Critical Reflections on Human Rights and the Environment series
Chapter 1: The scope of the investigation: can absolutely anything be owned?
‘Well! Some people talk of morality, and some of religion, but give me a little snug property’. I have in my day talked of both morality and religion, but now it is time to talk of property. Everything that is a property must have an owner, though ownership may be of things other than property, such as rights. However, in my investigation of the concept, I shall confine myself to the ownership of property, which is what ‘ownership’ in the commonest sense implies. For I want to discover, if I can, what it is actually like to own things, that is, what difference it makes to us whether we own something or not. But of course ‘us’ includes ‘me’; and I am conscious that my investigation is necessarily conducted from my own point of view, and laden with my own prejudices. Properly scientific readers may therefore find it lacking in objectivity, indeed often lapsing into undisguised autobiography. I can apologise to them for this weakness but not, I fear, change its character. I shall consider whether the private ownership of property can be judged an intrinsically good thing, or, on the contrary, whether having everything in common with other people is an ideal to which we should aspire, and whether common or shared ownership can have the same ‘feel’ about it as private ownership. And, crucially, I shall consider what is entailed by a thing having no owner, ‘orphan’ things, such as is the planet itself.