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Philosophy

Ownership as a Moral Right

In a previous post, I began an argument for the definition of ownership as the moral right to categorically control a thing. I also mentioned three lines of argument for the claim that ownership was a moral right: common agreement, the law and philosophical analysis. If ownership is a moral right, then it will be related to the virtues and vices. In fact, virtues and vices connected with property require that ownership be a moral right.

There is one virtue and two vices strongly connected with property. This virtue is called generosity. One vice is greed, and the other has no name. Generosity freely gives the things we have to others using wisdom. So a generous person does not give unwisely, nor does such a person give more than they should. A generous person does not steal, but works to gain the what they require. A greedy person may steal, but they may also hoard money for their own use and ignore the needs of others. The other vice is one in which people give to those who are not really needy, give so much that they now need help or let other people steal from them. We ought to be generous and avoid the vice of greed.

Generosity requires ownership. We cannot give to others what we do not have. Furthermore, it is impossible for us to take from others (steal) if they do not have. Therefore, ownership must exist in order for generosity and greed to exist. But ownership cannot be something other than a moral right. For suppose that ownership is not a moral right. If I can get everyone to agree that something is mine, then it becomes mine. There were no rights to violate, so I cannot be accused on that basis. So if I have a gun, then your property can become my property! This is clearly incorrect because that is theft. Furthermore, it cannot be generosity if I am forced to give to  others by a third party. I must freely give what I have. But this requirement only makes sense if I have a moral right to what I own.

An illustration of these points should make this very clear. Suppose that you found a secret cache of gold on a farm that you had bought. The gold was worth $700,000 in today’ s currency. You needed to pay a few bills, decided to pay off your debts and had $450,000 left over. If the previous owner demanded that he receive a share of the money because he needed it to pay of gambling debts, you would be within your rights (and very wise) to deny such a request. If he stole part of the gold, then you take legal measures to have it returned. It is your gold and your decision what to do with it. On the other hand, if the previous owner came to you and requested your help, then it would be greedy to refuse without due consideration. If you did refuse, then you are greedy and can be held responsible for your character flaws. If your neighbor appealed to the government, and they took your money and gave it to him then it would still be theft. This would be true even if the government took only what he actually needed and even if he used the money wisely.

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