An unconvincing case against redistribution, part 2

This is a followup to my previous post on Michael Huemer’s argument that redistribution violates property rights. As I outlined last time, Huemer’s argument depends on the claim that for a system of legal property rights to be morally acceptable, it must satisfy the constraints of certain pre-institutional natural rights. Among these, Huemer claims, are natural property rights, which he tries to establish by invoking a thought experiment about a hermit:

Suppose you are exploring a remote wilderness region outside the jurisdiction of any government when you come upon a clearing containing a rude hut. The hut appears to have been built by a hermit, who is its only inhabitant. Since property rights depend entirely upon governmental laws, and none are in force here, you determine that the hermit does not own the hut. Over his vociferous protestations, you decide to spend the night in the hut, eat some of the food that the hermit has grown and gathered, and then paint the hut lime green. You don’t need to do any of these things; you just do them for fun. If there really are no property rights in this situation, you have just as much right to do these things as the hermit does.

In response, I suggested that natural property rights are unnecessary to explain why my behaviour would be wrong in this situation. Rights to privacy, freedom of association, and respect provide sufficient grounds for objection to my behaviour. This response, however, leaves open the possibility that the grounds for objection include natural property rights, even if natural property rights are not necessary for my behaviour to count as objectionable.

This possibility can be ruled out by meta-ethical considerations. As I’ve argued before on this blog (in the context of an argument for the equal intrinsic value of persons), moral facts cannot be brute facts (facts with no further basis, reason or explanation). This is because moral facts cannot be directly observed, and brute facts cannot, by definition, be inferred. This means we cannot possibly have knowledge of brute moral facts. Assuming there are no moral facts which moral agents are necessarily ignorant of, then, there are no brute moral facts. All moral facts are either true in virtue of some other, more basic moral (or otherwise broadly normative) facts or they are necessarily true.

Here’s why this is a problem for Huemer’s argument. Huemer posits natural property rights because, in his view, there are no other norms that could explain the wrong done to the hermit. This means that natural property rights must not only be pre-institutional, they must be morally basic — otherwise it would be possible to explain the wrong done to the hermit in terms of the more basic norms constitutive of natural property rights.

If there are no brute moral facts, then natural property rights can only be morally basic if it is necessarily true that there are natural property rights. But we should believe that natural property rights exist necessarily only if it is, on reflection, inconceivable for them not to exist. It would be inconceivable that natural property rights do not exist only if it is inconceivable that no wrong is done to the hermit and nothing besides natural property rights could explain that wrong. Because other explanations are available, it is conceivable that there are no natural property rights. So it is not necessarily the case that there are natural property rights. Because there could only be natural property rights if it were necessarily the case that there are natural property rights, there are no natural property rights. So natural property rights, as Huemer understands them, are not among the grounds for finding my treatment of the hermit objectionable.

2 thoughts on “An unconvincing case against redistribution, part 2

  1. Hang on a minute. I don’t think there is such a thing as natural property rights, but this seems a bit thin, and has weird implications. People can conceive of utterly outrageous things. I think it’s far too restrictive to say that just because something IS a necessary truth that means nobody can believe otherwise. Some people don’t believe there are necessary truths at all (truth is relative and so forth), and I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. And if there are any necessary truths, then it is a necessary truth that there are necessary truths. And yet, as I say, some people think there aren’t any. By your analysis the simple fact that these people have conceived that there are no necessary truths means that the existence of necessary truths is not a necessary truth–and so, not true at all. I think the capacity of people to be misguided is too great for this line of argument to work. Just because someone can have a notion that something is not a necessary truth doesn’t mean it isn’t one, it could just mean they’re wrong. Presumably if it actually is a necessary truth, and you could get them to listen and make them think through the proof that it is, they would find themselves at some level unable to deny it, but it’s very easy not to have thought something through.

    There is another problem–you’ve already agreed that the existence of other problems with the behaviour in the parable does not preclude natural property rights also being involved. It could be both. By the same token, conceiving of those other explanations does not preclude conceiving of the property rights explanation. It could be claimed that even if you are relying on issues of privacy, freedom of association and so on to explain how the hermit is harmed, you will still have a lingering intuition about property rights as well.

    Finally, your argument applies to all the possible explanations as long as there is more than one. That is, the simple fact that someone (eg the author of the article) believes the property rights explanation for harm to the hermit, by your argument proves that all your other explanations, and indeed all other possible explanations, are also false, or at least do not involve any kind of natural rights, since someone has conceived an explanation that does not involve them. This would apply also to any situation involving the notion of natural rights–none could apply as long as anyone could conceive of more than one applying (distinctly, rather than together). This seems like a problem; at the least it’s very weird.


    • I don’t think natural rights to privacy, freedom of association and respect are open to the objection I’ve made against the natural right to property here, because these other rights aren’t morally basic. We have reason to value privacy, freedom of association and respect for the way we live our lives, which is to say that those rights are grounded in some other, more basic normative truths (and eventually, according to the view I’m applying here, in fundamental necessary normative truths). We can’t run the conceivability test on these other natural rights without a clear idea of what their fundamental bases are. It may seem conceivable that these are not rights simply because we lack adequate ideas of their fundamental bases. This is how a necessitarian like Spinoza, who thinks all truths are necessary and that conceivability entails possibility, explains the appearance of contingency; if we had a sufficiently clear idea of nature we wouldn’t be able to conceive of nature unfolding in any other way than it actually does. Huemer’s natural property rights, on the other hand, don’t seem to have any deeper basis; they don’t follow from some more fundamental necessary truths of which we have an inadequate idea. So we can check whether it’s conceivable that there are no natural property rights straight away.


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