What ethical standards or well-known arguments address the conflict between reclaiming property taken from me against my will (in a word, "stolen"), and honoring the right to life of the person benefiting from my property?

For example, let's say my kidney is stolen and sold on the black market. Let's say someone else who needs a kidney transplant to survive obtains my kidney. Finally, let's say I find the person who bought my kidney and I have the power to take it back from them. The person will die if I take my kidney back. I still have my other kidney, so I will probably not die if I don't take my lost kidney back (but my quality of life will be negatively and non-negligibly impacted). However, it's my property, and it was stolen from me.

What arguments are established for or against my right to reclaim my property? Furthermore, do any of these arguments account for the person's knowledge of where the kidney came from? That is, if this other person knew the kidney was stolen, does anyone argue that I have more of a right to take it back than if they were completely innocent (assuming true innocence is possible)?

  • In case you don't realize what you might precipitate with such a question, this the basic core of the Judith Jarvis Thompson argument in favor of legal abortion. We either do or do not have an obligation to give our body parts over to the support of those who need them more than we do. If we do, stealing an organ like this should be allowed, if we don't, abortion should be legal. It seems obvious to me that if we have any right to private property, it should cover body parts. And our right to private property is not limited to need of the property. – user9166 Aug 13 '15 at 20:37
  • @jobermark I think there's a distinct difference between "giving our body parts over to the support of those who need them more" and this case, in which body parts are already "given" (however unwillingly) and relied upon. My question has nothing to do with the right to retain my organs, but with the right to reclaim them if they're taken against my will, and how that might conflict with the other person's rights. – talrnu Aug 14 '15 at 13:28
  • My wording is bad, but it is too late to edit a comment. In abortion, the organ (the blood at least, and later more) is already taken, also, and is being relied upon. This really is the same argument, minus the consideration of the fact that a fetus is a family member, and that it was potentially invited in. – user9166 Aug 14 '15 at 13:49
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    We aren't really permitted to consider a question like this here unless you want to reference it to a specific philosophical viewpoint (i.e. utilitarianism) or set of ethical standards. As it stands, it would require original philosophizing which is disallowed. Please see my answer to this meta post: meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/474/… – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 14 '15 at 14:21
  • @ChrisSunami I can reword my question if you like. I agree with you, I'm actually more interested in precedent and whether well-known arguments about this subject (which I can't imagine hasn't been considered before) have been formed, than in what the members of this site think about the subject personally. – talrnu Aug 14 '15 at 14:28

We allow the wealthy to displace the homeless from unoccupied buildings whether or not they have a better use for them and whether or not the displaced people might be expected to die as a result.

Presumably that means that most of us hold moralities that allow this to happen.

If nothing else, our organs are our most closely held piece of personal property, and it is never inappropriately earned. They are naturally given in utero, and all maintenance and growth are the work of one's own body. So in any morality that allows for properly acquired wealth to be unequal enough to cause starvation, and for stolen wealth to be reacquired by the holder, it would be within your right to reacquire the organ.

Such moral systems tend to be hard to ground theoretically or to state clearly.

I do think Kant, or some more naturalistic version of "limited interchangeability" imposes a more limited right to private property, and an obligation to make some attempt to support those in desperate circumstances. And that you can derive advice here directly from Kant.

  1. We can consider that the person taking another's property is always addressing them as a means, and not an end-in-themselves.

  2. You can rule out the notion that one may steal to stay alive, because one can never really know the consequences of one's theft, and it might simply cause another's death to take place in your stead. It is better if the reallocation of goods takes place in a way that is effected more indirectly, so that it cannot be used too easily as a weapon.

  3. But it is difficult to uphold revenge or recovery in Kant, because we see how it leads directly to endless revenge when two sides disagree on the value of the things taken or retaken. In this case, the value of the organ is seriously different for both sides, but still quite high -- we all have two because they tend to wear out, so if I let mine be taken, I might die younger.

  4. At the same time, a complete right to retain property, that regularly results in death, is itself a weapon, aimed at the destruction of the 'surplus population', and treating those who do not fit well into society as means and not ends. Witnessing suffering degrades future moral capacity unless one responds to the empathic pull that is the sentimental reflection of duty. (This is harder to base directly on theory, but it just seems obvious. And it is a lemma Kant derives in making his argument for limiting one's consumption of animal products to what can be produced without cruelty.)

  5. When communities have themselves set up mechanisms that attempt to prevent the poor allocation of goods from resulting in death, it is best that everyone be equally subject to them. So, since in this case there is a vast system for voluntarily donating and recovering organs, theft of them should be discouraged, as it will degrade that system.

From that I would propose that I should be prevented from taking back the organ, but that I should be placed on whatever recipient list the individual stealing it would have occupied. I do have some right to recover the stolen goods, but not to kill in the process, and there is a way for this to happen.

Since I think you should be prevented from threatening the holder's life, whatever his relationship to the threat, your follow-up question doesn't come into play.

How recompensation for the organ itself should be managed is a really difficult call. If the person who needs the kidney bought it on the black market, for instance he has substantial money, and that could be used. But if the sufferer is really basically impoverished by his illness, he has a debt that he will not be able to pay.

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