If there is one concept that is implicit in, if not antecedent to, that of self-ownership, it is the concept of right (or rights). Included. is a right to the fruits of one’s labor, to one’s property, even a right to sell oneself as a slave (in which extreme case, one happens to forfeit his or her self-ownership rights).
It’s tempting to imagine, therefore (since we’re talking about economics), that our rights originated as a moral concept first and foremost; and that only in time, as we progressed, they’ve evolved to acquire their political connotation and flavoring. And this would suggest a kind of progress from virtually a pre-political, moral community to a political one.
Linguistic data and history of usage don’t support this contention. And although the expression “moral right” is not exactly an oxymoron, we’re much more comfortable thinking of moral obligations instead. Perhaps morality has less to do with self-assertion or self-promotion than politics does. To wit, conscience, a moral term at bottom, is more about what not to do than what to do.
The moral “ought,” all appearances to the contrary, does not contradict that insight. It’s obligation-bound, the strictures we impose on ourselves. Morality is a way of life, a path, and one of the requirements is to remain true to self.
If anything, the notion of political obligation is an oxymoron, though not by inadvertence or linguistic incompetence but by design. Hobbes was well aware of the fact, for he tried as desperately as he could to anchor the notion in morals: it was a moral obligation as well, Hobbes claimed (MacPherson).
Be that as it may, we can surely appreciate Wittgenstein’s warning about the mixing of language games as constituting the primary source of our conceptual confusion (although in this case, I happen to think the resulting confusion is Orwellian in intent).
None of this implies that there aren’t any legitimate areas of overlap between politics and morality. One would surely hope that there had better be some if we’re to regard our politics as an honorable endeavor. What’s not in dispute is that politics is about structure, social structure, whereas morality is not.
Even clan-based or tribal societies are essentially political in makeup, whereas morality (concerning itself as it does with strictly person-to-person relations) is not. It makes all the sense in the world to contest one’s rights vis-à-vis any oppressive social or political structure; it makes no sense whatever to do so in the context of personal relations. If there be any lesson in this, it’s that we’ve got to tread carefully here, very carefully.
Another observation of note: it would appear that all property-based arrangements, to include full-blown market relations and exchange, are inconceivable in the absence of the political, in a pre-political community, that is: they all seem to require the sanction by the state, whichever way we define it.
David Graeber makes the same point in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, but more on that later.