Monday, October 08, 2007

Intuitions about property please

Suppose private property is justified. Take that as a datum.

Here is my question: What intuitions/settled judgments must a theory of property account for in order to be the right theory of property?

Here are a few jumbled thoughts:

1. Replaceability

The right theory of property will recognize the difference between external, physical objects that can, and those that cannot, be replaced without moral loss.

Consider the case of objects we possess for purely instrumental reasons. I have a screwdriver set at home. If you were to replace it with a just-as-good set of screwdrivers, I don't think there would be anything wrong with that (holding other things constant). Many things are like this. What we want is that the object serve some purpose, goal, project, or aim. If you can find a substitute that will do just as well, then we have no moral complaints with replacement.

I also have a watch that my grandfather gave me. You couldn't replace that with an object that is just as good, since no object, other than that one, will be just as good. I don't care that it tells time, that's not what matters to me when it comes to this watch. What matters is that my grandfather gave it to me. The originality of that object matters to me. Some people claim that this is true of Picassos and the Mona Lisa, of the Wayne Gretzky rookie card, and the pen that John Hancock used to sign that piece of paper Americans go crazy about.

2. "Scalability"

I don't know what to call this exactly, but here is the upshot: The right theory of property should recognize that some ownership relations are more important than others. The right theory of property should be sensitive to the difference, for instance, between my first and only dollar, and your million-and-first dollar. Or, if we think that it shouldn't be sensitive to this, to the difference in moral weight between your owning your home and your owning your screwdriver. The latter matters less.

The right theory of property will be "scalar"--it will note and explain the fact that some ownership relations matter more than others, that ownership relations come with different moral weights.

3. Instrumental and non-instrumental

The right theory of property will note and explain the difference between objects we own (and want) for purely instrumental reasons, objects we own (and want) for instrumental reasons and for other reasons, and objects we own (and want) for purely non-instrumental reasons.

Replaceability might track this. Purely instrumental objects will be replaceable, while non-instrumental objects may or may not be replaceable.

Got any other intuitions about the right theory of property?


  1. I'd love to help you on this, Peter, but you're going to have to tell me more about it. What does your theory of property mean to define? Is there a particular normative claim that you want to address? Is it in opposition to something?

  2. Thanks, buddy. I'd love it if you could help me too.

    I'm not, at the moment, arguing against anything, or for anything (I will be, but, here, I'm not). What I'd like is this: Just assume that private property is justified (that's step one). Now tell me: What would a good theory of property need to cover? What intuitions do you have about property?

    Here's a different way of putting the question: What, if anything, makes the Lockean theory of property so compelling? Why do at least some people find the view persuasive?

    Or, consider the Hegelian view, or some other view. What makes it compelling? Why are you inclined or disinclined to accept a particular theory of property?

    You might also think of it negatively. What makes you disagree with some theory of property? What do those theories get wrong?

  3. I don't know what to tell ya, Peter. I think that the hardest part of the equation is justifying ownership of private property.

    Since you've said that I have to take that as datum, it seems that all we really want for a theory to have is a way for you to claim, maintain, transfer, and protect the property that you have and want.

    The things that you mention (replaceability and scalability) are as applicable to any relationship as they are to a person-property relationship. Tom is a friend that I kinda like, but Doug would do just as well because they are interchangeable for the most part. Aud is a very special relationship, so nothing else that you could offer me would make me as happy. I don't know what I have as property that is non-instrumental, but that might be an artifact of my theory of value.

  4. The starting place with many theories of property is that humans are naturally territorial.

    In modern culture that link is often diminished or broken to the point where people do not understand it.

  5. We had a talk today by Leif Wenar today. He has a paper published called something like "Theory of Property." You might be interested. He's a really sharp guy. Really sharp.

  6. I think that some issues are 1) how was the property acquired, 2) can this property be developed into something of value to the owner or those the owner wants to benfit, and 3) are there any limits on what should be developed that place restrictions on what the owner can do with the property?