12/27/2014 10:11

The Illusion of Ownership

A commentary on Kurosawa's film "High and Low" remarked on how the plot development illustrated "the illusion of ownership". This came as the protagonist's household goods were being tagged for auction. We don't fully own our things, the commentary observed; we only rent them from our larger society.

The couch is real, the clock is real, the man is real, but the man's control over the couch and the clock: Is that real, or is it only an illusion?

The phrase of the commentator, "the illusion of ownership", implies that the relationship of ownership is itself an illusion, that one never truly owns a clock. This implication, I think, is too strong. A person (or a family) can own a couch or a clock in the important sense of having a right to the control and use of the object.

This right is important and real in the context of the society, not in any absolute way, and that is what is expressed in the idea of "renting" our property from society. Ownership is an alienable right. An owner may sell or give away property, and in so doing loses the rights of use and control. Furthermore, owners may give up property indirectly through debt, for example; if one person promises to give property to another person and does not deliver, the second person obtains a claim on other properties the promisor owns. A similar situation may arise in the case of criminal activity which harms other members of our society, in turn giving rise to the idiom "a debt to society".

The illusion arises when this societal right of ownership is falsely assigned to the essence of who I am. Ownership is not intrinsic to the person, nor is it an unalienable right of the person. It is a conditional right, granted by society according to society's norms.

There is a stronger concept of the illusion of ownership in Vedanta which maintains that ownership is an illusionary attempt to create a relationship which recapitulates some sliver of the true unity of the universe. Although there are parallels, this is a different concept than that in the film commentary. In Vedantic thought, the unity is real but the differentiation among the components - the couch, the clock, the man - is an illusion. What's depicted in Kurosawa's film is the transitoriness of relationships which are real enough for as long as they last.

Yet even this weaker illusion of ownership is held tightly. We want to believe not only that our control over that couch is real, but that no one else can wrest the couch from us against our will. Even death is to be circumvented by writing legally binding wills and trusts through which we extend our ownership beyond our our lifetimes.

Of course that's nonsense. Well and good that we should express our desires and preferences, but in actual reality someone else will decide what happens to the couches and the clocks after we die. Even while we live, our decisions will be more respected to the extent we have respectful relationships with other members of society. If we pay our debts and accept others' rights of ownership, others in our society tend to reciprocate and society at large will support us if they do not. All of this because ownership is real precisely to the extent it is granted to us by our larger society.

But everyone knows this! Why do we repeatedly ignore these facts and take on an illusion about the extent of ownership? Because we want to matter. We are limited beings: I cannot by my own will alone decide the courses of the stars or even of a summer thunderstorm, but I can decide the fate of my clock! And if I cannot do even that, what am I?

In actual reality, the fate of my clock matters very little and who I am depends far more on how I have helped others live better. Many of us know that, and still find ourselves in the illusion of ownership. Why? Because we want to know that we matter. The fate of that clock is knowable; I see it and I see the effects of my decisions about it.

Other people's lives are hidden books, and even if they open the book a bit it will be hard to read. How much difference do I make sitting with a high school student talking about schoolwork? Is that student's life better 15 years from now? Did I improve a child's life when I secretly paid off part of his father's debt? I hope at least that life isn't worse for my efforts, but that is something that I cannot see clearly and may never know at all.

The fate of the clock is easier.