"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
Do We Own Ourselves?
Exclusive to STR
December 20, 2007
It seems to me there is confusion on this issue. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue.
Obviously we possess our bodies. Does this imply that we own them? I would ask you consider this: I am holding a hammer in my hand. I am obviously in possession of the hammer. Does this imply that I own it? What if I had borrowed it from you? I'm in possession, but you are the owner. So possession does not equal ownership, agreed? What then creates ownership? If there is no one but me on a desert island, possession and ownership have no measurable difference. As soon as another entity shows up, the difference between ownership and possession will start to become apparent. If I lay down my hammer, or rather, THE hammer, and the new entity picks it up, what is its ownership situation? Does it still remain in my ownership even though it's in the other's possession? I suggest to you that ownership is not possible outside of understanding. Ownership is a mental construct. Possession is physical and demonstrable, but ownership is mental. Basically, the concept of ownership is something that must be mentally understood by all parties to be effective.
My point is basically this: Ownership is a function of agreement. All parties need to understand that there is an idea of property and ownership before ownership can exist. Not only that, these parties must agree to the ownership, otherwise it is more of a wish (on the part of the possessor) than actual ownership. Just because I am holding this hammer does not mean that I own it. Ownership relies on the fact that you understand the concept of property and grant that the hammer is mine. Otherwise it is not owned by me, it is simply possessed. Ownership is based upon--relies upon--agreement. This does not mean that theft is impossible. You can understand that the hammer is mine and still steal it from me. You possess MY hammer at that point. Against my wishes. If you simply take my hammer that I left laying on the ground, not knowing that it is "mine," you have not stolen it, you have simply acquired it. It is not theft until you know that it is mine. Your knowledge of the "private propertyness" of the hammer is required before it can be considered theft. Not only that, but the intent to steal is also needed. For instance, you could see the hammer, know it is mine, and pick it up and take it with you to use for a while, all the while intending to bring it back when you are done. This would not be theft. It may be questionable behavior, but it also would not be theft.
So from the above thought train, I must conclude that I do not own myself unless others recognize the concept. I possess myself, for sure. But if the society or culture in which I live does not understand and honor the idea of property and ownership, then my "rights" as regard my body are no greater than simple possession. Ownership can only exist if those who might be in competition for that property will grant the idea that it is yours. You can only own something with the agreement of others. Otherwise it is simply possession with the potential willingness to defend that possession. A man can take my hammer and threaten to shoot anyone who takes it from him, including me. This does not mean it is his hammer. Just so, my willingness to protect my hammer from theft is not what makes it mine. It is the acknowledgment by others that the hammer is mine which in fact makes it mine.
Ownership is a social construct. It is not something one can proclaim. Rather, something like trust, it must be earned. It is something that is granted to you by others. Entreaty, not declaration, is its potting soil. Like love, it can only be obtained by giving it away. And just as similarly, that is no guarantee.