Owning in Common

Can will be plural? Does it make any sense to speak of our will?

When ornate letters on aged yellow paper state “We the people…do ordain and establish this constitution,” shall the heirs of that document consider it to be (1) an expression of common will or (2) an astute contract among individuals? And is there any difference between the two?

I propose that it makes sense to speak of our will in common. I choose option #1.

In an earlier blog we examined the expression of common will from the point of view of shared responsibility. Now let’s look at it from the point of view of ownership.

Let’s review briefly: A person can identify her will by the sense of responsibility and ownership she perceives. Responsibility we understand readily, but what does ownership mean here? It’s not ownership as in possessing stuff, but rather ownership in the sense of acknowledging a personal choice. If our will is what matters, then the only things we can truly own are our decisions and their consequences. Sometimes the decision is to associate with another person, a willed relationship – or to disassociate, an act that we commonly describe as “disowning” the relationship. These were topics covered in the last blog.

A philosophic stance known as ontologic individualism begins with an axiom that each of us lives essentially as an individual. Ontologic individualism is compatible with either belief in or denial of the existence of will. Nevertheless, it demands that if something like a will exists, it exists solely as a capacity of individual persons. Accordingly, each individual might have a will, but a group of people can never truly have a will. Every decision that appears to be shared amounts to a negotiation among individuals. Likewise, ontologic individualism denies that ownership (as described above) can be essentially plural and instead apportions ownership among individuals of the group. The community has ownership or responsibility only to the extent that individuals relinquish their essential rights to a negotiated community, which means an arrangement of traditions, customary responses, and sometimes laws that apply more or less consistently to the relations among individuals.

Ontologic individualism is an arguable stance. Among the great philosophers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche advocated it, or something like it, most forcefully. Bowing to them, I agree that individual rights and opportunities deserve respect.

However, as a bedrock principle, or a rule upon which philosophic thinking can be founded, I think that ontologic individualism fails. It represents an argument by analogy from the individuality of human brains, viewed objectively, to an individuality of will. Gilbert Ryle derided such thinking by analogy as “para-mechanical,” and I agree with him.

Ancient cultures as well as so-called less sophisticated people today appear to have found real meaning in decisions made together. In fact, such decisions in common often seem to contribute more to “abundance of the heart” than solitary ones. Think about family traditions or the mores of a culture.

From ancient times the “will of the people” has often become intertwined with the will of a clan leader, a wise person or judge, or a king. This old tendency resurfaces today as charismatic leaders ascend and dominate the media in both autocratic and democratic states. The relation between a single leader and multiple followers represents an amalgam of group decision-making and individualism. The argument goes that the composite desire of a group must finally be interpreted by a single individual. Once that desire leads to the announcement of a decision by the leader, then the group is obliged to follow.

In a functioning constitutional democracy, this process may be institutionalized. As George W. Bush said, “I’m the decider.” In the United States, the power of the president is supposed to be balanced by more or less equally powerful legislative and judicial branches, but it’s messy. This arrangement may sometimes, but not always express the “will of the people.”

On a smaller, more intimate scale the same argument applies to headship of a family by one of the two parents, usually the father. Again it’s an amalgam of group and individual decision-making. The father gives attention to the joint desire of all the family members, but ontologic individualism specifies that a final decision for the group must rest only with one person. Once the father’s decision has been announced, then wife and children as individuals face only the question of whether to submit or resist.

Because of the natural desire to seek a single voice for clarity in decision-making, the philosophy of ontologic individualism has sprouted repeatedly in the interpretation of ancient theological texts. Even when the textual message mainly describes emotional response and decision by a group of people, the interpretation may emphasize individual choice. Individualism implanted in hermeneutics can choke out the original wisdom, as weeds overcome the beauty of a garden. Yet common usage and clues remain for choices presented to and made by groups of people. As examples, I’ll put some Bible references here in a footnote.[1]

Ontologic individualism confines you and me each within an impenetrable shell. It makes “us” in the strictest sense false. Ontologic individualism is a pernicious idea and should be rejected.

The rejection of ontologic individualism might not seem so radical (or saintly) if we consider that people often possess things jointly and not merely as individuals. For example, when land, houses, and automobiles result from decisions made by a family or by the forebears of a family, then we do not question their subsequent ownership by the heirs.

The concept extends beyond family relations. Decisions and their consequences in life can be passed along by mentors, teammates, co-workers, and friends, as well as kinfolk. This kind of ownership is first person plural stretching across time. It’s extraordinarily meaningful, a treasure of the heart.

Responsibility and ownership can flow in both directions, not merely from parent to child, but from child to parent. Not merely from boss to subordinate, but from subordinate to boss. The deed of one becomes the responsibility of the other, both ways.

Is there a difference between ownership and possession? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps we can set a convention that ownership is by right and possession by fact. If such a convention is accepted, then again the only things we can possibly own are our decisions and their consequences. This applies to groups as well as individuals.

Suppose that someone acquires great possessions by luck admixed with charm and a smidgen of deceit. Should those possessions be denied to him or her, taken away and distributed among all? Is the answer something for we the people to choose?

When people possess things for which they do not assume responsibility, a serious question can be raised as to whether they possess the things, or the things possess them. Certainly they are linked by proximity and perhaps by legal status, but only a person’s or a group’s will, making choices and taking responsibility, can determine a direction of ownership.

People acquire objects, pledges, and power. Someone says that she wants power only to use it for good. Others object that unequal power usually does harm. Yet it seems that most often power attracts the will for its own sake. It beckons neither as the power to do good nor the power to do harm, but simply as the power to do.

People and possessions are governed by the laws of communities, nations, and transnational groups, and by treaties. To the extent we participate in these bodies and relations, the laws rightfully apply to us. Sometimes the laws signify exploitation instead of joint decision-making. The group that perceives exploitation has the right to break free. The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives voice to decisions made by “a people.”

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it….

If laws view people as if they might be possessions, or possessions as if they might be people, describing both as objects of thought, then the laws err. It’s a tough call whether business corporations should be viewed as if they are groups of people, purely legal gossamer entities, or scabrous powerful fictions.

Laws of governance and relations should not presume objective validity. They should be interpreted as choices made by groups of people by mutual or majority consent, alternatively by oppression and subjection.

The only things you (plural) can possibly own are your decisions and their consequences. You are not responsible for anything else, and thus you cannot possibly own anything else.

Adherents of great philosophies make joint decisions about truths they regard as foundational. Sometimes the decision is to disown decision-making. Positivism disowns many human choices made by individuals and smaller groups by submitting each choice to analysis from all rational and trained observers, the overarching community of science. Fundamentalism disowns many human choices by invoking God’s name, curiously almost always for a truth that benefits the fundamentalist.

On occasion something that looks like a decision of the will – individual or plural – appears, but the deed lacks any rational connection to responsibility. Some power other than the will of any person or group appears to take control. A succession of monstrous events can disrupt, even destroy many lives. Those affected look for someone to blame, but no one seems to be accountable. Nobody owns up, steps up to take responsibility. We’ll look at that phenomenon in the next blog.


Next post:  Power and Systems

Previous post:  Treasure of the Heart

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Header image:  The five-person drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presents their work to the Continental Congress. Painting by John Trumbull (commissioned 1817), U.S. Capitol, Wikimedia commons, CC0 Public domain.

[1] Joshua 24:15-22, Psalms 106 all verses, 130:7-8, Acts 15:22-29.

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