Investing one’s will & ownership claims

I think the following claim (or some version of it) is used by several political theorists (e.g., Locke and Hegel) to justify property rights:

Investment Principle (IP): If A invests its will in some (previously unowned) thing x, A thereby has an ownership claim to x.

For example, if I carve a statue out of a previously unowned rock, I thereby have an ownership claim to that rock/statue. This seems false to me. I’ve recently argued against this principle (with the argument that follows below), but I’m not entirely satisfied with the argument and I can’t put my thumb on the source of my dissatisfaction. First, the argument:

On a natural reading, IP says that A’s investment of will in some thing x is sufficient to ground A’s ownership claim to x. But notice that IP is also read as saying that A’s ownership claim to x is necessary for A’s investment of will in x. When read this way, the claim is plainly false. Note that an ownership claim to x includes a right to exclude others from the use of x. Note further that the right to exclude others from x does not add anything to the investment of A’s will in x. For example, consider a child building a sand castle on a public beach. In building the castle, the child invests her will in the sand. But granting the child the right to exclude others from that particular section of the beach doesn’t add to the investment of her will in the sand. Of course, it’s true that the child must be able to prevent others from interfering with her actions if she is to complete the investment of her will. But the child’s investment of will need not presuppose her right to exclude others from the beach; it must simply presuppose that others do not have a right to exclude the child from acting upon the sand on the beach. So no ownership claim is necessary for the child to complete the expression of her will. It follows, then, that the investment of A’s will in x is not sufficient to generate a property right in x. IP is false.

In one light, this argument seems right to me and it seems to defeat IP. But in another there seems to be something suspicious is going on here and I’m not sure I’ve addressed IP the right way. I’m not sure why I get this impression. Perhaps its this: consider the statement `If it’s raining (and the ground is uncovered), then the ground is wet’. The obvious way to read this is that the rain is sufficient for the ground’s being wet. By analogy with what I’ve said above, we can also read it as saying that the (uncovered) ground’s being wet is necessary for it to be raining. But intuitively this seems (to me) to be an odd thing to say. Maybe the odd ring derives from thinking about the statement causally (and, in talking about causation, I’m treading on unfamiliar territory); it sounds right to say that the rain is causally sufficient for the ground’s being wet, but it seems wrong to say that the ground’s being wet is causally necessary for the rain.

Similarly, if we read IP as a causal statement—i.e., A’s investment of will in x is sufficient to cause A to have an ownership claim to x—then it sounds odd (indeed, patently false) to read IP as saying that A’s ownership claim to x is causally necessary for A’s investment of will in x. Thus, showing that A’s ownership claim to x isn’t causally necessary for A’s investment in x (as the argument above purports to show) doesn’t yet show that A’s investment in x isn’t causally sufficient to generate A’s ownership claim to x. And it’s not immediately clear why IP shouldn’t be read as a causal claim. (It’s not immediately clear why it should be so read either.) So perhaps the above argument doesn’t work after all. (Although I think it does work if IP should not be read as a causal claim.)

So why might we think that IP is (or isn’t) a causal claim? One reason to think IP isn’t a causal claim is because it seems to be straightforwardly about justification (not causation) of property rights—i.e., A’s ownership claim to x is justified by the fact that A invests its will in x. Indeed, I’m not even sure what it would mean to talk about how property rights are caused. However, it does seem to make sense about my having specific property rights to x being caused; and maybe this is what IP is about. I don’t think so, but it might. In any case, `Because I invested my will in x’ seems to be an equally intelligble answer to two different questions:

1. How did you come to have an ownership claim to x? (Causal question)
2. What justifies your ownership claim to x? (Justification question)

I’m not sure what else to say at this point, so I’ll leave it at that for now.


9 Responses to Investing one’s will & ownership claims

  1. Richard says:

    I’m with you here — IP seems false, though the particular counterargument you quote also seems a bit dodgy. You write:

    But notice that IP is also read as saying that A’s ownership claim to x is necessary for A’s investment of will in x. When read this way, the claim is plainly false.

    The argument seems to rest on your reading something extra into the ‘necessary for’ locution, so that it’s no longer simply a restatement of the sufficiency claim. (You discuss causal notions as being one way of smuggling in this asymmetry. Explanatory notions may behave similarly.)

    Compare: causing gratuitous pain is (we may suppose) sufficient for wrongdoing. It follows that wrongdoing is necessary for causing gratuitous pain. This is true, but it sounds weird because we’re tempted to read something extra into the claim of necessity. We’re tempted to think that the wrongdoing is somehow the (causal or explanatory) basis of the pain, which we rightly recognize as absurd. But this is a misinterpretation of the necessity claim. All that’s really being claimed here is that there’s no possible world in which we cause gratuitous pain without wrongdoing. This is perfectly consistent with the wrongdoing being a (necessary) consequence of the pain.

    Similarly, the Lockean doesn’t need to claim that the property right “add[s] anything to the investment of A’s will in x.” It does need to be ‘prior’ in this sense. It can be a necessary consequence of the investment of will. Their claim is simply that there’s no possible world in which A’s investment of will occurs without also obtaining an ownership claim (or whatever). We shouldn’t read any more into it than that.

  2. Steve C. says:

    Hey Dave,
    I followed the argument up until this point: “Note further that the right to exclude others from x does not add anything to the investment of A’s will in x…”

    The idea of investing one’s will is somewhat fuzzy in my mind, but I take it that it means something like investing one’s time, energy, and interest in a previously unowned object. But in the quoted sentence, an additional requirement seems to be invoked. Isn’t the right to exclude others from the use of x just part of what it means to own x? And why must some condition/aspect of your owning x turn around and add to your investment in x? Also, it seems like ownership (and whatever that entails) would be a necessary consequence of investing your will in certain ways, though not a necessary precondition for it. The “completing the expression of one’s will” point might assume the latter; I’m not sure about that.

    So anyway, I worry that there’s something shady about the argument for that reason. Of course, the sand castle example is interesting and might be the right example to figure out what might be wrong with IP.

  3. Steve C. says:

    Sorry for the overlap. Richard posted while I was writing my comment

  4. Ira says:

    I’m not sure that I endorse IP, but it might be helpful to set out the reasons why one might think that it is true. These are going to be very different depending on whether one takes the Lockean line or the Hegel-inspired line. So I wonder if it might be helpful to take on these two sorts of arguments separately.

    First the Locke version. Locke talks about labor rather than will. The basic idea here is that when you mix your labor with the object and in doing so increase its value, you get a claim on it that arises from your claim to the proceeds of your labor. More specifically, you get to exclude others from using the object without your consent because by doing so, they would be appropriating the product of your labor. A couple of caveats: (a) in order to get a claim on the object, it can’t be the case that anyone else has a prior claim, (b) you have to add value to the object, (c) the value that you add to the object cannot be separable from the object such that someone could take the object without also depriving you of the value that you added to it. There are also some other background conditions that have to be in place (like leaving natural resources to others), but these are not so important.

    So here merely acting on the object is not doing any work in Locke’s argument – if you willfully destroy the value of an object, you don’t get a claim on it. You only get a claim by improving it.

    If you substitute “labor” for “will” in IP, then labor is sufficient to cause (give rise?) one to have ownership claims in the right conditions (though cause seems kind of awkward wording), the justification of which has to do with entitlement to the fruits of one’s labor. Notice that this can be given either an ex ante or an ex post spin depending on your normative tastes.

    Sand castles are a problematic example because (a) their value is pretty questionable (especially since they can’t be expected to last even if property rights are assigned to protect them), and (b) one might think that beaches are a sort of a common property that one doesn’t have the right to appropriate (common property and public property is property too!). In the Locke case, it is more helpful to think of a garden that you plant and tend so that you will be able to harvest food in September. It seems that you’ve got an entitlement to the harvest and a legitimate claim against anyone who takes the harvest without your permission. This is the sort of case that you need to argue against if you are arguing against the Locke picture.

    Hegel is more complicated and I don’t really pretend to understand the Hegel take on property. The argument has something to do with property being necessary for the fully free exercise of one’s will (basically you need to be able to exercise your will in the world of material objects in order to be fully free). So I’m not sure that it makes sense to talk about IP in a Hegelian context in the absence of the motivations that Hegelians have for endorsing IP since these involve a bunch of complicated normative commitments about matters not directly related to property. In any case, the justification is going to have to do with the goods that the institution of property makes possible, not merely some individual act of willing. But giving the institutional background, the act of willing might be normatively significant in giving rise to property rights in some cases.

    I hope that this has made some sense. I’m interested in property these days, but haven’t really developed my own views on the subject yet.

  5. David says:

    Thanks all for the comments; they certainly raise issues I need to deal with if my strategy for rejecting IP is to work (particularly the point about smuggling something extra into my reading of the conditional). I’m not yet prepared to abandon the general strategy (although I may ultimately be led to do so) because I think that it may be able overcome the problems that have been raised. However, for the moment, my response is undercooked and I need to think about this more. Unfortunately, I can’t think or write further about this at the moment; other more pressing commitments keep me from doing so. So the main reason for this comment is simply to issue an IOU. I hope to return to this sometime later next week. Hopefully, you’ll be inclined to return to this thread at that time.

  6. Ira says:

    A couple of more thoughts on this:

    1. I think that the claim that the Hegelians are going to make actually does presuppose that in order to exercise one’s will in a certain way with respect to the object, having a claim to exclude others is a precondition in the sense that if I can’t exclude others, then they can prevent me using the object to freely exercise my agency. So it is true that ownership is not necessary for merely exercising one’s will, but to have a certain sort of relation to the object that is important to free agency, you have got to be able to prevent others from frustrating your actions with regard to the object. The basic idea seems to be that you have to be able to act on the object over time in order to fully exercise your agency. (I should note that I have read Fichte on this, not Hegel, so this formulation might not be quite Hegelian). Now, this argument might be right or wrong, but I don’t think that your argument against IP really addresses the Fichte / Hegel argument for property because you don’t seem to be addressing the notion of “will” (maybe this is really what we today would call agency?) that is involved in their argument.

    2. I’m not really sure what to say about the causation vs. justification issue. I think that it might help to figure out this issue in terms of other, less controversial, normative relations and then apply that answer to this case. So instead of property claims, let’s talk about a tort for a situation (can you tell that I have been spending too much time recently studying common law?)

    Suppose go into my house without permission and break my vase. It seems that you have a duty to repair this damage and that I have a claim on you to repair that damage by buying a new vase for me or otherwise compensating me. So, now one can ask:

    1. How did I come to have this claim?
    2. What is the justification for my claim?

    The answer to (1) seems to be that you broke my vase. That seems pretty straightforward.
    The answer to (2) is going to be something like that one has a duty of repair when one damages and destroys other people’s property because this will leave them in a position equivalent to that which they were in before you violated your duties toward them. One could then try to justify this more general principle of corrective justice in various ways.

    So, if this is right for the vase case, then IP seems to me to be only a “causal” story – you needed to give a Lockean or Hegelian story in order to justify it. This might explain why the counter-argument seems unsatisfactory.

  7. Ira says:

    Didn’t see your reply. I’ll be happy to take this up later.

  8. David says:

    To all who have submitted comments thus far:

    Now that Zachary has arrived, it looks like it’ll be a little while longer before I’m able to return to this issue. Here’s the plan: rather than bury my response in an old comments thread, I’ll simply put up a new post that responds to these comments and extends my earlier thoughts once I’m ready to do so. We can continue the conversation on the new thread.

  9. Patrick says:

    I think you’re right to be dubious of IP, but I don’t think the argument approaches the issue in the right way. After all, it’s unclear whether the claim is causal or justifying, or something else entirely.

    A better way would be to ask directly: Is it reasonable to grant people ownership of any unowned thing in which they invest? Can this be reconciled with any sensible deontological or utilitarian ethics?

    I don’t think it can; all I have to do in order to claim the moon is invest time and money into it–and it is left open how much of each I must invest. If I gather several billion dollars, arrange a mission, and build a colony, am I ethically justified in claiming ownership of the moon? It seems plain enough that I am not.

    No, I think ownership, in order to be sensible, has to come from a theory of *politics*; that is, ownership of property is something given its justification by the authority of a State (which is in turn taken from the consent of the governed). The State has territory, and anything done or made within its territory falls (in at least some broad sense; we can allow a certain level of private space to avoid a 1984 scenario) under its jurisdiction. I’m actually surprised Locke doesn’t take this route, but so it goes.

    Of course, it could be argued that this only pushes the problem back a step: Where did the State get its authority to have territory? That in itself is a good question, but I think it’s one we can resolve. At least in principle, nations get territory because people consent to being part of nations. People, in turn, are in locations; a large number of people in one place, agreeing to cooperate, form a State and a territory. Within this territory the State defines its concept of “ownership,” and then ownership is obtained by the appropriate means. We don’t need to postulate ownership as a fundamental right; it can simply fall out of the right to autonomy in contract.

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