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.