The meaning of the word “property” is rooted in the idea of what is proper. If you look up the word in the Merriam-Webster English dictionary, the simple definition is “correct according to social or moral rules.” The fuller definition includes “marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness.” The connection between what is right, what is suitable, and what is correct and the modern idea of property, especially as private property, can be understood when we see that there is a bridge provided by the notion that there is a proper way of being for a person given his or her individual circumstances.
Now the idea of correctness is not absolute, nor is it invariable for all. What is proper depends absolutely on what your situation is and there can be no easy sense of universal right, because what is proper is relative to your position and the place you hold in your relationship to others. There is no property by myself. There is only property in my relation to you. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island, no man stands alone.” Thus there is a property that belongs to parents and a property that belongs to children. This property, a correctness that marks what each owes the other, cannot be a merely material condition. Any documentary of wild life will show that all animals are bound by behavior that is proper to them.
In human history which continually evolves, the idea of what is proper to a certain situation or station necessarily changes. Most societies now have outlawed the idea of slavery. Slavery is based on the notion that there is a proper station where one human being can be completely without self-mastery because he or she is the property of another, a master who can subject the slave to his desire. Even today we are battling what it might mean to be a proper woman because the “property” of woman was often determined as the negative of all the positive attributes of what it meant to be a human being. What used to be proper female behavior need no longer be the proper female behavior of today, because we live in a society that purports us all equal and free.
What is proper to me in my position vis-à-vis you in yours is not so much a right as it is an obligation and as such demands an ethical commitment. I am free to be myself in relation to you and that is what I owe to you. The words “owe” and “own” share the same roots. Like property, to owe or to own means living up to what is right for your position relative to those around you. Private property is often perceived as a right, but more fundamentally, to own something is to profess that you owe a certain attitude and behavior to be your true self. The teacher owes something to the student and the student owes something to the teacher. Thereby they truly own one another.
Professor Julie Choi received her Ph.D. in Stanford University and she is currently the director of Ewha Institute for English and American Studies and Professor of Department of English Language and Literature.