Critical Reflections on Ownership, by Mary Warnock

A study of private property reminds us to reflect on the things we don’t control, finds Jane O’Grady

August 6, 2015
Review: Critical Reflections on Ownership, by Mary Warnock

In an age when few contemporary philosophers are known outside academia, Mary Warnock is a household name, although more for her public works than for those she has written on ethics, existentialism and philosophy of mind. She is well known for having established the (still-surviving) guidelines on embryo research and surrogate motherhood as chair of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology that delivered its landmark report in 1984, and for her battles with Margaret Thatcher on how to run schools and universities. One of Oxbridge’s wartime generation of brilliant female philosophers – along with Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot – she has been engagingly dismissive of her own philosophical abilities compared with the rest of that cohort; but she was critical too, in the 1960s and 1970s, of how moral philosophy was then done. To treat ethics as merely analysis of ethical language was to make it trivial and “boring”, she said, and secluding it from politics and political philosophy was “naive and in any case impossible”. She herself helped to transform the subject by breaking the boundaries between academic and enacted ethics, and pioneering what came to be known as bioethics, the application of ethics to science, medicine and human survival. While far from being a Marxist (she has described herself as “a natural Tory”), Warnock has always wanted not merely to interpret the world but to change it.

Her latest book, written at the age of 91, examines the paradoxes of ownership and private property, ranging from the personal to the planetary. From outlining debates (philosophical, legal and parliamentary) over how far we can be said to own our bodies, or body parts, Warnock goes on to lucidly survey the origins of society and property; differing concepts of the social contract in the 17th and 18th centuries; 19th- and 20th-century ideas of redistribution; Communism, communes, kibbutzim, employee ownership and John Lewis; also, fluctuating fashions in ideas of beauty (the sublime, the picturesque, the “natural”) and changing attitudes to wilderness and to the garden (with an autobiographical disquisition on her own). The last three chapters discuss recent responses to environmental damage and how we ought to tackle it.

The way birds build, embellish and defend their nests, is, says Warnock, a “natural symbol” for property ownership. But how, she asks, is property-owning to be justified in human society? John Locke famously wrote that “Whatever [a man] removes from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labour with it and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” Warnock describes how the land around English villages had once been divided, by mutual agreement, into strips allotted to individual farmers for cultivation, while all villagers communally grazed their cattle on the common land, being entitled to whatever could be gathered from it “by hook or crook”. However, she adds, “the old system of owning only what you could use yourself couldn’t survive”. Locke’s vision, which was anyway rather too optimistic about human rationality, could clearly lead to abuse, as by the early settlers in the New World and the rich and powerful in the Old. With the increasing development of trade, land was increasingly subject to enclosure. “Property is theft,” announced Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, even as he approved Locke’s theory in its purist form. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the rot started when someone first enclosed a plot of ground. Charles Fourier, the 19th-century socialist, advocated small communities (rather than a central state) in which there would be no private property.

But how is this common ownership to be managed, and individual acquisitiveness to be curbed? The “Utopia-writers” were often naive about human corruptibility, and sometimes frankly delusory (Fourier predicted that new species of animal would evolve, on the order of “anti-bears” and “anti-squirrels”, to do all the manual labour!), but most were authoritarian. Warnock points out that Rousseau’s 1762 work The Social Contract is not, as commonly thought, “a rallying cry to escape from bondage, but a guide to what kind of state will allow that bondage to be perfect freedom”. After his ringing declaration of free-born man’s enchainment, Rousseau declares that he can’t explain how this actually happened, but only how, now that it irrevocably has, it can be “made legitimate”; which will involve citizens legislating for themselves under the (mystifying) General Will, and being “forced to be free”.

Common ownership is a slippery notion, observes Warnock; it slides between people sharing ownership between themselves and the state owning things in their name. The former sounds preferable. But, in addition to flouting what is surely an ancient “deeply embedded” instinct, isn’t it self-contradictory? Essential to the concept of owning something is “its closeness to ourselves and only to ourselves. If it is mine, it is not yours.” I, but not you, can do what I like with it; and, crucially, have responsibility for it. Its relation to myself can, as David Hume diagnosed, inspire pride or shame. Can I be proud of the sea?

Equally, though, we resist the idea that absolutely everything can be owned; insist that wild animals and the wilderness should be unowned: wild, in fact. Warnock traces the transition from the picturesque to the Romantic: how, as wilderness was conquered, we came to hanker for and worship it; how gardens, which have to be salvaged from, and maintained against, nature’s depredations, became, in the 19th century, artificially wild. According to Kant and Coleridge, we find nature sublime because we sense our own power, moral autonomy and reason when confronting it; whereas for Wordsworth, sublimity involves feeling that nature overpowers and possesses us.

And yet, says Warnock, “the paradox is that we have to use our power to preserve a sense of what is not in our power”. Given the threat of environmental catastrophe, we must take responsibility for what we don’t own – what remains of wilderness, such as Antarctica, and indeed the whole planet. Roger Scruton has declared attempts at global environmentalism unrealistic, or best achieved by each of us focusing on the love and defence of our local environments. Warnock shares his scepticism about international summits and protocols, and his love for the National Trust, but worries that his notion of oikophilia is based on “the value of belonging rather than that of owning”. She finds it uneasily reminiscent of the German Heimatlichkeit (“feeling for settled home territory”), so trumpeted by Heidegger and the Nazis, with all the xenophobic exclusion of the non-us that it implies.

“Let us abandon oikophilia, and with it, as far as we can, the left/right polarisation of private ownership,” urges Warnock. The institution of private property “lies at the heart of civilised society”, is “on the whole beneficent” and “in any case is extraordinarily hard to eliminate”. But, she acknowledges, its vices of rapacity and avarice now need to be curbed at an international level, and a sense of “ecological interdependence” fostered. What can make us feel, and actually practise, this inclusive exclusivity, a shared responsibility for the unowned world and its not-yet-inhabited future? The much-invoked notion of “stewardship” relies on unshared religious assumptions; James Lovelock’s world-spirit, Gaia, is too mystical. Instead, Warnock conjures a “Promethean fear”: nature, although distorted, is still terrifyingly untamed. For practical purposes, she concludes by recommending the funding of green technology; “twinning” towns in different parts of the world; and extensive education about global warming and the evils of littering.

Jane O’Grady is visiting lecturer in philosophy of psychology, City University London, and founder member, London School of Philosophy.


Critical Reflections on Ownership
By Mary Warnock
Edward Elgar, 168pp, £65.00 and £19.95
ISBN 9781781955468 and 55475
Published 10 June 2015


The author

Author Mary WarnockPhilosopher, educator, author and public intellectual Baroness Warnock of Weeke was born in Winchester. “I now live in London for the first time in my life, and I love it. I moved five years ago, when I could no longer see to drive, and I don’t really want to live anywhere else.”

Created a life peer in 1985, she sat as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords until her retirement in June. How would she respond to those who call for the end of the Lords?

She replies: “I don’t know anyone who wishes to abolish the House of Lords, only radically to reform it. It is essential that we have a second chamber whose function is primarily to scrutinise and improve draft bills, most of which start in the House of Commons.

“The presence in the House of Lords of people who have served with distinction in professions other than politics, and also of those who have no party affiliation (the cross-benchers) makes it peculiarly fitted to carry out this revisionary task.

“The extent to which the House of Lords manages to improve legislation is demonstrated by the number of government amendments that are made in response to its criticisms. But if the Lords’ amendments are not accepted by the Commons, then in the end the will of the Commons prevails, on the grounds that they are the elected chamber.

“This priority of the Commons determines the argument about the composition of the House of Lords. If it too were elected, it would be on the same footing as the Commons, and there would be no way to settle disagreements between the two chambers. The power of the democratically elected Commons would be diminished.

“I myself think a helpful step towards improving people’s understanding of the function of the House of Lords would be to change its name. Let it be the Second Chamber.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: All our worldly possessions

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