« Property and Ownership - part 2 | Main | Property and Ownership - part 4 »

October 01, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 3

III. What Can Be Owned?
Up to this point, discussion of property has mainly been limited to inanimate objects: coffee mugs, books, clothes, furniture, houses, automobiles. The one main exception has been a person's own body, which I've described as the epitome of personal property. Now I would like to open the discussion and consider the full breadth of things that people may claim to own.

(1) Material Things
Inanimate objects. When one says "property", this is what most people think of: non-living, frequently human-made, physically discrete objects, which for the most part can be picked up and moved from one place to another. [Houses and buildings, by virtue of size and being attached to the ground, straddle the line between place and thing. See "land / territory" below.]

Plants. Plants are worth specific mention because they are living, growing things -- unlike the book or coffee mug -- thus (more) changing. The seed becomes the wheat, which we can then grind into flour and make into bread. ...In a sense, by changing, the plant accomplishes labor for us. When I use paint and a canvas to make a painting, I have to move the paint around myself; when I give a seed soil, water, and sun, it becomes the plant because it is in its own nature to do so.

Animals. People lay claim on animals as pets for amusement; as beasts of burden to carry us or pull plows; as livestock to be killed and eaten, or exploited for milk, eggs, wool, etc.; as subjects for scientific experimentation; as trophies of sport hunting. Unlike the coffee mug, but like the wheat, an animal grows and changes substantially -- it is not static. Unlike both the mug and the wheat, the animal is autonomously mobile, walking or flying around under its own power. By this motion and by its physical structure, we see in the animal a mind. Yet, the mind of an animal is an alien intelligence to us. Our species has established actual communication with gorillas using American Sign Language. We've also achieved an unequal, mainly non-linguistic report with other species, such as service dogs and dolphins. Still, we are unable to know the thoughts of any animals (besides ourselves) with great precision... Which eases most people's conscience, where owning these beings is concerned.

People. Many today are convinced that it is absolutely unethical to own a person (other than yourself). Nonetheless, throughout history people have claimed that others belong to them. Slavery is the most obvious (that is, *explicit*) form of treating persons as property -- yet, we should also consider other relationships that operate on the same principles, but by a different name. There is so much to say on this topic, I will dedicate the following section of this essay to it ("IV. Persons as Property").

(2) Material Things with Fuzzy Edges
Land / territory. A person can claim to own land. Unlike discrete objects, a parcel of land is contiguous with the other lands around it. To make it into an ownable thing, one has to draw an imaginary line around the area, defining what all is included. Natural features of the landscape -- such as a river or mountain range -- have often been used to define boundaries, but this can cause problems, such as when the course of the river changes over time. Land is typically dealt with as if it is two-dimensional, like on a map. Ownership is generally presumed to extend upward into the sky and down into the Earth -- as if an enormous cookie-cutter had fallen from space to the center of the planet. That which exists inside the territory belongs to the proprietor (including trees and wildlife) and may be manipulated, altered, or destroyed like any other property. [That is, in principle. In actuality, governmental regulation places a variety of restrictions on land use -- but we'll touch on that later.] To a certain extent, a person who trespasses on another's land also becomes the owner's property, by association. Throughout history trespass has been seen as cause for using lethal force -- destroying the invader as one might rightfully do to one's own possessions.

Airspace. If you own a square acre of land, then its boundaries extend upwards -- hence the U.S. prohibits airplanes from entering its airspace without authorization, and a homeowner might clip the branches of a neighbor's tree that hang over into his / her yard. Just as airspace is associated with stationary territory, each of us also has a mobile bubble of proprietary airspace that we carry with us while we walk around: "personal space". How close a person may come to you without getting in your personal space varies from culture to culture, and also depends on situation. However, when someone does stand inappropriately close to you, the experience of surprise and anger is similar to when a stranger touches one of your possessions (that they should not have) without asking. As with material property, the air surrounding a person is an extension of their self. [On a similar note, interesting issues come up regarding how loud one should be in a public / shared space. At what point are you violating other people's personal audio bubbles?]

(3) Immaterial Things
Money. Money straddles the line between material and immaterial possessions. You can hold a dollar bill and coins in your hand, but really they're just stand-ins. The U.S. uses the gold standard, so your physical currency is really just a symbol meant to represent ingots held in the federal reserves. That gold, in turn, is also largely symbolic. Though pretty, gold has little use in daily life; we use it as a yardstick for value, something that can be exchanged for goods and services. Already two times symbolic, money moves further toward being truly ineffable as the bills in my pocket are replaced by a bank card, which I originally gave value to by using an "electronic transfer of funds". Like magic, money is now a matter of magnetic strips and electricity!

Money-producing ideas. When I create something out of raw materials that I own, then the product belongs to me. If I can take the contents of my mind and create a new idea, I can claim that too. Under U.S. law, I can even seek punishment for people who "steal" my brainchild. Given how easily ideas are transmitted and reproduced, "intellectual property" is a rather bizarre notion. However, a paragraph of text, the blueprint for a better mousetrap, or the chemical processes used to create a new plastic are all knowledges that can be used by businesses to make money -- so laws have been written to protect copyright, patents, and industrial secrets. A new idea is treated as property basically because it is seen as an extension of the money one owns: money was spent to discover it -- and by keeping control of the idea, more money can be created. ...It seems like once an idea has left the secrecy of your mind, and another person has generated their own rendition of that thought within their own head, that there'd be little point to treating it like other, material possessions. But, where money is involved, a means will be found.

Personal opinion. The contents of your mind -- knowledge, beliefs, opinions -- belong to you. This is a strong basis for laws that attempt to guarantee freedom to speak your thoughts, freedom to put them in writing, and freedom to hold any variety of belief regarding God. With exceptions made for money-producing "intellectual property", any thought that finds its way into your head (or spontaneously erupts there) is your own possession. The main significance of this here, is that it's your right to decide what you believe is true or untrue. Others can present evidence (so long as you consent to listen), but it's wrong for them to try to browbeat you into submission. To do so is to alter a possession (the belief) that does not belong to them. An example: it would be unethical to press someone to change their religion after they've already said that they're not open to the discussion. [This point of ethics has bearing on how activists should and shouldn't conduct demonstrations / protests, but does not necessarily prohibit such actions.]

(4) Labor
In considering the full breadth of things that people can own, thus far all items have been nouns. Labor, however, is about verbs: to cook, to clean, to serve, to care for. The reason I want to say that labor can be owned is because it is the product of two other things, two nouns: time and energy. Just as my body is my own, the chemical energy contained in my muscles is mine; how I expend that energy is rightfully mine to choose; time is one of the units we can use to measure out how much is being spent. Because my time and energy are my own, I'm not obligated to cook you a big, fancy meal, just because you want me to. Described as "an expenditure of energy over time", we can see that work is being done when I fix the plumbing, tidy the living room, make love, or patiently listen to someone telling me a story. Indeed, each of these actions is a service that a professional might be paid for: plumber, maid, prostitute, therapist. Often people in intimate relationships come to feel entitled to these sorts of labor from their partner -- without giving compensation or having fairly negotiated an exchange. Their entitlement is a kind of ownership feeling... But not a legitimate one.

-- to be continued --

October 1, 2002

Posted by Sven at October 1, 2002 01:35 PM