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On Owning, Death, and Dynasties

I am grateful to have been invited by Danielle to join the esteemed group of guest bloggers this month at Concurring Opinions. This opportunity arrives at an interesting moment in my scholarly life. For the last few years I’ve been thinking a great deal about what “ownership” means – both when we use the term colloquially and when we mean it to connote a term of art. It is, I think, a deceptively simple idea at the core (at least on the surface of the thing). At the core, “ownership” seems to convey the idea that an “owner” may exercise a unique degree of dominion or control over a valuable entity, and that control is backed by the force of law. By some lights, the concept of “ownership” primarily articulates a relationship between the “owner” and those that are obliged to respect her ownership prerogatives (i.e. everyone else) rather than a relationship between the owner and the valuable entity itself. Others adopt a different view. But what has fascinated me the past few years is the constitutive relationship between our concept of “ownership” and the status designation of “owner.” Is “ownership” a capacity? Is it a uniquely human capacity – i.e. does it require sentience, or perhaps some degree of agency? Who (or what) is a capable of being an “owner”?

I first became interested in this question in the context of contemplating our capacity to own our own whole and living bodies, a contemplation that is detailed in my piece The Law of the Body, which is forthcoming in the Emory Law Review. In that piece, I passed upon the question of whether a person has the capacity to own her own living body – whether it falls within the extension of our concept of “ownership.” This question ostensibly raised subject/object problems (i.e. can one both be the subject (owner) and object (owned)) as well as a number of other interesting (at least to me) issues.

In particular, the idea of owning oneself raises deeper questions about ownership as a capacity. In this vein, I have read with great interest Taunya Bank’s recent posts (also here) about how “human beings can lose control over what happens to their bodies (and body parts) during life as well as after death.” Professor Banks touched upon two of the more salient (and to some degree, vexing) points about ownership (including body ownership): control and death. In almost any plausible understanding of the concept of “ownership,” it connotes some degree of control. There are two ways to think about this control. It may be that ownership refers only to legally sanctioned control. On the other hand, it may refer to “control” in the sense of the capacity to make decisions about the use or disposition of an entity. While these two senses of “control” largely overlap, they are not coterminous.

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