What is the moral justification for private property?
But how does private property arise? ‘Mine’ and ‘Yours’ are not a given in the world, they have to be ‘created’ … presumably by some sort of edict such as the declaration of a sovereign, or as a result of some sort of contract or agreement.
The English Early Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had a major impact on 18th century attitudes to property through his Two Treatises on Government (1689) and much of the sentiment of his thinking has lived on into the modern world of liberal democracies.
Locke, like others of his day, did not question the existence and authority of God. He held that humans are made in God’s image, we are God’s property. Just as God has complete rights over his Creation: so humans have rights or entitlement over their creations – that is, ownership rights over their property. Whoever creates an object both knows and owns that object (whether property or political institution). The prevailing view that he was attacking was that of hierarchical lineage with authority passing from God to Adam, to kings and so on. This was a hierarchical view of authority in which bloodlines or primogeniture was paramount: it was bloodlines that largely determined entitlement to wealth and political authority.
Locke considered his views as part of ‘natural law’ which acknowledged that humans were God’s property and natural law was God’s will. The idea of natural law dated back to at least Aristotle who had pointed out that though many social laws differed from one region to another those laws that existed ‘by nature’ must be the same. Locke expressed an egalitarian non-hierarchical view of society, specifically that: God gave the world to all humans in common; that all individuals have equal access to God (this denies a need for priestly or other religious intercession as required by the Catholic Church);and humans have ownership rights over property created. There wasa a proviso to the last claim that property shouldnot not be wasted and that there be due concern for others: humans had the liberty to create property but not the license to transgress natural law. In effect Locke made individual rights sovereign suggesting that we have both the right, even the duty, to resist their infringement.
Scholars of the early Enlightenment struggled with the apparent contradiction of God’s omnipotence on the one hand and the timeless and absolute laws of nature on the other. Locke, like others of the early Enlightenment, placed natural law outside the realm of human will.
Locke maintained that, in effect, property was instituted in a state of nature without any special conventions or political decisions. Locke’s theory assumed that God gave the world to men ‘in common’ therefore any private entitlements immediately presented a moral problem – if, in a state of nature, we all have equal rights how are we to justify the ‘disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth’ that is entailed by private property?
Locke gave a famous moral defence of private property by asserting that people have a moral right to the product of their labour ‘Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men’. (Second Treatise Chapter 5 para. 27)
Locke combined his theory of labour with the idea of ‘first occupancy’, the latter being important because, in taking possession, a first occupant did not have to displace anyone else.
Locke’s views were authoritative and highly respected at the time of Australia’s British occupation/invasion. For Locke the cultivation or productive use of land was a clear sign of invested labour and therefore ownership. And because indigenous hunters or nomadic peoples left no indication of their labour on the land then they could lay no moral claim to the land where they lived and hunted. Here we see the underlying assumptions of terra nullius.
Though Locke acknowledged the rights of first occupancy (first come, first served) there was still the uncomfortable fact that first occupancy could still compromise or otherwise adversely affect the interests of others. Locke countered this concern by claiming that productive labour actually increased the amount of goods available in society thereby serving the common good.
For later Enlightenment philosophers like the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the personal possession of objects used for the public good was a practical necessity that was simply beyond question, the only important issue to be resolved was the actual agreement deciding who should be the property owner and the conditions of ownership. For Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) too, ownership was inevitable, it has nothing to do with its justice or morality, but should be stabilized through social rules and the acceptance of an arbitrary place of entitlement.