« On Writing A 'Blog | Main | Property and Ownership - part 2 »

September 25, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 1

The concepts of property and ownership are a cornerstone in the practice of writing and interpreting legal code. As the saying goes, "possession is nine-tenths of the law." The same could be said of ethics. In western philosophy, the guiding light in ethics has been the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Various thinkers have embellished on the concept (e.g. Kant's categorical imperative), but I think their work usually boils down to the same thing: be kind, play nice. Simple enough. The tricky part is in explaining "nice" -- what exactly would you have others "do unto you"? This is where property and ownership comes in. ...What goods or services do other people owe me? What do I owe them? ...What stuff belongs to me? What belongs to them? ...Where do I end and you begin? ...Whether you're designing a personal ethics, the code of ethics for an organization, or the legal code for a nation-state (a sort of de facto system of ethics), it seems to me that you need a well defined understanding of property and ownership as its foundation.

My intention in this essay is to begin articulating the ethics of liberation activists. Much of this system is identical to the liberalism of the United States' founding documents (e.g. "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal..."). Some of the ideas come from the writings of progressive and radical activists -- some from living discussions that I've been privileged to listen in on. Much of it, however, is my own formulation, which I've put together to satisfy my own sense of completeness, and to remedy areas of thought that often seem muddled among our communities.

I think property is the key concept to understanding what our inherent rights are. It tells us what treatment we should expect from others. By telling us how things should be, it also gives us the key to understanding how things go wrong: in our daily relationships, in extreme cases of interpersonal abuse, and in oppression at a societal level. Most social wrongs can be explained by pointing to an individual's poor sense of boundaries, or to how someone expects to receive goods or services that were not fairly negotiated for, or to how one person / group has chosen to take what rightfully belongs to another. By becoming more aware of ownership issues, one gains a powerful tool for self-defense. It gives you the ability to identify what's gone wrong in an intimate relationship -- or to analyze and strategize against a group that's harming a whole category of persons.

Let's now take a closer look at the concepts of property and ownership.

I. Defining "Self" -- The Owner of Property
What is property? For the moment let's just deal with private property that's owned by one person rather than many. For now, let's also limit ourselves to dealing with inanimate objects -- for instance, a coffee mug.

There is no coffee mug that is a "property" in and of itself. "Property" is a symbolic status that we assign to the object -- it means "this coffee has a relationship to something else." In this case, the mug has a relationship with me -- I say (and hope you'll agree) that this is *my* coffee mug. A rough definition: "property" is some material object that is owned by a person.

[Could property be immaterial, as with copyrighted "intellectual property"? Could property be owned by a non-person, like a doghouse belonging to a pet dog? Perhaps -- but let's not quibble just yet. My intention here is to describe the basic nature of property, not to exhaustively address each potential loophole.]

What, then, does it mean to "own" a piece of property? I think we (human beings) understand the things we own as extensions of the self. It's as if everything that I own is actually connected to me -- physically -- by an invisible string. Imagine, if you will, me standing out on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, a huge bundle of twine looped around my neck. Strands of string trail behind me, leading inside to where they're tied: to each one of the books in my library, to each chair and piece of furniture, to each piece of food in the fridge. A big thick rope is looped around the entire house, and another around my car in the driveway. If you look closely, you see that a string is tied to the watch on my wrist. Strings drag behind my shoes, attach to my hat, and to all my articles of clothing.

If you follow all these strings back to their origin, you find the "self". Consciousness is the most striking feature of the self. However, for our purposes here, it's at least equally important to notice that the mind is located and constrained to a specific place in the world. The self of any person could be identified with a point in space; for simplicity's sake, let's say a point that is coterminous with their brain.

Defining the self in terms of a geographic point is useful because it allows us to broach some traditional philosophical questions without leaving the framework we've begun to establish. For instance, I start to wonder: is the body itself property? I'd say yes -- I think the body is the epitome of the self's personal property. I've heard students of philosophy ponder over what the essence of a person is... If a person loses a hand, is it still them? Or if they lose all their limbs, or somehow survive as a brain in a jar...? Personally, I find these questions distasteful, and am perfectly content to encompass all of the naked body in my notion of the integer self -- for most purposes.

[Thinking about the self as a point in space is also useful because it invokes "point of view", which generates the (philosophical) possibility for "conflicts of interest". If, assuming the godlike ability to turn dust into flesh, I was able to conjure up a mind from the nothingness and wrap it in a physical body, immediately upon opening its eyes this being would have a point of view. it would consider its situation and then imagine its needs / wants / desires. Some could be accomplished alone, working upon a non-sentient landscape -- but others would require the presence, resources, and/or labor of another being. If that second being does not want to conform to the plans of the first, then there's a conflict of interests. Two parties negotiating about their interests until some resolution is achieved: this is the story of two people in love, and the history of nations at war. How to do the negotiation well -- is the stuff of ethics.]

"The mind's eye" may be situated on a point in space, but we experience the self as something larger than that -- extending, we perceive, even beyond the naked body. Clothes conform to the body so well, we think of them as a "second skin". It's often been commented that while driving a car the machine becomes an extension of your self -- moving how you tell it to. When you own something, that possession becomes grafted onto your self-image. When you try to picture yourself, do you imagine yourself naked? Probably not. Do you imagine yourself as a homeless person who's been fortunate enough to find temporary living quarters? No -- "person who owns living space" (rental included) is somehow a part of you. The things we own become the outer perimeter of the self. [Somewhere a Buddhist monk -- or one of those New-Agers who say they're "a spirit having a worldly experience" -- is laughing at me.]

Imagine, if you will, figuring out how much everything you own weighs. All the books, the furniture, the car -- how many tons? It's a thought we're most keenly aware of when moving to a new home -- how many car loads (or truck loads) does the move require? In a very real sense, this volume of mass is a measure of how big you are. Imagine if you could swallow all those possessions, absorb them, and become a giant who weighed that much! Or perhaps you own very little, and see the wealthy like these giants walking around, so easily able to ignore your existence, carelessly crushing you with a misstep... Fortunately all that mass is distributed into separate objects.

A mark -- perhaps the essence -- of *owning* a thing is that one feels and acts as if it is a physical extension of one's self. Excluding the body, all the things we own are detached (or detachable) from the self. Yet, it is almost as if all of those invisible strings attaching my property to me are nerve fibers, giving me direct sensory information. Like stubbing a toe, I'm pained when I break a favorite plate. When my house is broken into, I feel violated. The body is the epitome of personal property -- and just as my hand moves when I wish it to move, or stays still when I want it still, I want equal *control* over objects (the coffee mug) that are part of me, despite being physically separate.

-- to be continued --

September 25, 2002

Posted by Sven at September 25, 2002 08:07 PM