An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 2, DDLJ ignores John Locke’s lesson about Self-Ownership.
‘Ja Simran, ja jee le apni zindagi.’
‘Go Simran, go and live your life.’ These iconic words are spoken near the end of the romance superhit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge by Amrish Puri’s character, Baldev Singh, the father of the female protagonist played by Kajol. Simran loves a man her father does not approve of, and the film is all about how the boy tries to woo the daddy. Right at the end of the film, when the boy is leaving on a train, the daddy tells his daughter to follow him, to go live her life. So magnanimous of him, right?
No. It’s patriarchal and regressive. An adult women should not need anyone’s permission, whether it be her father or her husband, to live her life. Her life belongs to her alone – and this stems from the fact that she owns herself. Had Simran read John Locke, DDLJ might not have happened.
The Right to Self-Ownership, first formulated by the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke in the late 18th century, is the foundation of classical liberalism and libertarianism. Here’s what Locke said:
Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.
We own ourselves – and in the classical liberal conception of natural rights, all legitimate rights emerge from this one basic right. The right to life, because if we own ourselves, no one has the right to take that life away. The right to free speech, because we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to property, as our labour belongs to us, and so should the fruits of our labour. And so on.
These rights, of course, are contingent to respecting the rights of others. We can only legitimately demand that our own rights are respected if we, in turn, respect the corresponding rights of every other individual. This mutual respect is the basis of civilised society.
This is also what makes the state necessary. The purpose of the state, in the classical liberal worldview, is to protect our rights – and to do this, we face the paradox that it infringe on some of our rights, for it cannot exist without taxes, which are basically an assault on our property. One way of dealing with this is to restrict the size and function of the state to ‘a nightwatchman state’ that fulfills the necessary purpose of protecting our rights – but nothing else.
Alas, it doesn’t quite work this way because of two reasons. One, we forget the state exists only to protect our rights, and behave as if we are subjects of the state, and it grants us these rights. This dangerous mindset has become normalised, and we do not question it. We behave as if the state owns us – just the same way that Simran’s father behaves as if he owns her.
Two, the state is not a machine that functions as programmed, but an institution that consists of human beings who respond to incentives, and crave power, as humans tend to do. Power always corrupts, and the state just grows bigger and bigger, stealing more and more of our money as it does so.
Some disagreements with Locke center around the contention that there can be no such thing as natural rights, which the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once described as ‘nonsense upon stilts.’ After all, your deciding you are born with certain rights is pointless if no one else agrees with you. If you are stranded on an island with only wild animals for company, what meaning do your rights have?
That said, even if rights are an artificial construct agreed upon by humans, I’d argue that Locke’s conception of rights, beginning with the Right to Self-Ownership, is the most conducive to human nature and human welfare. That deserves a book-length argument that I might make some other time.
Or maybe I don’t need to make it. The sense that we own ourselves is instinctive to all of us, regardless of how we are socialised. Even Simran understood it at some level — after all, she wanted to elope, and it was her idiot boyfriend who wanted to woo her dad. Simran knew that her father’s control over her life was unjust, and any viewer of the film would agree. It’s worth thinking about why that is so.
Also check out: ‘What Does It Mean to Be Libertarian’, episode 64 of The Seen and the Unseen, in which I talk a bit about Locke and self-ownership — and many other things.