The Failure of Ownership

By poking at Locke’s logic in his Second Treatise of Government I found myself specifically questioning his first premise of property. Do people really own themselves? (By “themselves” I mean both their physical body and their metaphysical self)

To answer my question I started by looking up the definition of the word own as a verb. The result, from the Oxford English Dictionary, reads, “To have or hold as one’s own; to have belonging to one, be the proprietor of, possess.” The first definition is immediately circular, as it defines own with the word own, and upon searching the other definitions I found an equally circular path.

This may explain why topics of ownership are all too frequently difficult to discuss or confusing. The dictionary, the purpose of which is to give a common understanding of language, fails. I believe this is evidence of people’s limited understanding of ownership. I was not satisfied with this conclusion. In order to provide clarity (and sanity) for myself I moved away from formal definitions of ownership to the implications of ownership.

Intuitively, ownership implies that people can control or manipulate a thing that they own based on feelings, morals, and reasons, barring anything opposing laws of physics. I avoid saying based on their feelings, reasons, and morals for two reasons; first in order to restrict my intuitive definition to one instance of ownership and avoid quickly circular definition , and second because I believe that feelings, reasons, and morals are not clearly owned by the person they inhabit.

Regarding the latter point I will draw upon Octavia Butler’s Fledgling for clarity. Shori is frequently stated to be a moral character. We see this when her father comments on how happy he is that Shori retained her previous moral structure as well as through her interactions with both humans and Ina. However, Butler makes sure to point out that Shori does not have complete ownership over the morals she follows. When Shori tells Iosif about accidentally killing the man in the cave Iosif responds, “You’ve forgotten who and what you are, but you still have at least some of the morality you were taught.” Butler identifies Shori’s family as the reasons for the moral structures she follows rather than her ownership of those morals. Of course Shori did at one point endorse the morals instilled in her by her family and therefore accept them as a sort of mental property, but the fact that she then loses her memory, essentially returning to a state of childhood, does not does not allow her  to endorse her morals again. Instead, Shori adheres to the morals instilled by her parents as a force of habit and therefore cannot claim ownership over those morals.

Understanding that Butler complicates the ideas of freedom within the realms of moral discourse, feeling, and reason allows us to view the implications of ownership in a new light. As I stated before ownership implies that a person can manipulate or control a thing they own based on feelings, morals, and reasons. For Butler, these “feelings, morals, and reasons,” may not always be up to them. In fact Fledgling revolves around a character whose feelings, morals, and reasons come largely from an act of nature (memory loss) or outside influence (the Silks). It seems that ownership both as a word and as a concept is doomed to failure from the start.


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