Politics, Philosophy, Polemics


Here is the tale of the ocular tree:

Suppose that people are born with empty eye sockets (because a radiation-originating disease destroyed the genes for eyes)… but most, a bare majority, have eyes that fall into their sockets while they pass under the ocular trees, while others, a minority, do not.

The author of this tale comments:

The accidentality of the acquisition might suggest that redistribution to the sightless of one eye by lottery would not be so bad.

And so:

Can believers in self-ownership convince themselves that there is an important difference between the luck of the eye-tree and the luck of the genetic draw?

The answer:

Unfortunately, they can… the thesis of self-ownership cannot be refuted.*

This is a blog for people who believe that they have the right to their own eyes, their own minds, their own bodies, and their own lives, whether they received them from their parents or from a tree, and whether dedicated collectivists like it or not.

* For the tale of the ocular tree, see G. A. Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 243-4.

Contact: undertheoculartree AT gmail DOT com


Michael Ezra

More can be found out about Michael by reading his Normblog profile.

Twitter: @MichaelEzra

  1. Hi, Michael,

    I’ve been a keen follower of your work over at Harry’s Place, so am very pleased to see you embark on your own blog, too.

    On Cohen’s parable, though, surely in the context he lays out – of purest luck – there should be some ensuing redistribution of the opportunities (the eyes, in this case). Assuming that libertarians would at least find that preferable to redistributing the outcomes of those opportunities.

    Or is even that still too contradictory of libertarianism to properly reconcile it with collectivism?

    Genuinely interested in your thoughts here.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Thank you very much your comment. The point of why I have highlighted the parable in some ways is because of how ridiculous it actually is. What G.A. Cohen was trying to do was refute Robert Nozick’s argument that he made in his book, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Blackwell, 1974). Nozick makes the case that we own ourselves. This seems to me to be a reasonable position. I would not wish to be owned, even in part, by someone else. Nozick admits (p206) that his example sounds “slightly hysterical” but nevertheless it is a good example: one would not accept that there should be a forced redistribution of eyeballs from sighted people to blind people in order that the sighted person will be left with one eye and the blind person provided with one working eye, the effect of which would maximise the position of those worst off in society.

    The example is stark and very difficult to refute. As Erick Mack comments in his essay,
    “Self-ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism: Part II: Challenges to the Self-ownership Thesis” (Politics Philosophy & Economics 2002, p266) “most egalitarians do not want to bite the bullet of endorsing forced eyeball redistribution.” It did not prevent Cohen from attempting to do so. Cohen was, as Edward Feser notes (On Nozick [Thomson Wadsworth, 2004], p45), “Nozick’s most prominent and perceptive critic.” He therefore came up with a thought experiment: the case of the ocular tree, asking us to suspend reality and imagine that we are not born with eyes but they grow on trees and fall into our eye-sockets as we walk under the ocular tee. But even with all of this, he concludes that he cannot refute the self-ownership claim.

    I do not think it matters if through “luck” some of us are born sighted and some of us blind. I do not think it appropriate to redistribute the eyes from the lucky people with eyes to the unlucky people without them. Taking a different example, what do you think a multi-million pound lottery winner would say to you if you telephoned them and argued that they got lucky with their ticket and you were unlucky and hence they should redistribute part of their winnings to you and all the other unlucky ticket holders? They would tell you to get lost, and rightly so. If they wish to distribute part, or even all, of their winnings to charity, that should be their prerogative, it should not be forced upon them.

  3. Thanks, Michael.

    I suppose I was taking a step too far back and coming at it from a Rawlsian point of view, under which, behind his Veil of Ignorance, there is an assumption that everyone would choose a one eye per person society before entering the Ocular Tree/Eye Disease world.

    (Wrong of me, perhaps, given that Cohen himself argues that the eyeless in such a situation would be unaffected either way by Rawlsian justice).

    But in the context you have laid out – of a Nozickian *actual* position over Rawls’s (or more correctly Harsanyi’s) *original* position – the case against non-consensual redistribution is clearer – whether one agrees with it or not.

    Anyway, I think I should just re-read Cohen, Rawls and Nozick before I risk getting too hung up on what are, after all, ridiculously stark scenarios. Though maybe not so unreal, should John Harris ever get his way http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_survival_lottery

  4. What is it that doesn’t deserve a good, or bad, genetic inheritance? Buried in there is a concept of an essence, similar to the religious soul. If all we are is a genetic bundle then there is no essence to merit the hand that’s been dealt. The hand is the individual.

    A similar objection pertains to the Original Position attempt to rationalise the same collectivism. What essence of a person, separate from their talents, abilities, blind-spots and disabilities, can be abstracted to this position outside nature? Where might be outside of nature. They seem to have re-invented Abrahamic superstition.

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