What can we truly “own”, and are there things in this era of late capitalism where our current, long-evolved legal and philosophical definitions of ownership are inadequate?

The audience at The Ethics Centre’s ‘Ethics of Ownership’ event was posed these questions, and others, with stimuli scenes by guest actor Sheridan Harbridge.  

Sheridan Harbridge

In Common Law, ownership entails the “right to possess a thing, to use it to the exclusion of others, to alter it, to profit from it, and to dispose of it,” Ethics Centre Executive Director Simon Longstaff said. 

This current definition derives from John Locke’s labour theory of property, that when someone mixes their labour with commonly held or natural “God-given” land it can become their private property.  

However, Locke qualifies, this applies “…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” Meaning a person should not be able to own more than they can use without it going to waste. 

A series of quandaries posed to the audience at ‘The Ethics of Ownership’ produced some interesting and instructive dissonance in the way we think about ownership. The story of a woman who took apples rotting on the ground from an orchard to feed her starving family, knowing she’d been denied the right to take them, produced an interesting take on qualifying factors.  

Dr Simon Longstaff and Sheridan Harbridge

Most of the audience thought she had committed theft, but the majority thought she shouldn’t be prosecuted, because the orchard owner had acted unethically in denying his unused apples to the starving family. Locke would argue that the man had forfeited his natural right to the apples as his property as they were going to waste, and that people have a legitimate claim. 

17th and 18th Century philosophers Hobbes and Hume held that there “could be no natural right of property ownership, rather the various rights of ownership were created by the state (or some less formal community) and were, thus, a human creation,” and the state or community can change these rules as the imperatives and circumstances change. 

These Enlightenment-era theories were established in early imperial/colonial Capitalism, as defined by Karl Marx, amid agricultural and industrialising societies. Marx argued that individuals should own all productive resources in common. This is because when one class (the proletariat) produces goods with their labour, on behalf of an ownership class that derives benefit, the proletariat becomes alienated from those goods and their labour when they cannot afford to own them. 

Curiously, Ayn Rand, although a fervid Capitalist, also argued that, “The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave”. Rand, however, argued this as a case for individual rights above all others. 

When it comes to ownership over our own selves, a slim majority thought you should be able to sell your own organs, because “your body is the only thing that’s 100% yours,” as one audience member put it. Significantly more of the audience thought you shouldn’t be allowed to sell yourself into slavery, which links back to our (now) deeply held belief that you cannot own another person because, as Emmanuel Kant put it, no person can ever become a means to someone else’s end.  

Locke did not extend common property rights to slaves, arguing that slaves cannot lay claim to property as they’re not considered part of civil society, “having forfeited their lives and, with it, their liberties, and lost their estates, and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property.” 

The audience’s answers show how much we value our personal autonomy over our bodies, and gave rise to the fact that, in Common Law countries, you don’t in fact own any part of your body. The “No Property Rule” prohibits individuals from claiming ownership over their own bodies or genetic material.  

Interestingly, this law arose as a response to slavery entrenched by various judicial decrees over the centuries, including Shanley v Harvey (1763), where the judge decreed that, “[a]s soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free.” With ownership of another human eventually ruled indefensible by the courts, and reasons given ranging from “from ecclesiastical law to grave robbing”, a person’s ownership of their own body was abolished as well. 

Ownership comes with responsibilities as well as rights – you have the right to exclude others from using your property, but you also have a responsibility to protect that property from improper use by others, for instance, keeping weapons and dangerous animals contained from improper use. You also have a responsibility to use that thing, Locke argued, to maximise its productivity for the good of all society. 

The audience consensus was that “owning” things that are of public value, such as artworks and the environment, should not confer the right to do what you like with your property. I would extend this concept to intellectual property such as patents for life saving, or life-improving, medications that private companies or individuals are currently allowed to own and may charge what they like for. 

The argument of one audience member was that “things of shared value, while they can be owned in a legal sense, ownership should be more of a role of caretaking,” or akin to borrowing, where you’re duty-bound to return it in the same state you received it in so others can use it after. In the case of inheritance, this ethical obligation to caretake for the thing in possession would pass to whoever inherits it. 

Does this mean that our sense of ownership, as defined by law precedent derived from Locke, is no longer fit for purpose, in an era of alienation from labour and destructive, extractive use of natural resources? Does a mining or forestry company have the right to own and ruin a piece of land because they have expended effort to harvest its natural resources, but not maintained or improved it? 

When applied to things of common value to everyone on the planet, such as the environment, access to culturally valuable works of art, access to sun, water, shelter, sustenance, or medicine, our legally established definitions of ownership start to look inadequate.

Locke’s definition also didn’t account for indigenous concepts of ownership. For Indigenous Australians, the land owns the people and every aspect of their lives – spiritual, material, social, cultural – is connected to it and its maintenance. You cannot own property and derive maximum benefit from it to its detriment when you’re morally and culturally bound to be a caretaker or custodian for that property. 

Perhaps our whole definition of private ownership needs a contemporary rethink when it comes to these objects, resources and ideas of inherent common value. We don’t need to abolish private ownership, but we do need to re-establish rights and responsibilities of use within the concept of the “common good”.  

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