For example, say John was in a terrible accident and had his hand was severed, he has his hand replaced by a donor hand that comes from James.

Normally, in the English Language, we could consider James's hand an Inalienable Possession, even if the hand is donated it still originated from James and could not have existed without him.

However, when the hand is attached to John, it is incredibly likely that within a matter of months people would happily refer to it as "John's hand", even though it is still James's.

In this case, is the hand owned by two people?

(I'm not sure what tag to put this under, so if anyone could help that would be great!)

  • 2
    Well, it's not absolute. Very little in the world is absolute. A hand is "alienable" under some unusual circumstances. Sure, you could say the hand is two people's, but I would say that once attached it is John's hand first and James's hand second, and it doesn't belong to James anymore. In the same way that a painting by Vermeer could belong to a museum, even though it's still Vermeer's painting.
    – causative
    Mar 25, 2022 at 2:42
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    It strains the imagination a little, but we could also consider the "Ship of Theseus" problem applied to a hand. If we had machines that could build or maintain a hand cell-by-cell, where instead of replacing the planks of the ship of Theseus, we replace individual cells, then we could end up with two identical hands in the end and no clear way to say which is the original.
    – causative
    Mar 25, 2022 at 2:45

1 Answer 1


TLDR: I don't think inalienable things can be owned at all.

Inalienable means "incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred" (source).

This matches the legal concept of inalienable rights, it is to say rights that can't be taken away from of waived away by an individual.

For example in most countries you can give away your property right to a house or car by selling or giving them away for free, but you can't give away your right to liberty by selling yourself as a slave: even if you were to willingly and freely sign an enslavement contract, it wouldn't be a legal arrangement because you can't legally decide to give away your own liberties.

An organ, like a hand, is obviously of the former category, as people are indeed authorized to give away their organs (under some conditions, though). For living donors, it might not happen so often in the case of hands, but nowadays kidney, eye, bone marrow transfers happen on a daily basis.

Now to answer your question, I can't think of any truly inalienable thing that wouldn't be an abstract thing like liberties or human rights. And those are not owned in any legal sense. Our body comes to mind, but we don't "own" our body in any usual meaning of the term (otherwise we would be authorized to sell it).

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