Imposing Duties and Original Appropriation

JOURNAL OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY (2013): DOI: 10.1111/jopp.12029

Abstract: To justify property rights, two things must be shown. First, the kind of exclusive rights over goods or land that property rights involve must be justified. Second, it must be possible for such property rights to come into being. These are two separate issues. It is one thing to say that it is a good idea for there to be such rights, quite another to say that some person or procedure can bring them about. This second matter is the topic of this essay. It defends the Lockean view that individuals can unilaterally bring about property rights through acts of appropriation. More specifically, it defends this view in light of a key concern, namely that such appropriation presupposes powers that morally equal people lack. Among equals, it is said, no one has the natural authority to tell others what they are permitted to do. And so, among equals, it is said, no one has the ability to impose new obligations on others by creating new rights for themselves. The lynchpin of the author’s argument is a certain kind of natural right – what he calls the natural right to own property. The precise nature of this right,  the author argues, renders original appropriation consistent with the moral equality of all.