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 8: What can be done? Some useful compromises

Mary Warnock

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


It will, I hope, have become clear in the preceding chapters that I take a generally favourable view of ownership. I believe that it can carry with it a love of the thing owned that can be both richly enjoyable to the owner and more widely beneficent. A thing that is loved and cared for is not only protected from harm, but may be more positively developed or improved, for a more general good. However, no one can deny that private ownership is a political matter that divides the right from the left. The gap that separates rich from poor, the haves from the have-nots, is growing wider, both within individual countries (most certainly in the UK), and across the world, dividing rich countries from poor. To take one small example, in Scotland more than half the land is owned by fewer than five hundred people, the largest landowner being the Duke of Buccleuch, who owns 240,000 acres, worth nearly £1 billion. The ancient aristocratic families who own such vast estates tend to argue in their own defence that much of the land is unproductive wilderness, and that only they understand how to look after it, and the game-birds whose habitat it is, and whose shooting brings huge revenue to the country (this last point, however, is of less significance than it would be if the owners were not, many of them, so adept at tax evasion).

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