« Property and Ownership - part 4 | Main | Adult Supremacism - part 1 »

October 10, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 5

V. Collective Ownership
This essay's exploration of property and ownership has focused on privately held possessions. However, I would be remiss if I didn't touch on property owned collectively by groups of people. Think about large business corporations and nation states.

In both cases you don't have a single "self" -- you have many, many people working together in collaboration. Nonetheless, a unity of "will" emerges through formal decision-making processes. Perhaps there's a chain of command with a single person at the top making decisions for everybody. Perhaps there's a democratic vote, from which collective decisions proceed, dictating the group's direction -- even for the dissenters.

Both businesses and nations can own money, material assets, and land. With nation states, there are national parks and public land that is said to belong to all citizens -- though it's managed by government agencies. In actuality, all land within the borders of a nation is claimed by the government; privately owning parcels of land is contingent upon governmental sanction. We live in a time when all of Earth's landmass has been divvied up into countries -- yet, we need not think of the nation state as a natural phenomenon.

In a sense, we have all been colonized, all of us living inside of nations. In true colonialism, a foreign government invades a geographic area outside of its current boundaries, either setting up a governing body for the first time, or replacing the native government with rulers of its choosing. Like a colonized people, persons born inside a nation are subject to policies that they have not consented to -- because they have been automatically inducted into the citizenship. "If you don't like it, move to another country," some would say -- the trick is that there's no place left where you won't just be moving into some other government's space, coming under another group's set of rules. The difference between being a colonized people and being the citizenship of a representational democracy such as the U.S., of course, is the ease with which the land's inhabitants can change governmental policies. Still, in any group that is not joined voluntarily (such as a nation), questions of consent must arise.

National governments deal with their citizens as if they are property of the state. Various laws prohibit assailants from doing damage to the state's human possessions -- whether those assailants be other citizens (e.g. rape, child abuse) or the "possessions" themselves (e.g. suicide, drug use). Should it feel the need to do so, the government may even impose forced labor that leads to death -- e.g. drafting citizens to act as soldiers in war. In this last case, the nation state looks most like a would-be owner of slaves, if and when citizens object that the war is an unjust cause that they do not want to participate in.

Despite the critical tone of this section, I would not call myself anti-government. This essay is an exploration of property and ownership, and my point here is to show that groups (such as national governments), like individual persons, may claim human beings as their possessions. I believe in the necessity of imprisoning persons who demonstrate a threat to others by doing violence. [I do not, however, agree that this nation's current prison industry and justice system have achieved a humane implementation of the idea.] Imprisonment implies that one owns another person. Thus, I condemn treating persons as property in interpersonal relationships -- but feel compelled to bracket off the issue of governmental ownership of citizens as a separate issue, on which I have no clear opinion at present.

In a long, panoramic essay such as this, it can be helpful to review the overall arc of ideas. Therefore, let me conclude by offering a summary of main points:

  • understanding ownership is a foundation of ethics
  • the body is the mind's most basic possession
  • owning a thing is like treating it as a physical extension of oneself
  • it is your right to dispose of your property as you see fit
  • a claim of ownership can be placed on nearly anything
  • even people may be claimed as property -- but maintaining the command / obey relationship requires coercion
  • groups (e.g. nations) may also claim to own property, including human beings (e.g. citizens)
  • the great challenge of practical ethics is to root out the subtle ways in which "persons as property" shapes interpersonal relationships

...I recognize that this final point was really only touched on as a passing comment. It seems to me the direction that everything I've discussed points toward. However, a truly adequate exploration of "what projects ethics should take on" falls outside of my current topic's parameters. I hope to revisit this matter in future essays.

-- END --

October 10, 2002

Posted by Sven at October 10, 2002 04:38 PM


Who is Sven Bonnichsen?
I found this series facinating, and wish to use it as a source in a paper I am writing on assumed ownership of female and child as a predisposistion of father-daughter incest.

Could someone send me Mr. Bonnichsen's credentials and a list of some of his published work.

Thank you

Athena DeRasmo
University of Haifa, Israel

Posted by: Athena DeRasmo at May 26, 2003 11:11 AM