I am not student of philosophy so please forgive my sloppy question. I was having a discussion with someone about the definition of ownership.

I was arguing that you do not really own property in the presence of property taxes, or while you are still paying off a mortgage because in the absence of continued payments someone can come and take your land away. It doesn't matter how little you have left on the mortgage; They'll take the entire house and property.

The other person was arguing that the definition of ownership is not defined by whether continuous payments need to be made or not, but by whether you have property rights (as opposed to something else like tenant rights). They also argued that needing to continuously pay to maintain these property rights was irrelevant to the definition of ownership.

Is there any prior discussion such a thing? I could find very little on Google or this Stack Exchange since if you Google things like "ownership" and "mortgage" you just come up with run-of-the mill materials. Note I am not interested in the legal definition since the legal definition can twist terms in all sorts of ways.

  • This is an old libertarian argument. You might get better answers posting on a libertarian site, a political site, or a legal site. Jul 18 at 19:48
  • 1
    I don't know that you'd be able to get an answer beyond people offering their own opinions of what the definition of ownership is. It seems like a semantic question. It's probably most accurate to think of ownership as a spectrum.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 19 at 9:46
  • Ownership is the legal right to exclude others from the use and enjoyment of some item of property. A lien is a financial claim against your real property that provides security for a debt or obligation. This means that, if the lien is not paid, the lien holder (person you owe the debt or obligation to) can go to court and ask that the property be sold to pay the lien. This is called foreclosing on the lien. nycbar.org/get-legal-help/article/real-property-law/… Owner's equity may or may not be due to owner in foreclosure youtu.be/6JUZpaM_G74. Jul 19 at 19:13

6 Answers 6


Based on the content of the question I assume it is more about the legal definition of ownership than about a "universal" definition of ownership based on some form of natural law.

The idea that the law as upholded by a government defines what ownership really is is called Legal Positivism and is opposed to the theory of Natural Law or Jusnaturalism, the idea that there is a definition of justice independant of the government and that laws only try to approximate this ideal justice (be it God given, dependant on Human Nature, or Reason, etc...).

If we go with legal positivism, property rights are in fact not monolithic but divided in several categories to handle a bunch of specific cases that couldn't be settled with a single general concept of ownership (just like the mortgage case in OP's question). The division below takes root in ancient Rome's legal system, which became the base for property laws in most of the western world and, from there, influenced most of the world.

Property is split in 3 main categories, Usus, Fructus and Abusus.

Usus is the right to use a thing. Live in a home, drive a car, use a tool to do some work. This one is pretty straightforward.

Fructus is the right to own what is produced with what you own (the fruit of one's work with this thing). For example, the yield of a crop field, the benefits of a shop, the offspring and milk of a cow, the dress you just made using a sewing machine, etc...

Abusus is the right to modify or destroy a thing. Demolish a house, or build one in a certain land, slaughter a cow, dispose of a car, etc...

Those rights are combined in a variety of ways to cover for the nigh infinite diversity of commercial deals that can be made of goods.

For example, I could be a landlord owning a field (in the colloquial sense, having "ownership" of the field). A common form of deal is to lend this field to a farmer in exchange for a yearly rent, under the condition that everything that grows on the field is theirs. By paying the rent I grant them the usus (they can enter the field to work it), and the fructus (the crops is theirs), but not the abusus (of course they can't use the field to build a condominium or something, they have to give it back as is). Yet I also forfeit part of my abusus (I can't just decide to build a condominium either, or I need to compensate the farmer for the loss of their crops).

The farmer could even have an employee, with whom they share part of the usus (the employee can work the field), but nor the fructus (the crops belong to the farmer), nor the abusus (the farmer does not have it in the first place).

All the details of this depend on the actual legislation at the time and place of the deal, but those are the general principles. We can see that it is not clear cut who has ownership of the field. I think in layman terms most people would agree the landlord keeps ownership because at the end of the deal, if everything go as planned, they will recover all 3 types of right.

How can we apply those principle to OP's mortgage exemple?

Usus is definitely detained by the buyer. The buyer leaves in the house, and the banker who owns the mortgage can't enter the property uninvited les they'd be commiting trespassing.

Fructus in the case of a residential house is hard to define, but if we assume it is a shop then all benefits would also go to the buyer. The mortgage owner can't claim any of the shop's benefits outside of the payback that was agreed upon.

Abusus is less clear cut. If the buyer was to significantly alter the value of the house (say, by destroying it), the mortgage owner would defnitely suffer some financial damage. I am no lawyer and no juridiction is specified in the question, but it seems obvious that nobody would ever give the buyer a mortgage if they can just burn the house to the ground. So the right of Abusus is probably shared between the buyer and the bank, or limited in some way by the mortgage contract.

We can see that the buyer enjoys most of the property rights linked to the possession of a house. Also at the end of the deal, if everything goes as planned, the buyer will have full property of the house.

Note that in other specific cases, like an appartement in a condominium, the buyer will never have full ownership rights over what they bought (you can't just destroy one appartment of a building without compromising the property of all other appartment owners). Even in the case of an individual house, they might be forever subject to Neighboor Association rullings like not being allowed to have a gazeebo or barbecue on their front yard, etc... (it is to say, their usus will forever be limited).

Wether it's appropriate to say the buyer has "ownership" of the house despite not having full property rights is left for anyone to decide.

  • In the analysis of the mortgage case it's worth noting that the lender loses all rights to the property when the mortgage is repaid, and there is no option for them to retain them. The lender can't, for example, refuse payment in order to retain an interest in the property; whereas, an owner can always refuse an offer to buy a property.
    – Nobody
    Jul 19 at 12:44
  • Where does the lender's right to take possession (foreclose) if the mortgagee defaults fall into this taxonomy?
    – Barmar
    Jul 20 at 3:08
  • @Barmar it doesn't because the lender is not the owner of the house (nor was he ever). At most the contract that links the lender to the buyer restricts the buyer's abusus (the buyer can't destroy the house), but the lender has no right to use the house, no right to whatever is produced in the house, nor right to destroy the house. The only thing the lender owns is an acknowledgment of debt from the buyer specifying "if i can't pay you back i give you the house", which does not amount to ownership of the house.
    – armand
    Jul 20 at 4:00
  • What the lender actually has is a "lien": a right to keep possession of property belonging to another person until a debt owed by that person is discharged.
    – Barmar
    Jul 20 at 5:13
  • @Barmar i think the way the mortgage is implemented depends on jusrisdictions. Suffice to say that the lender enjoys none of the rights traditionally associated with ownership.
    – armand
    Jul 20 at 5:46

Ownership is a social and legal construct, influenced by the desires and actions of many different people past and present. It's not something pure or inherent to nature. What you own is what people agree that you own.

Ownership is rooted in the use of force: you effectively own what you or an ally can forcefully stop others from taking away from you. The ability to stop other people from taking something relies usually on the threat of police force, which depends on the legal system you are a part of.

In that sense, ownership is no different from robbery; in both cases, someone is using force to hold on to an item and stop others from having it. This is especially clear when two different cultures with different notions of ownership come into contact, such as with the European settlers in North America and the Native Americans. The Europeans used force to keep the Native Americans off the land. Everything was legal from the European perspective, backed up by royal land grants and sometimes treaties with some of the Native Americans, and it was robbery from the Native American standpoint.

However, we can make normative statements about what a person ought to be recognized as owning. The truth of these statements depends on whether it is beneficial to society to recognize that type of ownership. If it is beneficial to society as a whole for you to own something to a certain extent and within certain rules, then you should be recognized as owning that thing, to that extent and within those rules.

If your legal system says that to own land you must pay taxes on it, then that's just part of what "land ownership" means in your legal system. People agree that you own that land and they agree that paying taxes is part of maintaining ownership.


Definition of Ownership

Ownership is best understood as a bundle of sticks, a collection of specific rights and duties, rather than an undifferentiated object where a person controls either the whole thing or no part of it.

In the example of the mortgage, the title owner has the legal power to exclude all the world except (1) the mortgagee when (2) the debt is in default.

In the example of taxation, the result is similar. The title owner has the legal power to exclude all the world except (1) the taxing authority when (2) the taxes are in default.

Other common sticks include: building setbacks from a right of way; zoning restrictions as to use of the property; and prohibitions of various sorts regarding building appearance. The penalties for violations vary quite widely, but all such restrictions invade the notion of ownership as an absolute, all-or-nothing set of rights.


A practical definition - and one which expresses the collective value of property rights to society in general, rather than to property holders specifically - is:

Private property is that value which can be reliably exchanged in, or used as collateral for, a contract between strangers which both parties may expect to be enforced by a third party authority.

Taxation, the possibility of confiscation, high risk of criminal or natural damages, legal limitations on use, and legal or practical barriers to transaction, all constitute diminution of the total value of the property. These diminutions are subtractive, not multiplicative: they can easily reduce the value of a property below zero, as can be seen in e.g. apartment buildings abandoned by owners in big cities with rent control regimes. Despite high land values, the value of the property has been so diminished by regulation that it cannot even be given away, and it is cheaper to abandon it - and flee prosecution for so doing - than to maintain it or pay someone else to take ownership.

Conversely, things with negligible or even negative value can be given significant positive value through regulation, when ownership thereof provides a special privilege backed up by government force. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the selling of military officer commissions in the 18th and 19th century British army, where what was for sale - in addition to the deadly danger and strict obligations of military service - was literal and direct access to the power of the state.

In such a definition, ownership becomes a spectrum - the ownership of value associated with things - which varies based on the additional benefits or penalties attached to the thing, the price in time or money associated with transferring ownership, the limitations imposed on its use, its exposure to risk, and the degree to which someone will reliably enforce contracts referring to the property.


Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals” Part 1: Private Right is an excellent resource to help answer your question.

8.: To have anything External as one’s own is only possible in a Juridical or Civil State of Society under the regulation of a public legislative Power.

If, by word or deed, I declare my Will that some external thing shall be mine, I make a declaration that every other person is obliged to abstain from the use of this object of my exercise of Will; and this imposes an Obligation which no one would be under, without such a juridical act on my part. But the assumption of this Act, at the same time involves the admission that I am obliged reciprocally to observe a similar abstention towards every other in respect of what is externally theirs; for the Obligation in question arises from a universal Rule regulating the external juridical relations. Hence I am not obliged to let alone what another person declares to be externally his, unless every other person likewise secures me by a guarantee that he will act in relation to what is mine, upon the same Principle. This guarantee of reciprocal and mutual abstention from what belongs to others, does not require a special juridical act for its establishment, but is already involved in the Conception of an external Obligation of Right, on account of the universality and consequently the reciprocity of the obligatoriness arising from a universal Rule.—Now a single Will, in relation to an external and consequently contingent Possession, cannot serve as a compulsory Law for all, because that would be to do violence to the Freedom which is in accordance with universal Laws. Therefore it is only a Will that binds every one, and as such a common, collective, and authoritative Will, that can furnish a guarantee of security to all. But the state of men under a universal, external, and public Legislation, conjoined with authority and power, is called the Civil state. There can therefore be an external Mine and Thine only in the Civil state of Society.

Kant - https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/hastie-the-philosophy-of-law


You seem to be looking for a black and white meaning of ownership- there isn't one. Your disagreement with your pal is a classic example of an argument at cross purposes, where you are each using the word ownership in different ways. Also, when you say you are not interested in the legal definition, that is rather like saying you are not interested in the scientific definition of mass. Discussion of ownership without introducing legal considerations makes the subject meaningless.

Ownership is a matter of convention. Whether you can regard yourself as owning something depends upon the societal context and the nature of the object. Societies recognise various forms of ownership, and whenever there is a dispute about ownership then it typically becomes a matter for courts to decide, hence the importance of considering the legal definition.

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