The Right to Property

The player’s first glimpse of the underwater city of Rapture, seen through the viewing port of a bathysphere as the player listens to Andrew Ryan’s initial monologue.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

Andrew Ryan

This early line in the game Bioshock is our introduction to the nightmarish underwater city of Rapture. The speaker, Andrew Ryan, built Rapture around a singular ideal: the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest. The game centers around survival in an already decaying city, but I find it interesting that Rapture’s decay is so easily presumed to be inevitable. Rapture is touted as a paradise for capitalist and anarchist alike – a bastion of the most absolute forms of property rights and liberty.

The city of Rapture itself embodies a response to Andrew Ryan’s original question. The ruined buildings and ruined people scream that the question’s answer is “NO!” – at least, so it seems. A right to take self-interested action and a right to the results of one’s own labor are referred to interchangeably, but they are distinct moral claims. Embracing the former as the ultimate moral good necessarily denigrates any moral duty towards pro-social behavior. A lack of pro-social moral duty excuses anti-social behavior, which strikes me as the true culprit behind the corruption of Rapture.

Andrew Ryan’s question goes unanswered in the halls of Rapture, and I believe this question looms over our culture as well.

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”


The concept of ownership over objects is simultaneously a bizarre intellectual anomaly and a truth so obvious that any violation induces a violent emotional outburst. This odd nature makes it easy to take property rights for granted until your local communist decides now is a great time for a parade. Property has a myriad of forms (small objects, houses, or even ideas themselves) but for this discussion the exact form of an object does not matter.

The right to own property is derived simply from the work put in to improve a resource. If you find a log lying in a forest, and even if the forest itself belongs to no one, you cannot claim to own that log. If you drag that log out of the forest and chop it into firewood, the work performed justifies your ownership of the firewood. What you own is the work you performed, and the object you improved stores and determines the value of that work. If the improved object can be simply taken by another, then it can hardly be said that you own your own work. If the object is not improved by your actions, you are not performing valuable work.

If humans have no right to remove things from nature in the first place, human survival becomes impossible. This is not a pragmatic position, unless you wish to play god by wiping out all of humanity. But I will return to the subject of land ownership shortly.

Is it actually true to assert a person has ownership over the actions they take while working? I would argue it is, and to support this claim we must first assume that all humans have free will to take action. Free will in this context means that every human you encounter has the ability to choose whether or not make an object into a new form and what that new form will be. The choice may be altered by outside influences, but the choice cannot be solely determined by the collection of outside influences. These newly formed objects could bring help or harm to you, and the choice of which application the objects are put towards lies entirely outside your own will. This assumption that free will exists appears to be the most valid option, speaking pragmatically.

It is wise to regard this capacity for creation with respect and fear. In fact, the capacity for benevolent creation is what defines the central pillar of Western tradition – God. Therefore, every single human can be regarded as having some element of the divine within them. An affront to an individual is also an affront to what that individual embodies: the principles and power that we hold to be the most sacred. This is the divinity of the individual.

Placing the weight of divinity on the capacity of free will is the assumption of a moral framework for action. It may be that the divinity of the individual is an article of faith for the West. A common proposed alternative for justifying morality, our immediate biology, seems inadequate as a complete basis. Even simple commonalities which appear useful as starting points, like empathy and a desire to avoid pain, are not universal among humans. We can get closer to universal morality if we appeal to the fact that humans survive in cooperative groups. Anti-social behaviors would be evolutionarily maladaptive, so knowledge of “good and evil” could simply be the evolutionary wisdom of a social species. This is where morality sits in the materialist view. However, evolutionary knowledge can only be expressed through our immediate biology, so the purely biological explanation for morality must deny the existence of free will. Our behaviors are definitely influenced by our biology, but free will, if it exists, must be an independent factor in behavior. Now firmly outside the biological framework, evaluating the morality of actions taken according to free will requires some other framework. One such framework posits the divinity of the individual.

As an aside, here is an anachronistic story for how evolutionary wisdom develops: The first caveman to figure out how to light fires must sometimes benefit from those fires for the behavior to be passed on to his children. If all his fires are stolen, lighting fires is simply wasted calories. The fire-lighting caveman therefore stops lighting fires, meaning there are no more fires to steal. A group without fire in the dead of winter will most likely die out. If instead the group learns to share fire and reward the fire-maker, that group will thrive thanks to a steady supply of fires through the winter. We can assume the tendencies towards violence and cooperation have a biological basis, so even without a means of cultural propagation (e.g. memes) behaviors can perpetuate. In this way the caveman embodies a morality, even if he lacks words to express it.

It is not obvious that an individual should carry the moral burden for their action. The collectivist only ascribes morality at the level of the group, meaning the actions of an individual are excused as reactions to forces beyond individual control. The strictest scientific materialist infers from the deterministic equations of physics that free will, and by extension moral culpability, simply doesn’t exist. The radical environmentalist offers the view wherein the morality of one’s actions is solely determined by the actions’ impact on Nature. Given these variations, it is clear that the metaphysics a person accepts radically alters their sense of morality. Metaphysics and morality are most likely forever wedded.

The Christian worldview supposes that God exists and is culpable for his act of Creation, which sets up a metaphysics in which free will carries a moral burden. The existence of morality does not derive from divine commandments. Morality exists because we judge a divine being to be benevolent. And if the actions of God have a moral character, our actions as divine individuals have a moral character. This reasoning still hangs together even if you reject the literal existence of God in favor of a metaphorical existence. The key point is the acceptance that creating a livable environment for humans is a good action.

Why did I make this digression into the divinity of the individual? The assumption of the divine individual makes it obvious that a person owns the work of their hands. If you can be condemned for certain actions it must be possible to be respected for other actions. The respect for work, the respect for the actions of the divine, is largely embodied by assigning proper ownership to objects created by that same work. This is the most basic logic behind property rights.

Money creates a layer of abstraction and introduces the opportunity for corruption, but we should not lose track of the moral thread of property rights. Again taking a simple example, why is it that a day’s labor harvesting a cornfield should be rewarded with money? The pile of corn gathered at the end of the day has value from two sources: the farmer who maintained the field in which the corn grew and the laborer who gathered the corn. Both the farmer and the laborer own their work, so it is unreasonable for either to give up claim to the pile of corn. If the corn is to be used for food, the most direct solution is to allow the farmer and harvesters to each take some portion according to their share of work performed. But say the farmer wishes to use the pile of corn to make moonshine. He still owes his harvesters a portion of the corn for their work, so he immediately exchanges the harvesters’ portion for something of equal value. Perhaps the farmer promises a proportionate future share of the moonshine, which would be a form of barter. But say the farmer cannot offer anything immediately valuable to his harvesters in trade for the corn. What can the farmer do?

The answer that civilization developed is money. Money, in its proper form, is simply a set of objects whose value is stable and universally recognized. Precious metals were used historically because the difficult work required to collect and purify them imbues even a small amount with appreciable value. The multitude of practical uses and relative chemical stability of precious metals further stabilizes this value. This contrasts with fiat currency, where value is based upon artificial scarcity and the promise that non-recognition of the currency will be met with force of arms. Commodity currencies and fiat currencies also contrast with cryptocurrencies, where the value is derived from the work of machines (though in principle the computations could be done by humans). Cryptocurrencies derive their value from the utility and difficulty of maintaining a secure record of all financial transactions, which is accomplished through the agreement that financial records are acceptable only once processed by a mathematically difficult method.

The farmer gives his laborers a wage as an immediate trade for the products of their work. So long as the money is stable, the worker can have confidence that the value of their work is stored fairly and is accessible for trade later on. At no point does the worker lose ownership of their work; the object storing the value of that work merely changes form.

This reasoning allows for the ownership of most things that can be held: food, water, tools, and anything else that can be gathered or made. Arriving at the concept of land ownership, however, requires a different path.

The first means by which land comes to be owned: A settler that steps foot in uncharted wilderness does not immediately own the ground he walks on. That settler finds an area with resources and establishes a homestead in order to survive. He builds shelter, plows a farm, and starts to manage his immediate environment. Ownership is established over the land once it is actively maintained in a desired state. This hearkens back to the caveman, where ownership over a cave (if cavemen articulated the concept) is established by the building of beds, firepits, and places to store food. The most direct justification for owning land is stewardship of that land.

Stewardship extends beyond land immediately occupied by buildings or crops. Preserving a forest maintains the natural resources of timber and game animals. Ownership over a forest means that the owner agrees to limit human activity in the forest – by force if necessary – in order to preserve the forest’s health. Polluting the streams, clear-cutting the entire forest at once, or hunting game to extinction would all violate the obligations of stewardship and nullify the claim of ownership. Similarly, farming land in an unsustainable manner nullifies the claim to ownership made through stewardship.

Again, the concept of stewardship is far from universally accepted. Collectivist mindsets reject the idea of ownership, whether of natural resources through stewardship or manufactured goods through work. No one is considered to have a right to exclusive ownership of anything valuable, but every person possesses a nothing-to-do-with-divinity intrinsic dignity that is absolutely equal with every other person. Resources and products are therefore to be distributed equitably because to do otherwise would disrespect this conception of human dignity. The only reason to work is to provide for the group of which you are a part. I am no fan of collectivism, but I must give the devil his due here.

The second means by which land comes to be owned is trade. Human survival would be impossible without shelter, food, and tools, and all of these are ultimately made from raw materials found in the land somewhere. Land is also very obviously finite, so it is possible to assign value to land because humans value their own survival. This is the land’s natural value, which depends greatly upon the access to natural resources the land affords. Since the land can be assigned a value, it can be traded like any other commodity after some human has taken up initial stewardship of the land. In this way, a person can buy a forest instead of coming into natural ownership of it.

If I come to own land through trade, is it immoral to destroy that land’s natural resources? The answer given most often seems to depend on what human activity is demanding immediate justification, and most heinously that answer can hinge on some misinterpretation of Genesis that conflates permission to rule over and eat animals with permission to act as a tyrant. It is easy to see that the act of destroying natural resources is unquestionably immoral. The destruction of a natural resource prevents future generations from using that resource, which simultaneously harms the survival prospects of every future generation of humans. This is an act of aggression against an unknown but great number of the defenseless unborn. Future generations of humans may survive in spite of the destruction, but the survival of a victim of violence does not suddenly make violence moral.

My stance on the environment is clearly distinct from the stance of radical environmentalists, who argue that even changes to the environment that enable immediate human survival (hunting, building shelter, farming) are at best a necessary evil. The less radical environmentalists, chasing an ideal of being “one with nature”, allow to natural resources to be borrowed from Nature if those resources satisfy an immediate human survival need. However, humans are afforded no special status relative to animals, so anything taken in excess of immediate survival needs is deemed sinful. Human ownership of objects does not truly exist in either flavor of environmentalism. This creates an issue by negating the concept of theft between humans, but that is an aside. At times I find myself agreeing with environmentalists when they hurl condemnations at various companies, but I’ve never been terribly convinced by the stated motivations for their activism.

The work that an individual puts in to maintain and improve the resources of the world must be rewarded in a well-adjusted society. The individual must be content that he makes fair exchanges with society if that society wishes to perpetuate itself. The most just solution to this problem is the acceptance of property rights. A right to property recognizes the sovereignty of the individual and provides an engaging personal motivation for work.

A man is entitled to the sweat of his brow.