I see personal and private property rights as unconditionally unethical to violate, and I'd appreciate it if someone were to steelman the case that private property rights are less valuable than personal property rights, preferably without using utilitarianism (I'm strictly asking why we would have any reason to treat private property differently provided we have inalienable rules about personal property rights).

If you have full rights over your personal property, why would this not include its use as private property? For example, you could personally own a knife, and use your rights over it to use it as a factor of production of a commodity. In more abstract cases like stocks, why should they be treated any differently to the knife?

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    @MarkAndrews To make the best case you can for it, regardless of whether you agree. The opposite of strawman, basically
    – edelex
    Commented Feb 5 at 19:54
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    "Inalienable" has a technical meaning which interferes with answering this question. Something which is inalienable cannot be bought or sold. It does not seem like you meant that. Commented Feb 5 at 20:03
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    I don't see a reason to look much farther than the fact that many people outright own many valuable items, but either rent their homes or have large mortgages, and are greedy, short-sighted, and blissfully ignorant of history and current world events.
    – g s
    Commented Feb 6 at 4:19
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    @armand private property is money-generating property (capital or means of production). I'm not saying the property is inalienable. I'm saying that there are rights with regards to your property that cannot be taken away. The rights are inalienable, not the property. The cambridge dictionary says an inalienable right is a right that cannot be taken away from you. The example is 'Employees should have an inalienable right to participate in decisions that affect them.' Similarly, I'm saying that people should have an inalienable right to defend their rightfully acquired property.
    – edelex
    Commented Feb 6 at 6:51
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    @edelex if you ask a question, it's polite to at least interact with the answers that people spent time and effort on.
    – Jumboman
    Commented Feb 8 at 19:36

8 Answers 8


I think utilitarianism is the strongest argument, but I can try to do without it. In the comments you specify that you're talking about rightfully acquired private property. Historically this is probably the main argument against it. How did the first capitalists acquire the means of production? Through enslavement, pillaging, colonialism, etc. Then later on they used the threat of homelessness and starvation to coerce workers into giving up the surplus value of their labor. The idea that anyone could "rightfully" have acquired an entire factory, or railroad, or two thousand acres, or a billion dollars, is completely unthinkable. Those people always rely (on others who relied on) violence, theft and coercion.

If we are talking about a small piece of land, homesteaded with the Lockean proviso in mind (i.e. of a size small enough that you can work it yourself, and there must be enough left for others), that would technically still qualify as private property, but you won't find many marxists who oppose that (maybe in theory, but it's not at the top of their list).


The problem is that these general declaration of property rights kinda miss a lot of important points. Most notably that there are differences in the types of property, in the usages of property, in the implication for other people and oneself and crucially in the scale and scope of these things.

Like it doesn't take a genius to realize that there is a difference between owning A bottle of water and owning ALL THE WATER.

If I just own a bottle of water, that is vitally important for me, but largely unimportant for other people. If I own ALL THE WATER, that is far away from being important for me as there is more water than I could ever drink or make use of, but it's absolutely, vitally important for other people that they DON'T own it. Because it means that they are screwed. Either they need to suffer from a lack of water, commit a crime and risk punishment to mitigate the suffering from ... dying or work for or trade with me in order to receive something they have no option not to get, so the power balance in this negotiation is very much tipped to my side of the scale which could make that not an even trade and more of a slave contract.

Or conversely, it's not all too far fetched to look at me and my bottle and argue that I don't really have an obligation to care about world thirst, like my bottle of water is hardly able to cover my thirst and even if I give it away it's not going to be much of an improvement for the world. But the same would crucially not be true if I were to own ALL THE WATER, because in that case my contribution or the lack thereof crucially DOES make a major difference, in fact I might be the very reason why millions of people suffer from a shortage. So there's a whole different ethical obligation associated with that.

Or idk take a plot of land vs a country. If you own a plot of land build a house on it and make up some house rules for that. There's usually not a lot of objection to that. There's usually plenty of space where there is not your plot of land, there's plenty of options to not be on your plot of land and so it's not much of an issue for other people. Now if you instead owned an entire country than you'd essentially be someone else's king or tyrant. Seriously if you could make house rules for your property and your property is so far and wide that people can't escape being on it, then your rules, that you made on a whim, now apply to all of these other people. They have no say in them, they have no way to object or anything all they could is accept or die, so they are at your mercy and your reign could essentially be tyrannical.

So property rights can have real tangible political influence. They can make or break the freedom and agency of people over their own lives. The same way it could be liberating to own your own business, produce your own shit, make a living for yourself and expand upon what you have by your own contribution, the same way ownership can seal relations of exploitation, of enslavement (de jure or de facto) or even as stated of tyranny and despotism.

This is not a question of are you "for freedom or against it", it's a question about "who's freedom you actually value" and a matter of where you draw the line. Seriously if you allow for private property rights to the extend that you allow for scarcity to take the better of a population so that they have to submit themselves to enslavement then property rights are not equivalent to freedom and the "freedom" that the slaves gain by being able to own property means nothing because they don't own any and aren't going to in the future if they persist in their current conditions... It's an entirely theoretical freedom to the point where you would probably argue that it's a scam.

On the other hand there is some point in having at least some protection of personal/private property rights, because being able to rely on the fact that your shit doesn't get stolen, that you have a safe space to take refugee in when the world is coming down at you, where you're able to practice shit before you present it to the world, all these things are incredibly valuable to the individual and increase their quality of life tremendously without being much of an issue for other people.

So the question is "Where do you draw the line". And the distinction personal/private isn't very useful because they are essentially synonymous, though they hint at something namely that it makes a difference as to whether it's just about yourself or whether other people are involved in this. Like does your having something means there's a scarcity for other people? Then it's probably useful to not have that be private property.

The other thing is the extend of property rights. Like just speaking of property rights, usually obfuscates that there are different types of these. Usually something like usus, usus fructus and abusus. Which means the right to use (usus), the right to use it to produce something and keep the product or conversely the obligation to pay for damages by it (usus fructus). Or the right to change and modify the thing, to sell it, destroy it, give it away or otherwise manipulate it (abusus).

So for example in a classical desk job you might have had property rights to your office. Like it's "your" office you were allowed to use it and work there, idk place pictures of your loved ones on the table, tag your tools with your name adjust the chair parameters to your liking etc. So in a sense you actually owned it and other people were excluded during your usage. You might have had limited usus fructus with regards to being able to keep the products of your work if that means writing something and then being able to further use that as yours (though you might not gain ownership of that work of your own, but the company might claim it, so limited at best), but you'd have no right to abusus, unless you got explicit permission you're not allowed to sell stuff, break stuff, modify stuff and so on.

So even if a community gives a private individual free reign to tackle a project they might still not give them the whole deal of ownership (usus, usus fructus, abusus). So similar to how the collective of share owners can give the responsibility for a company to a CEO without also giving the company to that person as property.

Or while in terms of companies the ownership might be shared unequally and people can buy or sell their shares, compare it to a modern republic where the ownership of the state is shared between all it's members and their membership is for most intents and purposes equal and unalienable.

So TL;DR the scale and scope of the implications of these property rights also are a matter of scale. So applying the same rights to the personal necessities of the individual as to a emperor or multibillion dollar conglomerate owner is a massive fallacy of equivocation because it treats things as equal when they really aren't.

Edit: Also unless that was apparent, I deliberately used extreme examples to showcase the differences. It's entirely possible to also find examples where the two are much closer together like what about a slightly bigger house? A brick and mortar business with just limited number of employees? Like don't people still get into trouble over whether you should skate on the street and whether the usus and abusus is with the kid or the person living next to the street? Whether you can make this distinction in practice between things that are relevant for the individual only or are also relevant for the community. Like is a car a safety hazard for everyone else or a useful utility? Like thousands of people die in car accidents each year but people rarely want that intentionally, so where do you draw the line and is that acceptable?

These usually end up being political questions that people need to negotiate in a democratic process rather than being questions of logic that you can simply extrapolate from "natural property rights" or often even worse "self-ownership". Like it's a dangerous slight of hand to just extrapolate from the rights and necessities of the individual to survive, to rights and privileges that far exceed these necessities and actively inhibit the lives and freedoms of other people.

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    I think this makes a very good case for georgism
    – edelex
    Commented Feb 9 at 20:01

personal and private property rights as unconditionally unethical to violate

Rights are decided by mutual consent and regulated by contractual agreement, but you cannot possibly make a contract with people you don't know, so instead it has to be some overarching organisation such as the king, the state, the mafia etc. which sets laws to mediate an implicit contract: You subject yourself to the law enforcer and it enforces the law on your behalf. Whenever your legal rights are violated, you can refer yourself to the law enforcer for compensation or reparation.

Given this, whatever rights you have is decided by the contract which has been agreed, not by some Platonic ethical rules written nowhere.

Further, new circumstances not foreseen in the contract can always be used to justify to oneself the unilateral denunciation of it.

Also, someone not part of the contract and not subjecting themselves to the law will in effect feel free to violate purported rights since they don't recognise them as "unconditionally unethical to violate".

You can always fantasise about rights which are unconditionally unethical to violate, but this isn't going to mean anything unless there is a prior agreement, just as no discourse means anything unless there is a shared language. This is a logical constraint and it is not possible to evade it as long as we mean to remain rational. The notion of ethic is essentially sugar-coating rhetoric. Typically, territorial conflicts are resolved by war, not by wishful thinking, and wars are never ethical processes.


First, let's quickly categorize property claims. This might not be exhaustive!

  • Personal property: the property is peculiar to a person or located on a person; in law, this might be any property which is not real estate or which can move as if physically attached to a person
  • Private property: the property is held in title by a corporate person, who does not exist outside of the law (they are a legal fiction)
  • Public property: the property is held in title (de jure) or occupied materially (de facto) by a government agency or other representatives of the state

Then, note that corporations are not physically people, and thus there is a fundamental distinction -- at the level of physics and sociology -- between personal and private property. Also note that, by the structure of the law, real estate might not be eligible to be personal property; this is another distinction.

To answer your question directly: if one considers corporations to be fundamentally legal objects rather than physical objects, and considers physics to be more "valid" or "valuable" than legal effects, then they may well consider private property claims to be "less valid" or "less valuable" than personal property claims. In terms of rights, one might not consider people to have the right to form corporations!

All of that said, there is still room for opinion. If one believes that corporations are equivalent to people, then one might struggle to see the difference between private and personal ownership.

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    Can you provide a reference that states your definition of private property as items that are held in title or ownership by a legal (fictional person) corporation? I have never come across any such definition. Property can be chattel (movable) or real (immovable); tangible or intangible; private or public. The modern term for chattel property is personal property. Private property is held in title (legal ownership) by any non-governmental legal entity including a person, group of persons, or corporation, etc. In National Accounting the Household and Government sectors are the ultimate owners. Commented Feb 7 at 16:56
  • Philosophical problems inherent in any debate between capitalism (private property regulated by public insitutions) and socialism (public property regulated by public institutions) reduce to political and economic coordination problems. My answer maps the human coordination problems to the definition of will: I am the cause of my desired perceptions. Property rights expand the experience of the will to the control of things. In socialism you should ask permission to use the common public property. In capitalism you should ask permission to use the property of others but not your own property. Commented Feb 7 at 17:03
  • @SystemTheory: Very first line of the WP article: "Private property is a legal designation for the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities."
    – Corbin
    Commented Feb 7 at 17:06
  • Non-governmental means any legal entity that is not government! The Household sector is populated by human families and non-profits. All private property form a daisy-chain through the private and public corporations back to the individuals who own private property claims! This is due to the institutional customs of law and double-entry accounting. A corporation gives the household owners of the firm some limited liability against claims on their household wealth and perhaps other privileges. Governments are chartered corporations for public purposes with some possible exceptions. Commented Feb 7 at 17:09
  • This makes a really good point. Could you not argue though that the corporation owners own the property of the company personally though? They own it personally it's just their use which is private.
    – edelex
    Commented Feb 9 at 20:06

I have contemplated a political system in which there is a fundamental distinction between what things are inherently the common property of all humans (or participants in the governmental/societal system), vs. who has some kind of (temporary, transient) “ownership” over something.

I haven’t thought it through, but perhaps this is an invitation to do so.

I suppose it would require some kind of theoretical/legal framework as to the boundary of the “self” (which is already a huge part of modern legal theory anyway, I think). For example, should we say that one has “ownership” over one’s physical body, or should we say that one’s physical body is not “ownable” at all (I mean, the relationship one has to their body is a separate category from the relationship one has to say, a camera they have/“own”).

Well, let us venture further into the abstract, then. What are the implications or ramifications of “ownership” even supposed to be, then? It seems like the fundamental category has to do with “will” or volition. Also, the way societies seem to work is that in reality, they have very little ability to actually forbid an action, only to counter-incentivize it (ie, for the specific case of humans, with things like fines, punishments, imprisonment, etc.)

As we voyage more and more general the question is about freedom, I think - about the difference, possibly, between having the inherent choice or ability to do something, even if undesirable (like murder, whose penalty may be life imprisonment), vs. ways in which an environmental system has made certain abilities nearly impossible (like, it’s really hard for me to detonate a nuclear weapon, it’s barely, barely within the reach of my “choice”).

So, let’s say “ownership” reduces to “your capability to exercise your will over some thing” (ie, I can throw my camera away, but you cannot throw my camera away); and “capability” has to be developed, in some way to be determined, to encompass things like “largely unconditionally able” vs. “able but deterred” vs. “in theory able, but de facto impossible due to constraints imposed by the society” vs. “impossible in our world right now” (like resurrecting the dinosaurs) vs. “impossible in our world as we know it” (like time travel) vs. “simply inherently logically impossible” (like making dry water).

Hopefully, we could find a boundary between things which seem to exist prior to any human choice, like land, air, water, and even knowledge in a way (this is not well defined but I’m trying to make it more so), vs. things which you have some kind of personal claim to, perhaps because they are very much a result of your own actions, will, and role in the world.

That’s all I can say for now, I hope it can encourage some conversation to refine these ideas. Basically, I am trying to find a conceptual framework which on the one hand

  • acknowledges that land is inherently common property, yet in agreement with other actors in a society, can essentially be conditionally leased for a period of time for more individual control over its use, perhaps in exchange for something (to the actors in the society who allocate that resource to the bidding individual);

and on the other hand,

  • does not embrace “universal public property” so profusely that even your own personal body is steered by public elections (ie., society has voted that you will get an abortion, or something).

In order for them to both be of equal value, it would have to make sense to be able to turn personal property into private property, and vice versa. However, private property is usually acquired through different means and for different ends than personal property. Most of a person’s personal property is essential to their livelihood, whereas that is not the case for private property.

Further, private property rights are not universally recognized; that someone can own means of production at an individual level requires justification beyond the right to one’s own clothes or food, etc. That is, there is more that has to be argued for someone to solely own property for the sake of profit than for someone to retain the things they already have and only use for their personal needs.

In essence, private property rights license the turning of property into value, while personal property rights merely permit an individual to their personal effects for themselves.


Basic Philosophical Challenges in Property Law


Philosophical thought about the law of property covers two types of issues. First, there are analytical issues about the meaning and use of the most important concepts in property law, such as “ private property, ” “ ownership, ” and “ thing. ” The second type of issue is normative or justificatory. The law of property involves individuals having the right to make decisions about the use of resources – the land and the material wealth of a country – without necessarily consulting the interests and wishes of others in society who might be affected. So what in general justifies giving people rights of this kind? And specifically, what principles justify the allocation of particular resources to particular owners? The two sets of issues are of course connected: the point of sharpening our analytical understanding of concepts like “ ownership ” is to clarify what is actually at stake when questions of justification are raised.

Respect for the will of each person

Legal philosopher Hugh Gibbons describes will as an experience in this statement: I am the cause of my desired perceptions. Property rights extend the experience of the will to things that are subject to use according to the will of one or more persons. The law must allocate the use of things according to the will of one or more persons in the social effort to minimize and settle disputes. In a dominion society each person could only extend their will to whatever things one could defend against being used adversely by (the will of) others against one's own will.

Philosophy of Property Law, Three Ways

Larissa Katz - This paper explains three levels of philosophical problems when contemplating rights to property.


A mediated relation is not just a relation between a person and a thing; rather, it is a relation among people with respect to specific things.

The conceptual core of property, then, is ownership, and the conceptual core of ownership is the idea that someone is in charge with respect to that thing in relation to others. This kind of “in charge of” position connotes at least exclusivity and theseparability of thing from the owner. So fugitive resources, like air or flowing water or ideas, cannot be owned because we cannot relate to others through them in the way that is characteristic of ownership: these are resources over which no one is capable of exclusive control. Parts of our bodies, even parts that might be valuable to others, like our kidneys, cannot be owned because ownership is possible only with respect to things that are independent of us.

Much beyond this basic core is a matter of political choice about how to shape the position of ownership and the normative powers, privileges and responsibilities associated with it. There is, then, a second level of philosophical inquiry, concerning the place of property in our general theories of justice. Property is so often at the centre of revolutionary thinking about the social order because it organizes a basic and unavoidable mode of human interaction: how we relate with respect to things. There is always a need for political philosophy to think and rethink the ways that people could possibly relate with respect to things.

There is yet a third level of philosophical thinking about property that concerns the distribution of rights to hold property. At this level of inquiry, we engage a much larger set of questions about how justly to distribute basic goods in society. It is in this context, in resolving questions of distributive justice, that we might say with Rawls that property is not itself an organizing moral idea. We can be concerned with a just distribution of the basic goods that people require, whatever their purposes in life, without being concerned to bring about this distribution as property. We might agree on the value of equal access to basic goods without being on board with the idea that these basic goods take the form of property. Many have argued plausibly enough that other levers of social justice, such as tax and transfer schemes or a system of public 3 accommodations or use-rights, are better suited to redressing this kind of distributive injustice.


One thing is that in business law business property usually comes with protections, for exemple a company's debt is not the debt of its owner, which means that if they go out of business the creditors can't just seize the owner's house, car and clothes (situations may vary country by country or the statute of each company, but it's pretty common).

This separation goes both way, because you can't have your cake and eat it too: if the owner starts mixing personal and business stuff it becomes impossible to make sure they are not abusing the protection they receive from their business' statute.

Rights come with duties, if only the minimal amout of regulation that will make the enforcement of the right possible: here, not mixing company and personal assets in order to protect the latter from being seized along with the former when business goes bad.

That's for the mom and pop shop level where one would "personally own a knife, and use [their] rights over it to use it as a factor of production". If you do that and go bankrupt you lose the knife, that might have been preserved by keeping it personal.

At the corporate, stock property level, things get much more complicated because stocks are a mean to own a common property. When you own 10% of a company, you don't own 10% of their buildings, tools, etc, it's more likeyou own 10% of the each of those things, i.e. you can't just say it's yours and leave with it without harming financially the other 90% owners. Your handling of the property impacts them and their handling impacts you, so you have to come to an agreement to not do anything that would unfairly harm each other.

It was found through bitter experience that stock holders also have a responsibility to other actors in the market, because acting unfairly with stocks (for exemple, insider trading) could financially harm other actors even if they are not involved in the transaction. All those people who will be impacted if you get involved in insider trading have a material interest in controling you, and you have the same in controling them. This is what lead to the enforcement of financial regulations.

You can visualize it by considering the stock market as a public infrastructure (public as in "used in common", not "owned by the government"). A road too is a public infrasctructure, and you can't get away with DUI by arguing that this is your car and your booze, and you should have an inalienable right to use them as you see fit, because by doing so you would endanger other people's cars and lives, and they too have an inalienable right to not have their property or bodies damaged. From this conflict of rights arise the necessity for a gentleman agreement about the fair use of the road. In the same way arose the necessity of agreements about the stock market.

All the arguments above can be put under the category of Social Contract Theory: in a (very small) nutshell, we all have prerogatives about what we should be free to do, but when we do it all together in the same place those enter in conflict, so we find an agreement that will let everybody enjoy their life as far as they don't prevent others from enjoying too.

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