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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Your Last Word on PROPERTY

Your Last Word on PROPERTY

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 130
Here are some questions prompted by our discussion that might inspire you to do some careful thinking. Feel free to write your own, however. A paragraph is a good length, like an elevator pitch.

The last 3 questions are from the announcement; the rest sketch the direction of the discussion. The bold question is about our process, so it doesn't even require an opinion about property per se, only attention to the conversation itself.


• Our Top Ten list of important types of property to consider were all consumable resources that have some value to each of their potential owners. In most cases, the resource is of approximately equal value to each of them (e.g., we all breathe air); in a few, the value considerably differs. How might have explicit recognition of this difference affected our discussion? (Here's the list: plants, DNA, intellectual property, (clean) air, water, land, airwaves (spectrum), salvage, pets, bodies, mates, children, slaves.)
• The legal definition of property in most cases is the right to exclude others from use of something. What we should have asked first was this question: What types of property, from the above list or not, cannot be practically described this way? The second was this: What property rights do not realistically require also the right of exclusion?
• Property rights, to be meaningful, require enforceability. Is the means of enforcement an integral part of property? That is, does the value or enjoyment of the property differ if the right is enforced by possession, statute, or convention?
• Why IS "possession nine-tenths of the law"?
• Imagine yourself being a "squatter" on some of the types of property we listed. Why should you have the rights to it?
• A child brings a ball for the group to play with, but for whatever reason (say, he's not getting to play enough) he takes the ball and heads home. Assume that this is perceived as rude or unsociable behavior. Do his playmates' reactions have a basis in the ball being "property"? Whose property? In what ways might it matter what the basis for the property right is, or how it is enforced?
• What is the "feeling of property" that a child has toward a ball he "owns"? His own pet? A family pet? A swing set, by a kid sharing it? A grocery cart, by a homeless man? A stamp collection, by the collector? A souvenir, by a tourist? A present, by the receiver? A photo of a family member? Make up as many examples as you need, to reach some conclusion about an "intrinsic" feeling of property that doesn't depend on the nature or identity of the thing owned, what it reminds you of, or any other "properties" IT may have.
• A theory from the Attraction discussion was that we collect things in order to guarantee reliable access to them (and the good feelings they impart). Certainly being property is a pretty good way of guaranteeing reliable access, but what other ways are there?
• Consider a work of art loaned to a museum, maintained for public display–but only until such time as its owner may decide to sell it. Does this possibility change the relationship of the museum-goer to the piece? What is its property status if the owner were forbidden to destroy it? How does a cultural artifact fit your definition of property? How is it classified alongside the other examples in the Top Ten?
• An interesting fact about patents is that legal protection requires full disclosure of the design patented, which guarantees access to those forbidden to implement the design. Is this purely a side effect of the implementation of patent protection (in which case it's not of much philosophical interest)? Why and to what degree might disclosure be necessary to ownership? How does your conjecture stack up against the Top Ten list?
• If a property right is an unhindered access of a certain type to a resource, then there are as many rights in an object as there are types of access, each of them enforced in perhaps a different way. When technology, or perhaps pure imagination, results in an unforeseen mode of access, what happens? Test your theory of rights expansion against the Top Ten.
• You alone have discovered a new resource, "hidden in plain sight," where it is available to all. You could invent a way to access it which only you can use (perhaps you already have, and that's why you stumbled upon it); you could tell everybody and see what happens; you could find a way to limit its availability, often called "encirclement." What might affect your (private) decision among these (or more) alternatives, from a moral, ethical, or philosophical perspective? Try the Top Ten, but also consider something fantastical. Extra credit: now suppose that, after having walled off the resource, you discover that others are already using it, unawares.
• There seems to be no property where there is no value, because there is no competitor to fend off. This is the basis of classical economic theory, which we don't need to recreate–but we can play with it. Can we perhaps create value by creating property? Maybe property and value are really the same. Is scarcity really just a "mentality," in an age where demand is "created" by marketing? Et cetera.
• Accessible value without property can lead to the "tragedy of the commons." How can the institution of property emerge without an overpowering Leviathan to enforce its rights? Even with an overpowering central force, how (in an evolutionary sense) does the idea of property take hold?
• Reject the notion of deprivation. Could we learn to appreciate the tragedy of the commons, like we appreciate the Greek tragedies? Or are we really just talking "shame" here? Is there a "joy of the commons"?
• How much of the sense of property might be innate? If infants don't feel they own things, when does it kick in? If they do, what about our ancestry, or our biology, or our anatomy, makes humans so possessive? Or are we much more possessive than other animals? Don't forget the squirrel!
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 131
• J. Ruth Gendler wrote a neat little compendium called The Book of Qualities. Write a paragraph portrait, or character study, of "Greed" or "Jealousy." Now put them in a story. Maybe they learn something, perhaps from another character....
• G. K. Chesterton quipped that thieves just want to respect our property more perfectly by making it their own. What duties does ownership entail? Maintenance? Discipline? Aesthetic appreciation? (The good, the bad, and the beautiful :o) Be sure to consider the Top Ten.
• So oxygen must be valuable, right? We all need it. But we have little fear of it being taken away...though we could imagine a sci-fi or apocalyptic scenario in which it was. What do we accomplish by this application of the idea of property to air, and is there a better way of achieving the same end?
• Consider something/one you regard as irreplaceable. What might it mean if you put a fence around it, or otherwise make it your property? What might it mean if you do not?
• "If you love someone, set them free," so the song says (Sting). How can we reconcile this advice with the sense of security that property promises?
• Why might we want to be the property of someone else? If we accept that reasoning, what else does it entail? Is there any advantage that cannot be gotten any other way?
• Which sort of objectification is less disagreeable: that a wife's body is the property of the husband, or that a married couple have contracted to each other access to one another's bodies? Is there a more agreeable way to guarantee access? (We can leave aside the important matter of how necessary to marriage such a guarantee might be.)
• Patriarchy began about the same time the Greeks replaced their female goddesses with a male Pantheon, after agriculture had tipped the balance of power in the battle of the sexes. How might the idea of property arisen from this event? What other examples of a similar dynamic can you find in history?
• Recall a time when you became a collector of something: stamps, guns, music, friends, whatever. Presumably it started with an attraction to one object. How did it come about that you felt you needed more than one? What did you do with it? Where did you keep it? Was it guarded? What happened to it (how did it end)?
• We use property to distinguish ourselves from others. What makes property a very good way–maybe the only way–to accomplish this goal? If we don't have defensible property, what can we do with what we have? You might want to go beyond the "Top" Ten on this one.
• Who hates hand-me-downs? Is there a property basis for this antipathy? Does something you own say something about you, even if you didn't choose it?
• It could be said, equally of Freud or Marx, that although their specific therapies (psychoanalysis, Communism) were ultimately abandoned, the foundations they laid for them (the unconscious, sociology) have endured. Rather than simply give an opinion on Marx, comment on how Marx's ideas–say, the idea of our "estrangement" from the products of our labor–either derived from pre-existing cultural or innate conceptions of property, or changed how we view property today.
• The modern economy offers more opportunity to holders of intellectual property, even if it's only a T-shirt design. Does this humanize or dehumanize the system?

• Comment on Ayn Rand statement, "Just as man can't exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which mean: the right of property."
• Funny that houses didn't make our Top Ten. Would that have anything to do with the Thoreau's observation that "Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them"?
• My secret wish prior to the meeting was that we would find some kind of property to haggle over during the meeting. Imagine my disappointment when, after the meeting, I realized we had indeed been vying for access to the real estate that was the definition of the word Property itself! This has happened before, and will again. Can you think of a way that the "title" to the definition of a term could be peaceably and productively awarded for the duration of the discussion? Or a way to distribute that right in time or space? How could we materialize that solution so that the agreement would be clear at all times?
• Name a kind of property left off the Top Ten list that would have been interesting to address. To prove it, show how it could have led to interesting answers for some of the questions above.


Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 135
• Name a kind of property left off the Top Ten list that would have been interesting to address. To prove it, show how it could have led to interesting perspectives on some of the questions above.

Name. An important kind of property we forgot was names. In our age of mass marketing, a name–a proper noun, that is to say, a noun that belongs to someone–is a crucial piece of property. A trademark is a sort of intellectual property that has not much material value beyond its restricted availability. The Internet's domain name system has given rise to the possibility that one could "steal" a name that would seem to belong to another, which seems like Marx's estrangement of man from himself, of his objectified self (identity in the sense of reputation) from his self. (Not to mention financial identity theft and other theft of private information, such as DNA.) Note that this kind of intellectual property has no "labor" that consecrates it. The family (patriarchal) name is the ultimate "hand-me-down," often invested with value presumably accumulated through the efforts of previous generations, though otherwise transferable only through marriage or slave-holding. One's "given" name, on the other hand, nowadays more often serves to distinguish us (especially if your name is, say, Cheniqua" or "Moon Unit")–it may all that one has at the beginning, or at the end. If a name has some value, why be satisfied with just one? Indeed, some people are given additional appellations, such as "Doctor" or "President." Some of these titles are less formal, like "richest guy on the block," "best joke teller in the bar," or "ladies' man." They're fun–collect 'em all! No, really, because that guy down the street just broke your 100-yard sprint record! Another type of "bonus" name is the pet name that lovers give one another, which are rarely generally prized ("pumpkin"). Perhaps this is a way of lowering the public fence guarding that person and raising a private fence at the same time, providing a sense of "freedom." If no one else knows, or is allowed to use, the pet name, the name itself constitutes a piece of property, doesn't it? A title, on the other hand, is the kind of name that seems to impose on its bearer: he is supposed to maintain its dignity by living up to it and conforming to a discipline in, say, how it should be aesthetically written and pronounced. Children, of course, know nothing of titles. Instead we cherish their mispronunciations and misapplications of their first nouns (and so, initially, every dog is "Buster"). A child naming everything in sight sure sounds like she is bestowing titles, but somehow she naturally turns to using accepted names, and no central authority forces her to do so. Substitute an adult in this picture: he is probably applying titles, known as epithets, that no one wants them because they are so common–tragically, they used to mean something good. Yet how could a name ever have had any value that stimulated competition to possess it, if it originated as a proper noun denoting a single person? Perhaps every name started its career as a title, which would mean the other contenders' claims had to be defeated, before it could be properly become one's own name. And that original title, whence originated its desirability? (And here, we glide by–yet again–the on-going debate about definitions: we want to own certain words because they have already acquired leverage in social life. Perhaps their power is "hidden in plain sight," or altered because of a technological advance. Certainly words have senses, which are "modes of access.") That title had to have been someone's name, someone valuable, like Julius Caesar. And that name, being of value, was stolen (up for grabs, with the referent person of value taken out of the picture), becoming a title, "Caesar Augustus." When it became impossible for one individual to hold onto that title by his own efforts, an arrangement for sharing it had to be publicly disclosed, thus becoming an institution. This amounted to a time-sharing arrangement of a property whose joys of ownership included the knowledge that others could not enjoy it. Could a "feeling of property" help enforce one's claim to a title, to make it one's own name? Well, yes: even lacking brute force to compel others to call one by a title, each one can hope for a day when he will enjoy the title–the "feeling of property" that could be theirs results in universal respect for property. That's what's in a name.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 139
• Why IS "possession nine-tenths of the law"?

The key part of this commonplace isn't "possession," but the ratio "nine-tenths." What do we make of the demand for a really good reason to deprive one of a possession? What does it mean if we say that, in 90% of cases, what you are holding belongs to you? If The Law is supposed to be a cop, then The Law is acting pretty chickens**t! But that's just it: the law is just a cop, a guy–someone who chooses his battles wisely. And it's not because the department is understaffed. For one thing, the community is not going to pay for officers to be standing by each time your hubcaps are stolen; more important than the law of diminishing returns, though, is that the community expects you to enforce your own property rights in most cases (say, nine out of ten). If you don't care enough to do that, well, maybe there was a mix-up, and the property really did, or should, belong to the other guy, because–well, at least we know the other guy cares enough about it that no one has stolen it from him. So does this mean that the cops are going to respond only to every tenth call to the station? No, because that would be countered by a strategy of making nine unnecessary calls for every one "sincere" one–more work for everyone, which is precisely what the 90% notion serves to avoid. How the fraction actually manifests in practice is in how heavily the fact of possession will weigh, when balanced against the legal facts the claimant can supply. This is tantamount to an admission by The Law that it is merely an amendment to The State Of Things As They Are. Only when there is uncertainty in a situation–that is, among the stakeholders and bystanders willing to become involved (whatever that may entail)–will the law's contribution be likely to tip the scales of justice. That is why we are so interested when what appears to be a nuisance lawsuit garners an award; and it is why, when we read the judgment, we usually find that some obscure law has superseded "common sense," evoking a spiral of regulations that gradually undermine the consensus that "things are approximately as they should be." Which is not to say that they couldn't be better, only that the law, as we know and live it, was not invented to handle the job of constructing an entirely new State of Things As They Ought To Be.

I submit this argument to the group as a prototype of "situated" reasoning. The models we use, in whatever area of concern, don't develop in a vacuum. But if we act as if they will work in one...well, they can really suck us in.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 143
• Property rights, to be meaningful, require enforceability. Is the means of enforcement an integral part of property? That is, does the value or enjoyment of the property differ if the right is enforced by possession, statute, or convention?

Contrary to my expectation when I wrote this question four weeks ago, I must admit that the means of enforcing my claim to property would make a difference to my attitude toward the property. I arrived at this revised intuition by going through the Top Ten list of property types we generated. To know that my invention is protected by laws might make me brave enough to start a business, whereas the protection of music copyright by custom is a fading memory. I might choose not to allow my DNA to be sequenced because possession is the only enforcement of my privacy that I trust. I think it's safe to say all of us feel more comfortable knowing that slavery is universally considered abhorrent, than if it were merely a matter of laws that some lawyers could circumvent. So, although a different means of enforcement might effect my exclusive use of property equivalently, my affect (anxiety level, for example) could meaningfully differ, which might, in turn, have ramifications on the uses to which I put the property. This seems consistent with our differing comfort levels with various kinds of assurance–the tangible, verbal, and habitual assurances that are offered by possession, statute, and convention, respectively (which is not to deny further diversity here–the point is to establish that assurances vary). A unifying example is to imagine I lend you my car for a week: how do I sleep, knowing I might not get it back? I might hold a tangible asset of yours, such as a financial deposit, as security; I might accept your word–your promise–that you will return it; or I might be convinced that you will return it because, for example, you aren't the kind of person who takes something and doesn't return it–stealing just wouldn't occur to you (perhaps not to me, either). The details of the arrangement will matter–the value of the deposit, whether the promise is legally enforceable, your reputation–inasmuch as they must be sufficient, but, I submit, not as crucially as the kind of assurance. If you cannot offer me my preferred kind of assurance, you likely won't get to borrow the car (because I will make the details of other arrangements unpalatable to you, to compensate for their unpalatability to me). If you are likewise inflexible on the kind of assurance you will offer, then you will likely find another car to borrow, one that is the property of someone who prefers the kind of assurance you are willing to offer. But the kind of assurance, being variable, cannot be intrinsic to property. Nor does the property itself dictate what kind of assurance makes it "belong" to the owner. However, one's conception of property can easily become commingled with one's preferred kind of assurance, as they always appear together. People with disparate assurance-dependent ideas of property will then experience gratuitous disputes. It might be easy to talk only to others with the same assurance preference, as one would transact only with those willing to synchronize assurances, but, as a philosopher, one doesn't like to miss out on resolvable differences! We can do better than merely agreeing to disagree: we can acknowledge experiential differences in the availability of a concept to each of us, then move on to the interesting stuff.

This argument illustrates the value of finding a perspective from which the question is difficult: what could have been discovered by starting with "of course enforceability is separate from property"?
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