On Monday I wrote a post called "Survival vs. Property" about how the moral permissibility of breaking into a cabin and obtaining help for one’s stranded family raises problems for those who hold that property rights are an absolute.
A commenter named inquisitor responded. I would like to add some detail to my original argument and answer some of these responses.
The Slippery Slope
Once society or the state can say that they know better how to utilize your posessions, then you don't really own anything. Your ability to use or transfer your property is subject to the whims of others…. Legalizing theft, for whatever purpose, is a slippery slope. If property rights are not absolute, then they do not exist at all.
This slippery slope is not valid. Clearly the fact that we acknowledge the right to perform actions that kill innocent people (in war time), to destroy their property (to create a firebreak that will prevent destruction of an entire city) do not imply that we think it is legitimate for our neighbors to kill or blow up houses on a whim. Nor does the claim that a person can lie to the Nazis about the Jews she is hiding in her attic does not imply that the there is no obligation to tell the truth in ordinary circumstances.
The right to take property when what is taken is that which a good person would not put as much value on as the opportunity to save a life does not imply the right to take property on a whim.
Intrinsic vs. Desire Dependent Value
Allow me to take your logic to the other extreme. Let's say that my kidneys have failed, and I will die without a transplant. You are the only person who is a match for me. By your logic, my life trumps whatever ownership you might have to one of your kidneys.
Actually, this is false.
The claim that “life trumps ownership” can only be understood as an intrinsic value claim – a claim that life has more intrinsic value than ownership and when the two come into conflict that which radiates the greatest intrinsic merit (the most goodons and fewest badons) determines what we ought to do.
However, I reject all intrinsic value theories.
By the way, this includes the claim that taking property is intrinsically wrong. Taking property is wrong to the degree that it is reasonable for people to use the tools of social conditioning to promote an aversion to taking property. However, that reasonableness ends at the point that strengthening the aversion to taking property does more harm than good. Strengthening it to the point that a father will not break into a cabin to save the life of his wife and children goes beyond that point.
Speaking more generally, note that the theory that I employ says that we always act so as to fulfill our desires (given our beliefs), and that morality consists in promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.
In this, it is easy to make an argument for an aversion to taking property without consent. In fact, some of inquisitor’s arguments are arguments about the value of this particular aversion. It promotes peace by avoiding disputes that could lead to violence. It makes a person’s life more predictable so that he can plan more efficiently – knowing that the tool he expects to use will still be there when he uses it. It also gives an incentive for productive labor, since there is less value in creating something if it gets taken by the first person who wants it.
However, this aversion to taking the property of others will always be one desire among many. When more and stronger desires get stacked against it, they will eventually defeat it. When more and stronger good desires get stacked against it, a moral person’s aversion is overridden by greater concerns.
The types of cases I describe – the father who breaks into a cabin to save his family, and the father who takes a car without permission to get his child to the hospital, all have in common the fact that person takes what the other person (if he had good desires) should have been willing to sacrifice. Whereas, at the same time, the agent is acting on a desire that we all have reason to strengthen and promote – care for the welfare of one’s children.
The instruments of praise and condemnation, and reward and punishment, exist as a way of communicating how strong those different desires should be (the strength at which the desires are desire-fulfilling and not desire-thwarting). Punishing the person who breaks into a cabin to save his family communicates the idea that we want citizens who value the protection of trivial amounts of property to the lives of one’s children.
There is not much sense in that.
The factors I mentioned above argue for a presumption against taking property - prima facie assumption (borne on the value of the good person’s aversion to such a thing) that this is not to be done. However, prima facie assumptions can be overridden in cases where the evidence is compelling. The presumption of innocence unless proven guilty does not imply that nobody can ever be proved guilty. The presumption against taking property unless it can be proven that the property taken is of trivial concern that a good person would not really miss and the benefits are as significant as saving a life does not prove that no wealth transfer (as with breaking into a cabin or taking a car to get one’s sick kid to the hospital) can never be justified.
The organ case does not fit the description of minor cost. However, an estate tax that takes some of the money a person has made that he has no further use for and donates it to the poor – or at least gives the owner an incentive to donate the money in order to avoid the tax, would fit this model. A good person has no reason to fear a transfer of a small amount of property. People have every reason to fear when others start cutting into their bodies without consent. The aversion to losing small things in a good person rightfully is much weaker than the aversion to people cutting into his body and taking his organs.
If I put myself in the place of your hypothetical hiker, I can say that I would, without question, break into that cabin and take whatever was necessary to survive. I would do so knowing that it was illegal and that I would have to accept whatever punishment was deemed necessary by the cabin's owner and the justice system. I am, in effect, trading my freedom for those things I needed to save my family and valued more.
Please note the contradiction in this. If breaking into the cabin is wrong, then it is something that ought not to be done. That is what wrong means – that a good person would not do such a thing, and only an immoral (evil) person would do so. If it is not wrong, then this claims that it is permissible to punish good people – that, in fact, society is rational creating systems where good people are punished and the bad person (who does not care enough about his family to break into the house) are the ones to let free.
This is incoherent. Punishment is meant to communicate the idea that “a good person would not do this thing.” It is meant to teach an aversion to doing such things. If a good person would do such a thing, then punishment communicates the idea that no good person would do that which a good person would do.
The idea that there are moral absolutes is always easy to defeat.
Would you destroy somebody else’s priceless unique Grecian urn if doing so will prevent aliens from capturing all humans and subjecting them unending physical torture? No replacement is possible. Under the system of absolute property rights, the owner could refuse to volunteer to have the urn broken. It is within her right to do so. We may not understand her decision, but it is still her right.
Sorry, somebody get me a bat cuz that urn’s gonna get broken.
The idea that a good person would never take or destroy another person’s property is nonsense. The only question is not whether some amount of social utility justifies the act, but how much.
I think that a good argument can be made against, ‘I kinda think it’s a good idea,” is not a strong enough standard – too many people are able to rationalize their own case as a “good idea.” Rather, I hold to the “presumed wrong until proven justified beyond a reasonable doubt” as the best standard for avoiding the rationalization of wealth transfers for the purpose of purchasing political power, aiding campaign contributors, or foolishly spending money on somebody’s good idea that he could not find voluntary funding for.
But a moral absolute?