It seems to me that property cannot be considered an intrinsic part of human nature, not in the way life is, for example. Property defines a relationship between two objects that only has a basis in the minds of humans themselves.

So, the question is, is the defining of this relationship a "rightful" mental act? I.e., when a person claims ownership over an object, whether the situation makes it a valid claim or not, is such a claim generally right? Meaning, in a practical context, are groups of human beings warranted in developing property laws in general, based on some absolute principle, or is property rather, as James Madison called monopolies in general, "among the greatest nuisances in government" (i.e. a necessary evil)?

The reason I am asking, though I'd rather it didn't interfere too much with the answering, is because of how this relates to modern property law, which seems to have developed a sort of righteousness of its own, as though it were based on some intrinsic right to property. If it is true that property rights are only a convention with the intent of forwarding some general purpose of harmony and human development, then the arguments in favour of extended copyright and patents seem much weaker than if property rights are intrinsic.

Obviously, I have my own thoughts on this question, but what I'm really looking for is the thoughts of the "greats". If anyone can give me an idea of the sorts of things wise people have said on the subject of property in general, that would be a great help.

  • 2
    Welcome! Any chance I might persuade you to develop this a bit more? Perhaps you could expand on your context and motivations -- what might you be reading that made this concern urgent or important to you? What have you found out already?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 14, 2011 at 18:33
  • Thanks for the welcome. I'm not sure how I could expand on it more... I don't really have any concern or urgency, and the question is not terribly important. Just interested in the nature of property rights in general. Nov 15, 2011 at 12:17
  • The philosophical context of these themes are quite broad -- is there any way you can specify your concern here a bit?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 15, 2011 at 16:24

3 Answers 3


The simplest way that I've found to to think about property is to consider it a 'right to exclude' others from the use of a valued thing (land, material goods, designs etc.). So when you say that individual or a group has a legitimate property right claim over, say, a piece of land, what that means is just that he/she can legitimately exclude or include others from the used of that land at their discretion.

Whether everyone should have that kind of right as basic, over things they have in their possession is naturally something that's disputed (Poudhon the anarchist thinker for instance, believed 'property is theft'). and even with people who believe in the fundmental importance of instituting property rights believe in different ways of legitimising claims to property.

Locke has a famous idea about how to determine whether something is legitimately owned by an entity capable of property right [note:corporations, governments, individuals etc. people also differ on what kind of entity should be allowed property rights]. Locke thinks that anyone can legitimately claim over unclaimed property iff he/she leave "enough and as good" for others, so original claims are settled that way (think of the wild west when settlers started drifting there), and as long as there's an uncoerced contractual agreement between parties during the exchange of property, then that right remains legitimate in whoever's hands.

There are many reasons to agree or disagree with specific property types (e.g. intellectual property), and the criterion for legitimate claims to properties in general. There's by no means a consensus on how to think about property rights, beyond that definition at the start. But it is definitely an idea that is at the core of modern societies and governments -- first thing thing a country wishing to modernise does, is always to establish the rule of law, which includes, in large parts, protection of people's right to exclude others from assets they have a legitimate claims to.

Hope this helps

  • I like this 'right to exclude' idea.
    – row1
    Nov 16, 2011 at 3:25
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    I would think you mean Proudhon (who is perhaps best well known for saying "property is theft" in his book What is Property?)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 16, 2011 at 5:20
  • Thank you, yes, this helps. Maybe it wasn't the best question, but this answer may help me formulate a better one in the future. Nov 17, 2011 at 3:36

From the context of your question, I think you are referring to the concept of personal property (a single human being owning something), which stands in contrast to concepts like communal property, which plays an important role in communist theories.

A concept like personal property can be derived from multiple theoretical concepts, so the short answer to your question's title could be both. I'll give one example for each:

For Gabriel Marcel, having something is a principal human experience, which is closely related to being. Humans are reliant on many things in their environment, e.g. food, shelter or tools. Thus, we not only need them, but we need to have them to be. So Marcel's concept could be used as an example for deriving property from human nature.

Of course, property can easily be derived from utilitarian philosophy. Although usually not considered an utilitarian philosopher, Thomas Aquinus argued for the concept of property by saying, people care better for things if they own them, thus things are better maintained, last longer and can have more use for humans if they can own them.


Consider an object as a variable. If you seek a generalized answer, you must seek generalized means to get it. The meaning of property in objects is reversed. The object is not one's property, but it HAS properties. More specifically, it defines attributes, which themselves define the object. If you add yourself to its attributes, you are attributed to the object, which can't be logically right since you and the object do not depend on each other to exist. However, humans sell lands and food to each other. Does this mean that the earth is the humans property? Surprising, I will answer yes because as long as we are there, we need it. It is not the amount of money that gives value to an object, but its scarcity and its importance. Even then, the value is only given in terms of how easy it is to get it yourself versus how hard it is to sell it: offer/demand curve, which is theoretically fair to humans, but does not consider the objects inner properties more than what pertains to human usage. I will conclude stating that it is a necessary evil, even if you build it yourself; because even if humans are satisfied the object itself is not taken into account. Even less in practice. In practice, it is far from being fair to all parties. Value is relative...

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