On Philosophy

January 21, 2009

Ownership And Its Paradoxes

Filed under: Society,The Good Life — Peter @ 1:14 pm

Ownership is a strange thing. Unlike possession, ownership is not easily defined in physical terms. Possession we can define as having physical control over something. Thus if I hold a thing in my hand I possess it. But I also possess it if I keep it locked in my safe, since that keeps it under my control, even in my absence. Ownership is not the same as possession. It is quite possible to possess something that you do not own, and to lack possession over something that you do own; if it were impossible there would be no such thing as theft.

Because ownership, unlike possession, cannot be defined in purely physical terms we are faced with three possible strategies for defining it. First, ownership could be a matter of convention, such that to own something is to have ownership of it according to some rules (the conventions), which lay out in more detail what conditions, physical or otherwise, grant and transfer ownership. This is the legal view – that of the courts, which appeal only to the law to decide matters of ownership. Thus if the law changes so does who owns what. Secondly, ownership could be defined in terms of the popular or prevailing attitude, such that you would only own something if it was the consensus that you owned it. Finally, ownership could be defined as a personal attitude: essentially that you own something if and only if you think that you own it.

Let’s consider the first possibility, that ownership is a matter of convention. Suppose this were so. Then the question arises: which convention? There are so many conventions, both existing and possible, that for any object we could find some convention under which I own it and another under which I don’t. For this to be a meaningful definition of ownership we must pin down which conventions, exactly, determine what I own. And to do that there are two natural possibilities: the prevailing conventions or those that I personally choose accept. If it is the first then this option essentially reduces to the second strategy for defining ownership; I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I own it. And if it is the second then this option reduces to the third strategy; I own something only if I think that I own it. And so we are left with only two possibilities to consider.

Now let’s turn to the second possibility, that I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I do. Of course the prevailing opinion is subject to change, people change, and conventions change. Thus whether I own something would change as well, independent of any changes in me, the thing, or my relationship to it. Which is to say that one day I may own the items in my safe because it is generally agreed that this is so, but upon waking up the next day it may not be so because the general agreement had changed while I was sleeping. Such is the nature of things that are socially constructed. This means that, under this definition, my ownership of something is itself determined by, controlled if you will, by the majority opinion. And thus the majority would possesses my ownership, as strange as that may sound. They would possess my ownership of a thing because it is within their power to take it away from me. Can I really own a thing if I don’t possess the ownership itself? Or, in other words, can I maintain that I own something when my ownership of it is so vulnerable? It would appear that under this view it is the majority who really own things, and that they simply let me borrow them for a while. Thus, under this definition there really is no such thing as individual ownership.

If we wish to maintain that personal ownership is possible it looks like we are left with the third possibility: that I own something if I think that I own it. So defined, I do possess my ownership of things, because it is fully under my control, modulo scenarios of mind control, whether I do or don’t conceive of myself as owning a thing. Well, at least it is under my control to a certain extent. I am still free to abdicate that control to the majority or to some convention; I could come to believe that I only owned something when that convention dictated that it was so, or when the majority agreed with me. If I abdicated my choice of what to view as owned in this way I would indeed lack control over my beliefs about ownership. The result would be a contradictory situation where I would both own something because of my belief that I owned it, and lack ownership because I lacked control over my beliefs about what I owned. (This contradiction is merely verbal, though.) However, this still leaves the possibility open for other people to seize their freedom (seize control over their beliefs rather than abdicating them to the majority or to convention), and thus individual ownership may still exist.

The other factor that influences whether I believe that I own something is my ability to exercise my ownership over it. Exercising your ownership over something is to bring it into your possession. For example, suppose that I have loaned one of my books to a friend. I do not possess that book – it is out of my control – but I still think that I own it. Eventually I may want the book back, thus I will attempt to exercise my ownership; I will attempt to make my friend return it to me. If my friend agrees to certain conventions of ownership, or is simply a nice guy, then he will return it to me. And if he doesn’t I may attempt to have society at large recover that book for me (e.g. via the police), which is another way to exercise ownership. But if all those methods fail, and I am unable to regain possession of the book when I want to, i.e. if the exercise of my ownership fails, then I will come to believe that the book is lost to me. In other words, that I no longer own it. Thus what we can own is also limited by a conjunction of external circumstances and situations in which we want to exercise our ownership. We are free to believe that we own whatever we want, but as soon as we try to exercise that ownership we are reduced to being able to own only what the situation, other people, and society in general, will grant possession of to us. Any attempt to exercise our ownership limits our ownership, in cases where we don’t currently possess a thing, to the limits set by convention and the majority opinion.

Two unusual conclusions follow from this analysis of ownership. First, that the more we attempt to exercise our ownership over things the less we will actually own. Many such exercises (where we don’t already possess the thing) grant control over our ownership to society at large, since if they chose they could prevent that exercise from being successful. These exercises of ownership amount to giving up the thing in the hope that it will be given back, which is far from certain. Thus the less we try to exercise our ownership the more we will keep. From this the second unusual conclusion follows: that the man who desires nothing owns everything. Because, desiring nothing, such a man would never be inclined to exercise his ownership. And thus he would be free to own whatever he wanted, since his ownership would be constrained only by his choices about what to believed that he owned, which themselves are completely unconstrained.

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