Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The ethics of property

My article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation” has just appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy. It is apparently available online for free, in both PDF format and HTML (follow the links from the table of contents). You will find in it a fairly detailed exposition of classical natural law theory and its underlying metaphysics, and an account of how certain natural rights (and certain limits on those rights) follow from natural law, of how a right to private property in particular follows from it, and of what this entails vis-à-vis taxation and related issues. This is the most up-to-date and complete statement of my current position on these topics, and supersedes my earlier writings on property and taxation. As you will see, though I have repudiated the libertarian position of some of my early publications, I am still utterly opposed to socialism, social democracy, and egalitarian liberalism. The article aims to spell out what a genuinely conservative approach to property and taxation should look like.


  1. well... your exposee on natural law and property rights is nicely written and cogent...but here is Pr Howard Kainz claiming that a correct reading of the natural law will lead to acceptance of abortion in cases of rape:

    (Now, I think that Kainz is deeply mistaken on a so-called clash of rights, but i nonetheless wanted to hear your opinion on such a bizarre assertion).

  2. I am new to this blog (and blogging generally). I emerged from the cognitive quagmire of modern skepticism about 14 years ago; having stumbled upon something akin to A-T realism without having read nary a word of Aristotle or Aquinas. Subsequently, I (and my entire family) converted to Catholicism, much to the chagrin of devoutly protestant family members. Since then I have been about the business of raising 5 children and running a business - so that pursuit of philosophic intersts were limited due to the responsibilities relating to my roles as husband/father/business owner. Until 3 months ago, I had only a tangential aquaintance with Thomistic philosophy. However, since then I have become entirely enthralled with the modern resugence of Aristotealian-Thomistic metaphysical principals. My current reading list includes Aristotle, Aquinas, Maritain, Gilson, Haldane, Noriss Clarke, Copleston, Feser's TLS/Aquinas/Phenomenalogy of Mind and the like - I feel like a saturated (yet addicted) human sponge.
    In addition, life circumstances have opened up new opportunities; thus, I am presently completing the necessary requirements for hopeful acceptance into the Philosophy PHD program at the University of Kentucky (Lexington,Ky). I confess, however, that I have reservations about this course of action stemming from my growing awareness that the typical university philosophical proffesoriate is reliably dimissive, if not antithetical, to an A-T approach. In fact, I have focused on the UK program rather than the University of Cincinnati (which is far closer geopraphically), because the published works and disserataions associated with the UC faculty convey an almost wholseale commitment to physicalism, naturalism, etc within a primarily analytical philsophic methodology. So much so that an A-T minded person would simply be a fish out of water in such an environment. I would gratefully accept any insights from professor Feser or others on this blog (even non A-T types), regarding what I can expect, or how I should conduct myself, as an A-T proponent among faculty who will likely be unsympathetic to my interests/positions. Perhaps I should refarin from seekng admssion into such a program until I am extremly well grounded in all things A-T (especially as they relate to contemporary philosophic trends) - or should I dive in, even as I am aquiring a firmer grasp of A-T? Thank you in advance for your comments.

  3. Dr. Feser,

    For some time now I've been trying to come to grips with natural law theory. It is a theory I would like to believe in in a way, but your article is a good illustration of some difficulties in the theory I still have trouble resolving. The second point is more important than the first in my mind.

    (1a) First, a question about final causality. To make my point I'll use your example of the tendency of a match to cause fire when struck. Stated generally, a thing with an essence will, because of the final causality inherent in it, cause some effect rather than another. The match when struck causes fire rather than cold. But can this all be analyzed in the following way: to say that a match has fire as its final cause, or to say that a match is teleologically directed toward fire, is to say that under the set of conditions X, a match will produce fire? Is final causality just a way of talking about true conditional statements concerning things with essential natures? I suspect it is more than this, because I imagine that many philosophers might accept the truth aptness of conditional statements about things with essential natures without subscribing to final causality. Perhaps this is because I am misconceiving of final causality as some power, almost like a seed, held within an individual of some nature, and, conceived of in this way, final causality takes on a queer aspect inimicable to some philosophers.

    (1b) One thing to note about the match example is that it is not the norm for fire to be the effect of a struck match. This is a contingent truth grounded on the makeup of our universe, the vast majority of which does not provide the conditions necessary for fire to be caused by a struck match. This shows the importance of taking into account that norms, as you call them, are, at least in some cases, to be defined under certain conditions. It is the norm for a struck match to cause fire on Earth, but not in space. Hence we can't know whether a match is a good or bad match unless we know the context in which it was struck and failed to produce fire. That being said, I don't mean to suggest that all norms need be context relative.

    For a moment I thought that I had overplayed your understanding of the relationship between final causality and cause and effect, but looking back at your article, I can see that you take cause and effect, in the sense of efficient causality, to be the "heart" of final causality, so I will assume I haven't grafted too much of the notion of cause and effect onto final causality.

    (1c) One last thought under this heading. If the final end of human beings is the beatific vision, then how are human beings to be understood as the cause of that state? Explaining final causality, you say that "...that which brings about a certain effect is directed toward the production of that effect as its natural end or goal." But humans cannot produce the beatific vision as an effect. This may lead into too many issues concerning the distinction between a natural and supernatural end, but even if the beatific vision is understood as a supernatural end, the fact that it cannot be an effect brought about by an individual whose essence directs her to that state seems to me to suggest that your explanation of final causality in terms of cause and effect is incomplete.


  4. This comment section is full of questions, so I hope that a possibly simpler one won't be unwelcome. I should note that my understanding of Thomism is limited to what I have pieced together haphazardly from sympathetic websites. I am an economist-in-training, not in any fashion (sadly?) a philosopher.

    In your article, you write that "the existence of [...] the occasional 'deadbeat dad' does nothing to undermine the truth of the judgment that their behavior is contrary to their nature and thus bad for them". What matters is that the deadbeat dad is a person, and that (qua person) he has a particular nature. I follow your argument until that point. What I cannot quite piece together is why such a deadbeat dad should be convinced to alter his behavior.

    If the deadbeat dad knows that he will be psychologically happier and physically more comfortable by neglecting his children, what is it about the knowledge that his nature involves caring for his children that convinces him to do so? This is particularly salient for "victimless" crimes, I should think, which is why e.g. the catholic teaching on contraception does not seem to hang together very well for many people. "The final cause of the coital act is reproduction; sure, I'll buy that; why should I care?"

    (Unrelated: I'm a recent ... well, I shouldn't say convert to Catholicism; that hasn't happened yet. But your blog is one of several sources that has convinced me of the philosophical reasonableness of Catholicism in general, and for that I should thank you.)

  5. (2a) On page 31, all of a sudden I was surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and is not, I met with no proposition that was not connected with with an ought or an ought not. (Just a little philosophy humor.) But seriously, my problem with the introduction of ought and ought not, of should and should not, is that they are analyzable into less than what any natural law theorist will want them to be. He will want them to serve as "binding words," words that lay down actions that must or must not be performed, our moral duties. But how can it be a duty to fulfill one's natural tendencies? Where does this duty come from? You're trying to derive duties without an intelligent or conscious appointer of duties, without which the notion of duty makes no sense (if then).

    You are using the word "good" to refer to the fulfillment of some capacity that belongs to a thing in virtue of its nature, and perhaps to anything that contributes to that fulfillment. But if we allow the term "good" to be used in this way, that does not show that we ought to do what is good, i.e. that I ought to pursue the fulfillment of the norms appropriate to me in virtue of my nature. I have two legs by nature, but that does not tell me that I should not seek one leg less or more (through the miracle of modern medicine, maybe because it would make me a great runner, and I'm willing to compromise a norm for the sake of that). My being defective in the way of legs is only good or bad relative to other values I hold. It may be good for my intellect to know truth, i.e. that may be a good description of the intellect's final end, but it doesn't follow from that goodness that I should or ought or must pursue it. I might have another capacity, such as a capacity whose purpose is to feel pleasure, and see that I must sacrifice the good of my intellect if I am to promote the good of the capacity whereby I feel pleasure. (I must deceive myself, or positively avoid knowing the truth, or something like that.) The point is that there are competing values that guide our decisions, and whether or not we seek to promote our "natural goodness", i.e. whether or not we seek to achieve our final end or ends, will depend on how achieving those ends squares with our values, what we cherish and think worth pursuing. Maybe our values will lead us to achieve our natural final end, maybe not. Our values might lead us to be bad in the way of our final end, i.e. to fail to meet it, because of other values we see we can only promote at the expense of our natural goodness. The point is that the natural goodness is not by itself a sufficient guide or ground for moral decision making.

    I would go so far as to suggest that there is a verbal trick at play here (perhaps a fallacy of equivocation), and in the following way. We begin from the first principle that "we ought to do good." Fair enough. But why should we define the "good" as the fulfillment of natural ends? You have appointed the word "good" as the term to describe such fulfillment, and concluded from this, combined with the above mentioned first principle, that we ought to pursue such fulfillment, since it is "good." But all you did was add the uninformative term "good" to the notion of a thing's fulfilling its natural capacities; you did this in order to see to it that, in the end, such fulfillment would be thought of as "good" and hence be the natural answer, following on the above mentioned first principle, to what should be done.

    You can call achieving a final end "good" if you like, and thereby conclude that we ought to achieve our final ends. But goodness is just an empty appellation in that case. The same goes for saying "Meeting the norm is good" and "Falling short of the norm is bad." Moments like these help me see G.E. Moore's point about non-naturalism.

  6. "I would gratefully accept any insights from professor Feser or others on this blog (even non A-T types), regarding what I can expect, or how I should conduct myself, as an A-T proponent among faculty who will likely be unsympathetic to my interests/positions."

    You ought to at least pretend to be committed to the spirit of philosophy, which is certainly not how you come across.

  7. "You ought to at least pretend to be committed to the spirit of philosophy, which is certainly not how you come across."

    What is the "spirit of philosophy". I was unawrae of such a criteria - nor am I a professional philosopher. I am about to invest substantial funds in academic pursuits and I happen to know that a decent amount of distate for the A-T philosophical approach exists. I simply hoped for any input relating to the reception good or bad of A-T ideas whithin the ivory tower. I hope I am not a closed minded A-T proponent, but I cannot pretend that that is not my current interest.

    . . . confused

  8. Anon @ 7:36,

    What the hell is it about comboxes that makes people think they have a license to read what others say in any uncharitable and unfair way they feel like doing? And anonymously at that -- brave guy, you are.

    There is nothing in what monk68 said that implies an "unphilosophical" attitude. He never said "Where can I go where my biases won't be challenged?" What he clearly meant is that he'd like to study at a place where the ideas he's interested in exploring are not going to be dismissed without a fair hearing. What, pray tell, is unphilosophical about that?

  9. Hello monk68,

    It's hard to know what to say in the abstract. There are certainly places where you would have an opportunity to study A-T in a serious way in conversation with mainstream academic philosophy. Fordham is one such place -- Davies, Klima, and other folks who know both A-T and analytic phil well are there. And there are certainly various places which have less to offer in the way of A-T but still have at least one faculty member who knows it.

    But it is true that most depts. probably have no one who knows or cares about it. Short of seeking out a school that has at least one A-T scholar on the faculty, then, you're more or less going to have to make that part of your education a matter of self-study, and try for a place where people are at least open-minded enough not to be dismissive when you raise A-T issues and arguments in papers, discussion, etc. It's hard to make any general remarks about that, however -- how open-minded people are is just going to vary too much from place to place.

  10. Anon with the gigantic question,

    I'll try to get back to you ASAP -- sorry, no time right now!

  11. “But why should we define the "good" as the fulfillment of natural ends?”

    Based on my current understanding of A-T metaphysics I would like to point out that for Thomas, "good" and "being" are interchangeable terms. Thus, the highest Being - God, is all-good precisely because He possesses the "fullness of being". He is pure act. Thus, in God (First Cause / Unmoved Mover), the distinction between IS and OUGHT disappears.
    If my understanding of AT in this regard is correct (and it may not be as I am just getting acquainted with AT), it follows that any act, choice, etc we make is "good" or "bad" only insofar as it enhances or inhibits our “participation in being" - that is, as a given act or choice tends to actualize, rather than retard, one or more of our "essential" / "formal" potentialities. If, to be entirely actual is identical with being entirely good (as in God's case), then it follows that human beings are "good" precisely to the extent that the potentialities within human nature are actualized. From an AT perspective, our entire existence, from the moment of conception, is an ever increasing participation in "being" via an ever increasing actualization of the latent potentialities inherent in our nature. We exist in "a state of becoming". Thus, bodily potentialities related to infancy are progressively actualized along the path to an adult body; intellectual potentialities are actualized along the path from our first cognitions to our current ability to contribute to this blog; potentialities of the will are actualized along the path from childish lack of self-control to (hopefully) adult self-mastery. In short, making choices which comport with the fulfillment of one’s natural ends seems to imply an increased participation in being – a richer mode of existence.

    To me at least, this seems like a very good reason for making moral choices in accord with final ends. I, for one, am attracted to the idea of a richer mode of existence, and I suspect this sentiment is widespread. After all, presented with a “clear and pleasant pleasure”, a person might choose to behave in a manner contrary to his final end even if he believed that an “intelligent or conscious appointer of duties exists”; and even if he believed such an “appointer” threatened severe punishment for such behavior. The desire for a richer manner of existence, as well as fear of divine punishment, can both be compelling reasons to behave in ways consonant with final ends, although admittedly, the latter may have greater motivating power. But since in a pluralistic society arguments free of religious assumptions will have wider appeal it seems to me that the motivation summed up in “be all you can be” is quite workable.

  12. I am looking for resources of this quality to write a paper analysing the justifications for the state reserving ownership of certain minerals within the sub-soil of privately owned land.

    Some of the justifications historically offered for this practice may be legitimate, such as the reservation of gold and silver as "royal metals" in 16th century Britain on the grounds that the King needed to make weapons and coinage so as to raise and keep an army to protect the realm. The argument in 1918 advanced for the justification of the addition of oil to the minerals reserved for the state was that the navy had converted its ships to use oil and war was upon the nation. Similar arguments exist for iron, steel (and uranium) as "war metals."

    However, justifications for the state reserving ownership of coal, certain types of rock and clay useful in roading and construction, gemstones, etc are justified on other grounds, such as, the cost of prospecting is not economically viable unless the state funds it and it is in the nation's best interests to know where minerals of value are and to have viable industries trading in them.

    Surely now that the navy is not so dependent on oil and that we don't tend to arm our military with gold and silver weapons, the justifications for the state reservation of such minerals has passed or shifted into something else. Perhaps such arguments were only ever partial justifications anyway – I’m prima facie uncomfortable with any legislation that retroactively cedes ownership of something within privately owned land to the state no matter what the reason.

    The thought that if I buy a piece of land and it turns out there is a viable and potentially profitable petroleum source under it that I have no right to stop the government granting someone a licence to access and mine it and I cannot be recompensed for this or veto this decision (in New Zealand – not sure what the situation in the US is) seems a massive affront to my property rights. Land was traditionally owned in subsoil (and airspace) and freehold title indefeasible against all others including the state.

    I have very little time to find resources to write this paper. Can you recommend any that would help my argument? My lecturer, like most people in my country, cannot see the problem - if the state needs something to benefit society then what’s the problem? People need roads, rail, houses and it is good for the economy to have a gold and gemstone industry, it creates jobs… The articles my lecturer is recommending run along those lines as do the resources my library suggested (the joys of living and studying in a left leaning country). I do have access to international databases so I want to find something that fits my view that the state has a limited function and if it is going to legislate a claim against minerals contained in the subsoil of property owned by private citizens then it needs a legitimate justification. However, with no one guiding me in the right direction, it is a bit hit and miss and I don’t have much time. Your article, “The Ethics of Property,” is a resource I can definitely use to help me develop my argument but do you know of any other works along the same lines that speak more directly to the issue of state reserved minerals that I have raised here? Does anyone else?

    Thanks :-)

  13. From the essay: In the Hobbesian state of nature, everyone has a right to do anything he wants, without any limitations whatsoever.

    Strauss (in his 1936 essay on Hobbes) interprets Hobbes to mean that although every action is permitted (this is the basis of natural right), not every intention is. The determining judgment turns on whether the intention for the act is based on self preservation. Therefore, it may not be correct to state that everyone can do whatever they want without limitation. It depends on whether the specific action is directed towards self-preservation. Thus, justice is a legitimate concept, even in nature. At least that is what I understand Strauss to be arguing for Hobbes.

  14. I have been slowly working my way through this article! One thing that strikes me is where you say Hobbesian contractarians are unable to explain why we should afford even conventional rights to the weakest member of society. I guess it's easily explained as being a kind of insurance, though? Nobody knows how far they will fall. (Not that I agree with contractarians.)

  15. Is "intellectual property" (IP) property?

    cf. the CC BY-licensed work by patent lawyer Stephan N. Kinsella: Against Intellectual Property. Kinsella convincingly argues that IP is not property by showing that property rights only apply to scarce resources:

    But surely it is clear, given the origin, justification, and function of property rights, that they are applicable only to scarce resources. Were we in a Garden of Eden where land and other goods were infinitely abundant, there would be no scarcity and, therefore, no need for property rules; property concepts would be meaningless. The idea of conflict, and the idea of rights, would not even arise. For example, your taking my lawnmower would not really deprive me of it if I could conjure up another in the blink of an eye. Lawnmower-taking in these circumstances would not be "theft." Property rights are not applicable to things of infinite abundance, because there cannot be conflict over such things.