, and this would be so even if I contracted with you to give you money in exchange for your abdication of your right to pursue future happiness. Certain things are inalienable because they are preconditions for a meaningful human life or a component of our ethical development. Such cannot be traded.

However, can this moderate position be stretched into a rationale for outlawing prostitution and organ sale. I’m not sure. Neither of these things are like the right to life or liberty. I can choose not to exercise my liberty even if I have the right to pursue it. The exercise of the right is discretionary. Prostitution and organ sale also seem to be a discretionary alienation of something, not the alienation of a right. The prostitute retains all rights and the same is true of the organ donor. This argument from alienation could be pressed further, but more would need to be said for the non-alienation argument against these two activities.


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