Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The wisdom of property

Many traditional conservative critiques of capitalist and business ideology emphasize that these encourage an amputated view of man, reducing him only to his desires and choices.

This reductionist ethos tends to cut off the individual from his family, his history, his country and even his God.

The same ethos has direct bearing on cultural conflicts surrounding sex and bioethics, where lifestyle individualism merges with consumerist demand to deny and to transgress the limits of bodily nature.

Yet the link to Liberal philosophy's view of property is rarely highlighted.

In this spirit, Villanova Prof. Mark Shiffman provides an excellent and concise critique of Lockean anthropology in his discussion of The Human Meaning of Property at Front Porch Republic.

According to Locke, our right to property derives from our investment of our labor to improve something that did not belong to another already (Second Treatise, chapter 5). This right includes property in our own person – our body and our mental faculties. Locke’s formulation of our relationship to ourselves in terms of labor-derived property hints at the view of the human person that underlies it, which is the reduction of the person ultimately to the will. For if it is our labor that makes our bodies our property, and the same goes for our minds, then what is the “self” that initiates and is responsible for this labor, if not the will that makes us stretch our limbs and direct our attention to what is around and inside us?

....The will places value on things, initiates the labor that improves their value, and shapes the way we think of them in terms of the right to exercise itself in their disposal. Locke’s examples, like Madison’s, emphasize agrarian property, but do so solely in terms of the prospect of infinitely increasing yields... The will imposes its limitless terms on the world, rather than recognizing natural limits to its satisfaction – except the limits that have to be observed and enforced by government to accommodate the existence of other wills seeking their own satisfactions. These latter limits, seen from the point of view of the person protected by them, are what we call “rights.” They are thus negative or prohibitive in character, grounded on the valuation imposed on the world by the individual will, and formulated so as to coordinate all the individual and conflicting wills that fall under one system of government and laws.

This “right” that precedes and legitimates government is natural in the sense that the passions of all human beings lead them to lay claim to it. If we take the will of the individual and extract what is universal in it (or sufficiently universal for practical purposes), this will provide us with the basis for elaborating a reliable system of rights, or a set of exemptions from interference that everyone can sign on to. Madison quite correctly asserts a reciprocal equivalence between property and rights. Unfortunately for his republican cause, this equivalence opens the door to the marketization of every aspect of life.


This habit of making the will foundational to man and to government ends up placing all choices beyond criticism, provided they do not conflict with other choices. Reason, one of man's mental faculties, is the "property," and thus the instrument, of the unquestioned will.

Such voluntarism calls into question the humanity of those who do not present obvious evidence for having wills, such as the brain-damaged and the unborn.

It also distorts the meaning of nature, seeing it not as good in itself, but only insofar as it is transformed into an expression of human will and the imperialist self.

Proposing a less willful view of property, Shiffman follows Richard Weaver:

The responsibility for property that is intimately connected to our life as a person (and this is the meaning of proprietas: what is one’s own and characteristic of oneself) calls upon virtues that render us more complete human beings. Foremost among these virtues is practical judgment, informed by long-term views of our life as a whole and our relationship to our community. Thus only property that satisfies this criterion falls under “metaphysical right,” i.e. must be recognized as rightly belonging to our very being and its fulfillment as what it most truly is.


While I would scrutinize the place of practical judgment as a foremost virtue, his essay brings to the fore the distinction between property as an instrument to satisfying human desires and property as an instrument to advancing human goods. Even the "instrument" takes on different connotations depending on its object: is property best used "to the extent desired" or used "to the extent it is beneficial"?

For advancing the wisdom of property, Shiffman's essay may be used to benefit.

1 comment:

Roger said...

It also distorts the meaning of nature, seeing it not as good in itself.

Ahh but there's the rub!!

Nature is raw in tooth and claw. Something that might be evident to you given the pain you regularly experience and have shared on this blog.

And given the tremendous scientific strides we have made in overcoming nature (i.e. overcoming polio, small pox, tuberculosis, etc...), to accept nature as good is something of a leap of faith for modern man. Understandably so.