Critical Reflections on Ownership

Critical Reflections on Ownership

Critical Reflections on Human Rights and the Environment series

Mary Warnock

In this thought provoking work, Mary Warnock explores what it is to own things, and the differences in our attitude to what we own and what we do not. Starting from the philosophical standpoints of Locke and Hume, the ownership of gardens is presented as a prime example, exploring both private and common ownership, historically and autobiographically. The author concludes that, besides pleasure and pride, ownership brings a sense of responsibility for what is owned and a fundamental question is brought to light: can we feel the same responsibility for what we do not, and never can, own? Applying this question to the natural world and the planet as a whole, a realistic and gradualist perspective is offered on confronting global environmental degradation. Critical Reflections on Ownership examines the effect of the Romantic Movement on our attitudes to nature and is a salient commentary on the history of ideas.

Chapter 4: Common ownership 1: communism

Mary Warnock

Subjects: environment, environmental law, law - academic, environmental law, human rights, legal philosophy


Private property is a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world. Men work more and dispute less when goods are private than when they are common. But it is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as a good in itself. So wrote the pioneering social theorist and economist, R.H. Tawney. Unlike Hume, he did not think that the ownership of property was anything to be proud of. But immediately we come across an ambiguity. Although in the passage quoted he spoke of common, as the alternative to private, ownership (and was writing in the context of the early Christian ideal of holding all things in common), in fact he was a socialist through and through, and the real alternative to private ownership that he advocated was state ownership, of land, of houses, and especially of schools. We shall see, in the course of this chapter, how slippery a notion common ownership becomes when set up as an ideal; how it slides between the idea, on the one hand, of people sharing ownership among themselves and, on the other hand, that of the state owning things in the name of the people who are its citizens.

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