The Value of Ownership

UC Berkeley Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 11

55 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2000

See all articles by Meir Dan-Cohen

Meir Dan-Cohen

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: January 2000


It is commonly assumed that the value of owning an object derives from the value of the object itself: ownership gives us a privileged and protected access to the benefits and gratifications that different objects can offer. But a number of puzzle cases I consider, such as collecting valueless items, pride of ownership, and the per se harm involved in trespass, unhinge this assumption. They suggest instead a conception of ownership I call constitutive, according to which through ownership objects can be subsumed within the boundaries of the self. The paper accordingly offers a new variation on an old theme: property as the extension of self. The proposed variant insists on taking seriously our ordinary use of the possessive pronouns "my" and "mine" to mark ownership. These pronouns, I argue, are in turn parasitic on the personal pronoun "I." Due to the centrality to the self of what I call articulate self-awareness, the use of "I" is critical in defining the self; and in light of the view of the self as socially constructed, the content or meaning of this pronoun is fixed by the social occasions and practices in which it is properly used. Consequently, the composition of the self can be read off from the actual ordinary contextual uses of "I": the self is whatever "I" designates. When we examine self-referring expressions, we find of course that the body is commonly alluded to by the "I," such as in "I gained five pounds," or "I was hit by a car." But the latter statement could also be made when my car, rather than my body, were hit, using in this case "I" to allude to my car. This semantically oriented extension of the self to objects other than the body offers an easy solution to the puzzles of ownership. The normative significance of objects we own is on a par with that of the body: the scope and the ramifications of various values that apply to individuals, such as autonomy and dignity, will depend on how the boundaries of the self are drawn and on what is thought to fall within them.

JEL Classification: K11

Suggested Citation

Dan-Cohen, Meir, The Value of Ownership (January 2000). UC Berkeley Public Law and Legal Theory Working Paper No. 11, Available at SSRN: or

Meir Dan-Cohen (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

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