Philosophy Friday: On Ownership
I often wonder about the first object owned on Earth. Mainly, I wonder what it was. Was it a tangible, physical article? A rock or a stick of some sort? Perhaps it was spatial, a cave or a tract of land. It’s bewildering to think about, because ownership as we know it in 2015 is intrinsically connected to money – something that didn’t exist when the first being took private possession of whatever it was. That means someone just looked at another person and – in whatever language available to him – said, “You cannot have this anymore.”
He wanted to secure something for his perpetual use. For his security.
Have you heard of the “tragedy of the commons”? To put it succinctly, it is an illustration that, in nearly all instances of “give a little for the benefit of society,” there will be at least one person who tries to eke out a slightly better situation for himself, which will lead to distrust, which will lead ultimately to unwillingness to cooperate.
An illustration: If four shepherds have 20 sheep each to graze on the same patch of grass, there will eventually become a shortage of grass for the sheep. So the four shepherds agree that each will limit their herds’ access, sending only five sheep per day. According to this theory, however, there will come a day when one shepherd thinks, “But look, grass is still in abundance, so it won’t harm anyone if I send one extra sheep.” At first, he’s right. A single transgression doesn’t clear out the field. But then another farmer may say, “Well, if he’s going to get an advantage over me, I’ll send an extra one for a day.” You can see where this is going.
Ultimately, over time, each person – in an effort to either better his situation or to “keep up with the Joneses” – depletes the supply more and more until there simply is not enough grass anymore. What began as a situation where everyone had enough for contentment but no one had enough for excess has turned into a struggle for all. This is the human way, when it comes to ownership.
We fear that others may have more than us or that we may not have enough. This drives us to hoard, to store, and to do whatever it takes to make sure we are okay.
In that sense, can ownership have been borne out of anything other than fear? The first “owner” must have feared that, whatever the object was, he may lose access to it and, thus, sustainability of some sort. We own because we are afraid of what might happen if we do not have.
Take a moment to truly reflect on the core purposes for the things you own. Sure, it’s easy to say that society has been built up to necessitate such a concept as personal ownership. You wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s still the cosmic, ultimate truth that all of the items we claim as our own goods are maintained out of the neuroses that our wellbeing, our personhood, or our existence may be threatened without it.
I own a condo with my sister. Why? Because it’s an investment. Why does an investment matter? It helps earn money. Why do I need money? To pay for a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clothes on my body. Why do I need all of this stuff? So I don’t freeze or starve. Should these happen, I would die.
I own an automobile. Why? Because I need to commute distances that are impractical to walk and I can’t afford to take a cab every single day. There aren’t available jobs closer to me. Without a job I cannot earn enough money. See above for the end of that line of thinking.
My glasses. My television, My computer. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere at the core of my ownership is the fact that, without it, I feel threatened in some way.
So that’s why we own things. Because we are afraid. Kind of seems silly when you put it that way. After all, if the biggest fear is death – and none of us has died enough to know whether or not it’s really so bad – then what are we so worried about?
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