This post was prompted by Hans Herman Hoppe’s claim that “property implies discrimination” (YouTube).
In this post I’m attempting to tease apart the related concepts of property and ownership to uncover implications for free thought, speech, and association/relationships.
Section One – a simple model of reality and some definitions
Parts of this universe are physically material. Tables, chairs, people, and atoms are some examples of material objects. All material objects can interact with each other physically (e.g. leaves falling to the ground) but only some material objects can intend their physical interactions. These material objects possess consciousness. Much of the animal kingdom, including humans, are examples of objects which possess consciousness.
As a quick aside, note that consciousness itself is not an object. While the mechanisms by which material objects are in possession of consciousness are unknown, there is indeed consciousness in the universe. Material objects exist in objective reality, that is, they exist independent of any consciousness awareness of them. Material objects that experience consciousness are objects that possess subjectivity. All this means is that consciousness allows perception which is independent of objectivity. To end this aside, the intricacies of how immaterial consciousness connects to material objects, and the problem of justified belief (epistemology) is not central to this model of reality.
Conscious objects can intend their actions. Non-conscious objects cannot. To clarify my terminology at this point: a conscious object is a material object that has consciousness (through some unknown mechanism –this is the “hard problem of consciousness”). A mind is the subjective agent associated with a conscious object that has a set of intentions.
Conscious objects have a set of desires/drives/motivations that constitute their intentions (a will). Hunger, procreation, survival, love, anger are examples of such desires/drives/motivations. Whether these conscious objects are fully aware of their desires or just act out of impulse, is equivalent for our purposes here: they “aim” their material bodies toward specific interactions with other material objects, e.g. a deer is motivated to eat grass when subjectively experiencing hunger. So, just as the deer can will the act of eating grass, by my own thinking, I can cause physical action (I can will my arm to move). As experiencers of subjectivity (minds), we have motivations (e.g. hunger) to act in certain ways (e.g. eat) to satisfy some subjective goal (e.g. fullness/satiation).
Unlike conscious objects, non-conscious objects do not “intend” their physical interactions. For example, a paperweight which has no consciousness, no set of motivations, cannot intend to affect paper, even if it can physically affect paper. It doesn’t matter whether these non-conscious objects are inanimate (e.g. atoms, rocks, mountains, planets, stars, tables and chairs) or not (e.g. plants, bacteria, and fungi), they do not have the ability to intend. It is a side issue, whether we grant plants, or other “lower” forms of life to have consciousness. If we grant them consciousness, then my definition of control applies to their “intended” physical interactions.
Consider a toddler with a ball. When the toddler throws the ball against a wall (presumably for fun), it controls the ball. Contrast this with a toddler that bumps a cup off a table. The toddler did not intent the physical interaction with the cup. So, as a definition, when a material object is interacted upon by intentional force, the conscious object responsible for the intention is controlling said object. Control is therefore different to pure physical interaction (even though both involve interaction of physical force between objects) because control involves intention. In an act of control, a mind controls, while an object is controlled. (Therefore, a paperweight which does not have a mind does not control paper, it merely affects paper).
This definition of control does not change even if it involves two conscious objects, say two people playing football. If the red team’s player intends to tackle the blue team’s player, the resulting clash involves, by my definition, the control of the blue team’s player by the red team’s player.
Note that while physical bodies are controllable, minds themselves are not material objects and therefore cannot be physically interacted with and therefore cannot be controlled. Consciousness can intend physical force upon material objects but cannot itself be physically affected. It is responsible for all controlling but is not itself controllable. The is not to say that minds cannot be changed through debate or different experiences, but a mind cannot be coerced to have a different set of desires/drives/motivations all else being equal. Kahlil Gibran makes this point succinctly in the following quote from The Prophet.
“You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet; you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, because it is free!”Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
The body is necessarily the first object that a body’s mind controls. While the “hard problem of consciousness” itself is not current solved by science or philosophy, so we cannot say what exactly consciousness is, or how it works, we can say that conscious beings have direct control over their physical body with their minds. This is to say, animals’ minds physically interact with their bodies through a direct mind-body connection. This mind-body interaction is prior to all other (physical) interactions. It is the root cause of all physical interactions that a mind makes. Hence, a mind controls its associated body and, with it, can then control other objects.
No mind can directly control another mind’s associated body. For example, my mind cannot directly make a dog walk, I can only try to have the dog’s mind walk its body. This is indirect control. Indirect control is ultimately done through physical interaction. For example, a dog can control a ball with its mouth; a human can control a dog with a leash. In each case, the control is indirect: the human does not control the dog’s mind, instead he uses physical force via a leash, whereas the dog does not (and cannot) control a ball’s non-existent mind but uses physical force to control a ball.
Property has three qualities: control, exclusivity, and restriction. Property is any object that is exclusively controlled without restriction.
- Property is a controlled object. For example, a mind’s body is its property; a dog is its master’s mind’s property.
- Property is exclusively controlled. An object can only be controlled by one mind at a time.
- Exclusively controlled property is unrestricted by other minds. For example, a mind (A) cannot restrict another mind’s (B) use of its property (or else it would be A’s property).*
It follows from my definitions that just as non-conscious objects cannot control (due to the fact that they do not have intentional physical interactions), non-conscious objects cannot have property of their own. Even though non-conscious objects can physically interact with other objects, they cannot choose to, and hence cannot control objects and therefore cannot have property. This also implies that any mind’s property that is physically interacted with by non-conscious objects remains the mind’s property.
Regarding point two: At any one moment, only one mind (the dog’s or the human’s) is in exclusive control of an object (e.g. the dog’s body). This does not contradict the earlier definition I provided that only the dog can have direct control over his body. While the dog’s mind is the only consciousness that can directly interact with his body, at any one time his body is under physical forces as the result of one mind. At any one moment, the dog’s body is property to only one mind, hence property control is exclusive.**
Regarding point three: A dog being walked by a human does not have unrestricted control over its body. The body is restricted by the human’s control of a leash. The dog is allowed only restricted physical interaction with his own body by leave of the human. The owner allows the dog to walk (within the confines of the leash) because it suits the human to allow such restricted freedom to the dog.
This definition of property allows for hierarchies of property. First, let’s understand that an object may itself be comprised of children-objects, for example, a car may be comprised of many parts such as wheels, chairs, an engine, among other things. There is no objective hierarchy between these objects, just a subjective one. In other words, for the purposes of defining property, a “child-object” (e.g. a wheel) is as much an object as a parent-object (e.g. a car) is. It does not matter whether the wheel forms part of a car and that a car does not form a part of a wheel — what matters is that each object is a physically material object which can be physically interacted with. The same logic applies to objects with consciousness, e.g. a hand in relation to a person (non-conscious to a conscious object). As such, any object or child-object can be property, independent of other conceptually related objects.
Second, in relation to hierarchies of property, let’s understand that the naming/labeling/identification of an object does not map directly and perfectly/discretely to the objective world. By this I mean, when looked at with enough precision, any object being referred to has poorly defined and ambiguous edges/bounds. The Ship of Theseus**** is a thought-experiment which serves as an example how the usefulness of labels breaks down when the physical objects are altered. Or consider this question: “which position on your arm objectively marks the boundary of your hand and forearm?” Labels (or signs) are just convenient and arbitrary conceptual abstractions of the objective world. Conscious minds break the objective world into useful concepts. This allows communication and shared understanding between subjective agents within a community of shared signs. Since a named object refers to an intrinsically a fuzzy child-object of the universe, there can be errors in defining property. These errors result from misidentifying an object, but by definition, property is that which is under exclusive control without restriction. Therefore, the constant in this definition is the object that has intentionally applied physical force –whatever the subset of the universe the object is conceptually.
Having clarified hierarchies of property, I can give a simple example. Consider a man walking a dog. The human may have the dog as property, while the dog has its tail as property. The human is controlling the dog, while the dog controls its tail. Unless the human is grabbing the dog’s tail, it is wagging due to the dog’s (probably subconscious) intention, hence it is the dog’s property not the human’s. The human only controls the dog’s overall location, via the force of the leash. While some of the leash’s force contributes to the tail’s overall physical action, the tail wags independent of the leash. The problem of “whose property is the tail” is just one of ambiguous labels. When we say “dog”, we tend to think that includes a tail, but so the degree that a human controls a dog but not a tail, then “dog” is not how we usually consider the label to mean. At all times, property is exclusively controlled property, without restriction.
While a dog can be a human’s property, this does not necessarily mean that the human owns the dog: property control is not and does not imply ownership. Property is a controlled object, but property is not necessarily owned. Ownership is rightful control.
Section Two – ethical claims and perspectives
We now enter the man-made world of ethics and norms. I am not stating positively which ownership claims are true or correct, nor that rights exist independent of minds. In this section I am describing ownership as a subject ethical assertion, a communication of one mind to other minds about its subjective relation to its controlled property.
By telling you, “I own my car,” it is communicated that I perceive my right to exclusively control my car. It may be that I control my car, or it might be that my car has been stolen and someone else currently controls it. Either way, communicating ownership, communicates the perception of rightful control.
Claiming ownership is an ethical assertion. It is an act that contains claims of what ought to be. To say that we own an object is to claim that it is our property and that certain rights accompany this fact. For example, if I claim ownership of my house, I must be in control of it and I am claiming that no one else should take control of it even if they wanted to and could physically succeed in taking it. Furthermore, if others did take my house under their control against my intentions, that act would violate my rightful control of my house — at least from my perspective.
To recap: Objects are physical entities which can interact. They become property (by definition) when they are controlled by minds (which is “intentional physical interaction”). Minds can communicate (via their associated bodies, e.g. vocal cords) their perspective of possessing ownership, which is an ethical claim to rightful control of property. And as Hans Hermann Hoppe points out in his “Argumentation Ethics“, without the ability to communicate this there would only physical interactions could solve ownership disputes.
The truth of such claims to rights is only ever subjectively determined, there can be competing claims to ownership over a given object. And so, while rights are subjective, and hence ownership can be in dispute due to many claims of ownership over a given object, there cannot be any objective ambiguity about the physical control of an object. (The mind that is the root cause in the causal chain of indirect control over property is the controller). That is, by the above definitions, property is metaphysically unambiguous, even if ownership is not. Ownership is subjective, property is objective.
Hypothetically, if it were possible for a mind to physically control all the objects it desired, and there was no competition or threat of other minds appropriating such property, there would be no need for claims to rights and legitimate ownership. But, of course, this is not a reality in this world of scarce resources.
In reality where minds control objects, and desire to maintain their control against threat of loss of control, a variety of methods are used to maintain control. In addition to physical control (which is at the root of all other methods of control) is argumentation. From a biological-energy conservation perspective, words and argumentation are less expensive than blood, sweat, and social influence.
The control of property can be sustained or ended. If control ends, it was either released by a mind (intentionally abandoned) or taken by another mind (intentionally appropriated). Such property transfer is merely objective fact, there is no need or possibility for subjective approval or disapproval. Disputes which arise from property transfer however, involve man-made assertions of ethical norms or individual grievances.
Sure, owners assert rights over their property, but specifically which rights do owners have? Naturally, when ownership is claimed, the minimum assertion is to the rightful sustained control of the property in question. This is of course in addition to the necessary definition of property, which involves its unrestricted, exclusive control. Ownership necessarily asserts the right to control some property until released or transferred willingly, whether with terms and conditions or not.
From the perspective of a given mind, if ownership is released, there is no ethical consequence, but if ownership is violated (i.e. “rightful” control of property is violated), an ethical wrong is committed.
The system of ethics I am describing here is a subjective one. No doubt the appropriation of property by a mind will be seen as wrong by an existing owner. The appropriator, however, might not accept the previous “owner’s” claim to rightful control. This conflict does not invalidate my definition of ownership because I am not prescribing which claims to ownership are rightful, I am merely describing the nature of ownership claims.***
One meta-question that goes beyond an analytical definition of terms asks: Who has the right to claim which objects as property? This question however is meaningless as it grasps at an objective authority which is not there. Without an outside standard, there cannot be a satisfactory answer to this question. Unless there is a super-owner, e.g. a monarch, there is no authority above to receive permission to claim rights beneath. Even in such a case, the meta question goes one step further back: which objects does the monarch have the right to claim as property? All we can do is defer to descriptive ethics: whoever has the ability and the desire to assert control over property in continuity, does so. Such people may also claim ownership, which is a communication to others about their subjective claims to rightful control.
If a mind disputes a claim of property ownership, the conflict can only be resolved, ultimately by physical force (recall: objects physically interact with each other). There is no higher authority by which a rights-claiming-license is awarded. “Rights” are subjective and exist in minds. They can be delegated but are always first attained by the physical control and subsequent assertion of ownership of property. Beyond physical control, there are no justifications for ethical claims because ethical claims are subjective and subjective standards are independent of objective reality.
Simply put: owners have exclusive, unrestricted control of their property until they have it taken from them. At no time do they, or any other mind, have objective rights over property, objects, or to anything at all. Owners call themselves so, which is an ethical claim “I have the right to perpetual exclusive control over this property”. Other minds may not share this subjective ethical claim. To them, this claim is false. If they are of the disposition, they may be able to successfully take control of another mind’s property. Subjective rights disputes will ensue, but our case is settled: we have described what is, and described the intentional physical force as the mechanism.
Owners assert their perpetual unrestricted control over objects (until released) and maintain this control with physical force. They can choose who can and who cannot have use of their property. If owners cannot discriminate, and if they must give control of their property to others, even temporarily, then they are not fully in control of their property.
So what is ownership?
While there are no objective owners (there are only subjective claims to ownership), owners have the unrestricted control of their property, and hence can discriminate who can use, borrow, or otherwise control their property. They descriptively “can” (not prescriptively “can”) because they have physical control over their property. The right to discrimination is never forfeited for as long as there is ownership. Discrimination is the correlate of unrestricted exclusive control. Even if control of property is granted temporarily to another, if ownership is maintained throughout, rightful control can be resumed at the owner’s discretion.
Being non-controllable, minds cannot be owned and cannot own other minds. Minds have an unrestricted ability to will. Their will is only limited by their inability to control other minds. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are therefore always free from restriction. The closest that a mind can get to controlling another mind is to coerce secondary obedience to its will. For example, a captor may convince his victim to speak certain words, but he cannot coerce him to alter his beliefs.
Relationships are ongoing agreements between minds to allow some form of physical interaction, whether directly (e.g. a football team), or indirectly (e.g. a debate club, a trust fund, or otherwise). In the final analysis, all relationships have physical effects: a toddler throwing a ball, a tackle on a field, walking a dog, an idea that indirectly inspires a physical act, or bankruptcy which causes homelessness or hunger etc.
Relationships are between one or more mutually consensual parties, to the exclusion to others. A wife, for example, excludes all men except her husband in their marriage; an employer excludes all candidates except the successful applicant from his business, etc. Any member of a relationship can end it as it was constituted. If not, then it is not consensual and it is not a relationship, it is control and they are the property.
Section Three – Implications for liberty
Having laid the groundwork: as owners of bodies, minds can claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. This includes all of their derived behaviours, speech, and associations (relationships). This means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom. This would not free the mind from the consequences of its choices. In terms of responsibility, only the mind directly associated to an act is responsible for it. If a mind indirectly controls another body or objects (its property), then it is responsible for its acts. And, since it cannot control other minds, it is not immune to discrimination for its behaviours and speech, nor can it compel others to acknowledge them. Minds have the right to enter into relationships with consenting partners and to leave relationships at will. Furthermore, as owners of material possessions (including land), minds claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. Likewise, this means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom.
Any argument against your free movement, speech, or thought is an intellectual attempt to indirectly control your body. Such arguments are no more justified than assertions of self-ownership themselves. All that grants ownership over a body (an object), is the ability to physically control it. It is entirely up to a mind to perceive/will control, claim/communicate a right to control, then have/maintain such control over its body (or any other object). It speaks to the character of a mind that does not do any of these aspects:
- Perceive/will/desire/intend to physically control;
- Claim/assert/communicate this intention;
- Take/ensure this control — which is to attempt justify this claim to ownership.
Ownership implies unrestricted control and exclusive property rights.
Property, being controlled objects, may also be rightfully controlled (owned). The minimum claim to ownership is that one’s property shall remain rightfully controlled until released. Such a claim implies the right to discriminate with respect to the property that is in question. These definitions of property and ownership say nothing about what anyone ought to claim ownership to nor how to control their property. Such an answer is provided by each individual mind without recourse to any external standard, measure, or license. Hence, it is not my role to invent positive norms, all I can do is describe facts. You will either assert your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association or you will not. This reflects your character.
There can be no owners. Not objectively. So, the outcome for the mind intent on controlling objects of desire is take control and maintain control in the most effective, and ideally efficient, method possible. Claim rights if it suits (especially if it dissuades usurpers), use sophistry, wit, guile, charm, favours, trade, work, money, or even brute force if you must, but don’t fool yourself, definitions of ownership do not create owners in a reality where there are no objective rights. Take what you want if you can, whether that be a life of giving and sacrifice for others, or a life of manipulation, domination, and Hell for others. This is a warning to sheep and a license to wolves.
* The objection that "objects seem controllable by two minds at once," (e.g. 1: a dog controlling its legs walking, while a human controls its head by yanking on a leash; e.g. 2: two people controlling one tandem bike) can be explained as an inaccurate understanding of objects. An object can be comprised of component-objects, i.e. an object like a dog, has component objects like legs and a tail etc. While two minds can simultaneously control the component-objects (legs and tail), only one mind can control a given object at a time. The objection fails by only seeing a whole object (a dog), and not its parts (legs and tail). The extent to which a whole object is controlled, is determined by the extent to which the control over the whole object's components are controlled. Until a mind controls a whole object, it only control component objects. ** A dog's body can be controlled directly by a dog's mind or indirectly by a human's body. Consider a person controlling a dog with a leash. The question becomes, who's property is the dog's body? Is it the dog --who has direct control-- or the human --who has indirect control? This is a simple question of defining the specific object being controlled because one object cannot be controlled by two minds at the same time. For example, when a human controls a dog's body, the dog is the human's property; while a dog barks, the dog's throat is the dog's property, but when intentionally muzzled, the dog's throat becomes property of the human. Strictly speaking, the dog's body is the human's mind's property or the dog's mind's property, depending on which mind is in control -- or how accurate the analysis intends to be. While different minds can have similar desires, each mind is metaphysically unique, meaning that no two minds have the exact same desires. If two minds did will exactly as each other, they would be the same mind. So, an object controlled by many minds would by definition have many different wills in conflict over it. The controller of the object would be in perpetual flux. In other words, the property's control will constantly be transferred from one mind to another. Hence, at any one moment, only one mind can control property. *** It does not follow that owners cannot violate others' rights or take control of their property, rather, in the purest sense, the concept of ownership only allows for meaningful communication regarding perceived rightful control. The assertion that owners must also respect other's ownership claims if they are to assert their own is a further, separate (egalitarian) claim, going beyond the minimum definition of ownership. In this essay, I am describing what ownership means, not prescribing norms. **** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus