The Value of Ownership

Meir Dan-Cohen
2001 Global Jurist Frontiers  
The value of ownership is ordinarily thought to derive from the benefits that objects offer, and from the rights to those benefits in which ownership is thought to consist. This dominant view leaves important aspects of ownership unexplained: the value collectors attach to owning worthless objects, pride of ownership, the per se wrongfulness of trespass, and others. As a solution to these puzzles the paper argues that property's relationship to the self resembles the body's: both fall within
more » ... both fall within the scope of "I", thus licensing the use of the possessive pronoun "my" to describe the relationship. Consequently, like the body, property too can activate values and attitudes, such as autonomy, dignity, and pride, that have an individual human being as their target. 2 My main conclusion is simple and can be briefly stated. At its core our ordinary concept of ownership does not describe a normative but an ontological relationship to objects, analogous to our relationship to our bodies, and best revealed by attending to our self-referential use of first person pronouns, personal and possessive. 2 The result is a non-reductive and non-consequentialist account of property, or, more accurately, of the idea of ownership. Given the amount of speculation generated by this topic in the past, it may be doubted that yet another theory in this area is what the world most urgently needs. As against this, the puzzles I discuss in part 1 present what I believe is an unanswerable challenge to the dominant approaches to property which tend to be both reductionist and consequentialist, thus suggesting the need for a theory of the general type I've mentioned; and a new theory of this type is required because no such satisfactory theory exists. I will not however try to establish the latter claim by engaging critically with predecessors. This would make for an inordinately long and unnecessarily tedious paper. There is a second shortcut I must indulge in order to avoid the same perils. Many forks mark the philosophical road I will take in constructing my approach, and for the most part I'll make the requisite choices, say between realism and anti-realism or conceptualism and anti-conceptualism, without so much as acknowledging them. This is just as well since as often as not the choice is motivated largely by my destination and by my general sense of direction. I don't think that any of my implicit philosophical positions are extreme, though, so I can hope that the resulting approach will be of interest even to readers who would have taken a different turn at various junctures. 3 A final prefatory remark about the nature of the argument is in order. The theory I propose takes seriously the ordinary use of the pronoun my, and associates the concept of ownership closely with it. But as should be clear from the start, the pronoun is in fact used much more widely than just to denote ownership. Thus neither attention to ordinary speech, nor indeed the other considerations I present in part 2, entail my theory or otherwise compel its adoption. All I can show by direct argument is that the theory is optional, in that it is consistent with usage, providing a possible interpretation of a relevant segments of it, as well as with pertinent philosophical views. It remains up to us, however, to follow the option and subscribe to the theory or not. A crucial factor in making this decision are the puzzles I discuss in part 1, and the ability of the proposed theory to solve them, demonstrated in part 3. In this way, the puzzles form an integral part of the argument in favor of my approach, and are not just a lure or a bait for getting the reader's attention. Thus the argument resembles in its logical structure a Kantian deduction, in which we are invited to accept certain propositions on the joint ground that they are not contradicted by other true beliefs, and that they help make sense of important attitudes or experiences that otherwise appear senseless or puzzling.
doi:10.2202/1535-1653.1033 fatcat:uwk2qmufvfgjxhg3g6fifezgwy