Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bentham on Equality

Bentham is the principal founder of the consequentialist moral theory we call utilitarianism. For a rather harsh critique of a fully developed application of utilitarianism (that of Peter Singer) which will help you to grasp both the nature of the theory and some of its limitations, see this article by Peter Berkowitz that I cribbed from David Johnson's Daily Phlog:

Berkowitz asserts that utilitarianism does not, contra Singer, entail the principal of equality. Bentham vigorously disagrees, and in the passage we are reading this week he gives an interesting argument for it. Let's discuss on Monday how and whether that argument works to support a rough equality of ownership.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hard-Wired for Empathy, Fairness

This review of Alison Gopnik's new book The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life describes some fascinating new neurological research about how babies' minds and brains work. Among other things, very young children seem to have an acute and subtle sensitivity to others' intentions, and a powerful sense of empathy. One might easily infer from these innate tendencies a strong propensity to develop a sense of property rights. These directly inferred property rights might be of many sorts, not just those arrangements we now see in the industrialized world (such as those framed by Smith), but some such rights or other seem inevitable if these findings about infant cognitive development are right.

Thinking About Adam Smith

For our purposes, one thing to notice about The Wealth of Nations is the broadly utilitarian presuppositions it embodies. It has as strong a dose of individualism as does Rousseau, for example, and a marked preference for maximization of quantifiable goods.

Smith argues against the protection of domestic markets, on the grounds that this "unnatural" (watch out for the emotive force of that term!) regulation of markets will be 1) unnecessary if domestic products are cheaper than imports 2) have no effect if they cost the same, and 3) be harmful (i.e., to the individual purchaser) if they are costlier. But he has just completed an account of the salutary effects and general preferability of healthy local markets. Here an individualist bias may cause him to miss a larger potential collective benefit in stability, mutual assistance, and collective security possible with well-crafted and flexible regulation.

It is worth noting that he is not uniformly against government regulation. Most of the places he rails against it pertain specifically to mercantilist capitalism (state-sponsored international trade monopolies, such as the British East India Company, etc.) that were rampant under European colonialism. He is quite correct; such policies generated vast wealth at the direct expense of both domestic and foreign workers.

Smith's occasional excesses perhaps illustrate one danger of leaning too heavily on the Lockean notion that property relations have a basis in nature. We don't want to discard the insight simply because it risks exaggeration, however...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Adam Smith's Invisible Hands

Here is a fairly comprehensive treatment of Smith's use of the metaphor of the invisible hand, showing that our fixation on it since the mid-twentieth century is misplaced.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


It's pretty clear, even from this excerpt from The Origins of Inequality, that Rousseau prefers what he calls savagery to civilization, and thinks it's all been downhill -- though inevitably and irreversibly so -- since we abandoned near-total self-sufficiency. Leaving aside the dubious historicity of this image, what he seems most vociferously down on is the ownership of land -- just the concern Shelby raised with respect to Locke. As we saw, it's not so clear that full ownership is the right model for land use rights even on Lockean assumptions, given what we now understand about ecological processes and the scarcity of sustainably productive land in the current century. Perhaps, unlike the obviously appropriate private ownership of personal items like clothes and toothbrushes, all land should be held in some sort of commons trusts, and leased to those who will use it wisely.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Owning and Possessing

Shelby is quite right to observe that owning and possessing are closely allied, though distinct. In fact, possession is neither necessary nor sufficient for property. I can, at least under prevailing cultural practices, rightly claim to own something that is long out of my possession, such as the circular saw I loaned to a colleague six months ago, or the car I bought in graduate school that someone stole in Chicago (wherever it is it's still mine, dammit, and I want it back even if it is 40 years old now). Likewise I may possess many things that do not belong to me, such as the snowblower my neighbor stores in my garage in exchange for letting me use it, the stack of library books on my desk (both cases of justified possession that do not entail ownership) or the Bob Dylan CD I once vindictively hid from my ex-wife when she moved out (a clear case of theft and other moral limitations).

Yet frequently we do possess what we own, and also own what we possess, and possession (or the control over things that it implies) seems a logical precursor to more formal property arrangements. We might speculate that the rightful ownership Locke describes as existing in a state of nature could have grown out of the pragmatic and psychological attachment people tend to have to the things they make, use, and identify with.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lockean Limits on Property

I take the following as a preliminary list of how Locke thinks property acquisition is naturally limited by the same principles that justify it:

1. "Enough and as good" clause

2. Spoilage proviso

3. Rational purpose (need fulfillment for enjoyment of life)

4. Charity (an entitlement of the needy, not merely a duty of the comfortable)

In respect of this last restriction, here is a passage from the First Treatise (I, 42): "God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the surplusage of his Goods, so that it cannot be justly denied him, when his pressing Wants call for it...As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Charity gives every man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise."

As before, we will want to see whether such an entitlement has a credible secular parallel to justify it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mixing one's labor

Another set of issues we might try to sort out is what's underneath the metaphors Locke uses for how what he calls labor generates property: mixing, investment, etc. Even granting that we understand 'labor' in the special sense we discussed -- the exercise of volition (liberty) with intent to manifest one's identity in the world, paradigmatically in acts of self-preservation -- how is the mixing supposed to make the end product our own? As Nozick asks rhetorically, if I pour my can of tomato juice into the ocean, have I made the ocean mine or foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? Less flippantly, why is it that Locke says I am entitled to the whole product of my labor, rather than just to the value that my labor has added to the natural commons with which I have mixed it?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Locke's Central Impulse

It is easy to bring to the reading of Locke a predisposition to view property in a certain way, and to seem to find support for that view in the text (as the libertarian theorist Robert Nozick, for example, convinced himself that he was carrying out Locke's program). Given this tendency to project our assumptions onto Locke, and the richness the text exhibits when we're fishing for clues for any particular view, we must take on the difficult task, in all intellectual honesty, of trying to see where Locke's own most fundamental commitments lie.

The chapter on "Paternal Power" is very revealing in this regard, I think. It purports to distinguish the power of fathers over their children from that of rulers over their subjects, and does so clearly, but it also charts in some detail the reasons for and limitations of the ownership of children by their parents. Here property is only a little bit about rights, but a great deal about responsibilities and the limitations of power.

Another indication that Locke's account of property is as much about obligations as it is about acquisitiveness appears early in the First Treatise. I will share the passage with you in class on Monday, when we can also enumerate the various constraints Locke places on ownership, and discuss whether and to what extent the invention of money undermines them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

So What Does Locke Mean by Property?

As I hope will emerge more clearly as the text unfolds, property for Locke is whatever is proper to someone. That is, one's property is a right to anything, which may not be violated without consent. What is properly and justifiably one's own flows from the exercise of one's volition in the fulfillment of one's needs for survival and the rational enjoyment of life. His "labor" theory is a specification of the process whereby that exercise of volition, in the appropriate circumstances, entitles one to what that exercise produces. It is the metaphor that bridges from Life and Liberty on the one hand, which Locke thinks are obviously and undeniably our own, to the products of our labor on the other hand, our estate (the more usual referent of the term property).

We are entitled to our stuff, that is, by the proper use of our selves, and the term property, Locke insists, when used precisely, encompasses this whole complex: "By property I must be understood here, as in other places, to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods" (II, 173). In other words, property as a whole is "Life, Liberty, and Estate" (II, 87).