fbpx

An Aristotelian Defense of Ownership in the Age of the Sharing Economy

The emergence of the online sharing economy calls to mind the Socratic desire to abolish ownership with the goal of ending competition and discord. But, as Aristotle reminds us, this is a corrosive vision that would exacerbate rather than mitigate conflict, while also preventing the cultivation of key virtues such as generosity, moderation, and political friendship.

There has been a subtle yet significant shift in Americans’ understanding of private property, particularly among millennials who wish to share rather than own goods and services. Why own an automobile when you have Uber and Lyft? Who needs a DVD box set when you can stream movies and shows? This trend, combined with changes driven by the internet and new technologies, has fostered a “collaborative economy” where “sharing” and “access” have supplanted the older values of ownership and private property.

Many young people might be unaware that this impulse for “sharing is caring” can be traced back to the Socratic desire for a “higher vision” that is free of strife, competition, and discord. In the Republic, Socrates proposes that private property should be abolished because this arrangement will allegedly eliminate conflicts that destroy political communities. According to Socrates, when people possess private property there are disputes over who owns what and how things should be used. By contrast, abolishing the concept of ownership will supposedly result in a peaceful, amiable, and virtuous society.

The millennial ethos of sharing resembles this Socratic drive for a frictionless world of harmony and unity. Since nobody owns anything, there can be no conflict. This year alone a projected fifty million Americans will “cut the cord.” If Socrates were alive today, he probably would be a Netflix subscriber. Not having to own anything but still being able to consume suggests to many that ownership—and, with it, private property—is no longer needed. We have entered a new world of Socratic wonder.

However, while this Socratic outlook might seem to reflect something of the spirit of our age, it brings damaging implications for the cultivation of virtue, the peacefulness of our society, and the ability to sustain political friendship. Instead of buying into Socrates’ corrosive vision, we should reflect on the political wisdom of Aristotle, who points out that the abolition of private property actually exacerbates rather than mitigates conflict. As Aristotle notes, Socrates envisions a society that would actually prevent the cultivation among citizens of virtues like generosity and moderation. Instead of educating civic-minded citizens, Socrates’ proposal would produce unphilosophical dullards who only want to fight each other.

Private Property and the Cultivation of Virtues

According to Aristotle’s Politics, the political community emerges from many households. Outside the political community, the household is imperfect. Only when the household is part of the political community does it achieve its proper end. Socrates’ proposal is the exact opposite of Aristotle’s: to make a household out of the political community rather than to make the political community out of the household. At first glance, Socrates’ proposal seems more attractive when compared to Aristotle’s political community of private property-owning strangers: one would expect less conflict in a household where people intimately know each other and property is shared among them.

However, Aristotle believes that civil society (where private property can be owned) is where citizens learn the virtues of generosity and moderation, which are likely to reduce conflict. On the other hand, Socrates’ abolition of private property makes citizens unable to determine their personal interests and thereby leads them to immoderate behavior. For example, when property is held in common, it is often neglected, abused, or overconsumed. In our society today, we might consider the vandalism and theft plaguing bike-sharing schemes or the rampant “sharing” of codes to watch streaming services. From Aristotle’s perspective, this is not only completely rational behavior but predictable. Given the opportunity, people will take as much as they can when it does not belong to them.

 

Aristotle argues that, by retaining private property, citizens learn both moderation and generosity in the household. When one owns something, he will be most likely be careful and moderate in how it is used and cultivated. For example, the owner of a bicycle will routinely maintain it instead of neglecting or overusing it. And, as Aristotle notes, ownership creates the capacity to be generous, since it allows friends, guests, and others to benefit from the value of the property. In this way, property is held in common, but only by the virtue of generosity, which requires ownership in the first place.

This virtue is learned not in the political community but in the household. It is in the household where children form natural attachments with their family members and friends. Unlike Socrates’ proposal where familial love (philia) is confused with erotic love (eros), Aristotle’s distinction of the household and the political community creates an environment where parents can provide philia without eros. For him, the household is a protective environment to educate children and to teach them virtues like moderation and generosity, with the goal of raising citizens who are more likely to cooperate and coexist peacefully. By contrast, Socrates’ proposal precludes moderation and generosity since private property is abolished. One is less inclined to care about property that is not one’s own, much less able to give it to someone else.

Political Friendship

In addition to promoting the cultivation of virtues, private property creates the environment necessary for politics to occur by allowing for a diversity of interests that calls for a robust exchange of views—which is the prerequisite of political friendship and discourse.

This relates to another crucial problem with Socrates’ proposal: it undermines political friendship itself. Political friendship is not, as Socrates seems to believe, a case of speaking in one voice and acting as one body. As anyone who has served on a university committee would know, saying the same thing or making the same decisions is not necessarily indicative of friendship, for people may speak and act due to external pressure rather than personal conviction.

Since everything is shared in Socrates’ proposal, citizens are not able to determine their own interests or convictions. After all, our sense of self-interest can only be known if we know what we possess. Therefore, for Aristotle, political friendship exists only when people disagree about what constitutes the common good while still trusting one another. Unlike Socrates’ citizens, who all claim the same thing unanimously, Aristotelian citizens disagree, which is the basis of political friendship. That is, the Aristotelian citizen must simultaneously take into account his personal interest, other citizens’ interests, and the common good together. The balancing of these competing interests provokes conversation—that is, politics—about what constitutes the common good for the political community.

Political friendship, in other words, requires difference among citizens so they can complement each other. For Aristotle, friends are those who reflect something that is absent within oneself. If everyone shared the same interests, there would be no reason to talk about what the common good should be. It is only when citizens can recognize and acknowledge these different interests that politics can happen. Whereas Socratic political friendship emphasizes uniformity, Aristotelian friendship is complementary—and to be truly complementary requires the wide range of considerations and concerns associated with private property.

 

For example, under Socrates’ proposal, it would make no sense for the state to tax its citizens since there would be nothing to tax in the first place. Instead of peace and harmony there would likely be conflict among the citizenry since nobody knows what belongs to each person. Aristotle remarks that Socratic citizens would be spirited (thumos) but unphilosophical and thereby prone to fighting among themselves. The result would not be an elimination of conflict but more likely a state of perpetual war.

Education, Entertainment, and Sharing

Aristotle’s vision of sharing goods as private property is also relevant to our own debates concerning education and entertainment. For him, both the household and the state must complement each other in cultivating politically just citizens so that the political community can be self-sufficient and live well. While the political community ultimately dictates the objectives of civic education, it relies on the household to determine how that education should be implemented. This is different from Socrates’ proposal where the distinction between the household and the political community is obliterated. While Aristotle claims that civic education should be “one and the same for all,” this is not a call to replace the household with the political community but to work together in the education of citizens for the common good.

It is important to remember that education is more than what occurs at schools. It includes the family, civil society, and popular culture. The internet has enabled both education and entertainment (with the lines between the two increasingly blurred) to be streamed and shared rather than independently delivered and owned. This change in how content is delivered is as important as the content itself. The underlying message of streaming television or sharing bicycles is that you don’t need to own it because “sharing is caring.”

Of course, companies like Netflix or Apple are not representatives of the political community since they are private entities. In fact, a good case could be made that the streaming service industry itself is an oligopoly. However, the ability to stream implicitly asks whether private property is necessary for one’s entertainment. Except for the hipsters who collect LPs, many consumers in this new world of streaming would say no. Socrates, I suspect, would be smiling at this, while Aristotle would recoil.

When popular culture is distributed as private property, it creates the possibility for voluntary sharing from one person to another. In Aristotle’s world of private property, when I want to share my experience of watching a television show, I must decide whether I want to give that DVD in the first place; and if so, to whom. This creates the opportunity for me to practice the virtue of generosity. By contrast, in Socrates’ world of common property, I just have to tell the person the name of the show and let him stream it. Since there is no transaction between us, there is no virtue.

As Aristotle correctly observed, the scarcity of something makes it more valuable, leading people to take care of the item and to share it, if they wish. This makes possible the virtues of moderation and generosity, and the maintenance of civil society itself. Thus, the fundamental problems of the “sharing” culture are not technological, but ethical and political. While appearing innocuous enough, this new world has an underlying message that private property and ownership should be discarded.

Instead of being bedazzled by these new technological toys that promise a more convenient life, we should consider the significance of what we might be sacrificing in the process—virtue, political friendship, and a peaceful and orderly society. Though Socrates’ vision might seem appealing in the age of the sharing economy, we should remain anchored in a society where Aristotelian private property and ownership can exist, and political friendship can flourish.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!