lauantai 25. syyskuuta 2010

David Hume on Ownership

David Hume (1711-1776)

Ownership rules are creation of civil society

David Hume believes that ownership rules are not grounded upon natural rights which exist in a state of nature independently of civil society but that ownership rules are a creation of civil society and draw their validity from their social usefulness.

In the Treatise, Hume isolates the two sets of conditions he believes give rise to the need for establishing ownership rules:

"The qualities of mind are selfishness and limited generosity: And the situation of external objects is their easy change join'd to their scarcity in comparison of the wants and desires of men"

Beginning with Hume's second condition, the scarcity of goods and their easy change, it is possible to understand why ownership is necessary. There are three kinds of goods according to Hume: the satisfaction of our minds, the external advantages of our bodies, and the enjoyments of such possessions we have acquired by our industry and good fortune. Hume believes that it is only the third of these goods, external possessions, which need be the object of the ownership relation, i.e., the only kind of goods which need to be regulated by ownership rules. His reasons are that the first goods, the satisfactions of our minds, are perfectly secure and that the second goods, the advantages of our bodies, cannot be to the advantage of others.

Everyone can benefit from ownership rules

Hume believes that everyone can benefit from having rules which define ownership. Further, he believes that these rules are produced by society; they are not natural rules existing apart from any social convention. Hume's method of justification for a form of ownership depends upon the contribution of the rules of ownership to everyone's interest. Hume's position is that "Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is established by the laws of society; that is by the laws of justice". In what is probably the most frequently cited passage by Hume concerning ownership, he says:

"No one can doubt, that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and after the agreement for fixing and observing this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord."

Any owner who has to rely upon utilitarian calculations to determine what he owns may well be unable to reliably know what he owns. Ownership in this sense would not be certain.

Removing selfishness renders ownership rules useless

Hume believes that removing selfishness by increasing benevolence to a significant degree would render ownership rules useless. In the Enquiries he says:

"Why raise land-marks between my neighbor's field and mine, when my heart has made no division between our interests; but shares all his joys and sorrows with the same force and vivacity as if originally my own? ... And the whole human race would form only one family; where all would lie in common and be used freely, without regard to property".

However, in the case that goods are moderately scarce and not at all abundant, someone with increased benevolence will have to know what he owns in order to know what he may rightfully give to others. Ownership rules will therefore still be necessary because a person may only give what he owns. Disagreement over who is to be helped rather than selfishness is the cause in this situation which gives rise to the need for ownership rules.

Equality is impracticable and pernicious

Hume has some sympathy with the idea of an equal distribution of what can be owned:

"It also must be confessed, that whenever we depart from this equality, we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families or even provinces."

A more equal distribution is more desirable because it benefits more people. But, Hume also argues that imposing an equal distribution is both "impracticable and pernicious". It is impracticable, according to Hume, because men's different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately upset equality. It is pernicious, because the authority to enforce equality must degenerate to tyranny. In addition Hume has a third reason for rejecting equality. People ought to own what they produce or improve by their own industry in order to encourage useful habits and accomplishments.

Five rules for the form of ownership

According to Hume, ownership rules must promote the "general interest" if they are to be morally justifiable. The content of the form of ownership which Hume discusses in the Treatise is defined by five rules. The rules are: present possession, prescription, accession, succession, and transference by consent. In the Enquiries, Hume adds a sixth rule, a labor criterion of acquisition that people own what they labor of produce or improve. These rules constitute a form of ownership which resembles the form of private ownership. Hume says that owners' rights over what they own are absolute and entire.


Of Hume's theory of ownership, his most significant contribution is the analysis of the conditions which give rise to the need for ownership rules. Without any scarcity of goods or labor there is no need for any ownership rules at all. Hume also insists that ownership is rule constituted and created.

Source: James O. Grunebaum. 1987. Private Ownership. p. 92-110.

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