Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Rights and Property

by Fr.Vincent McNabb

Let me set down some principles and definitions, chiefly from St. Thomas Aquinas. They may help towards clearer thinking.

A Duty is an act necessitated, not by a physical, but by a moral obligation, i.e. not by nature but by Will. It is a moral, as distinct from a physical, necessity to act, e.g. the duty of living, of seeking the truth, of working, etc.

A Right is a moral, as distinct from a merely physical power to have the means necessary to fulfil a Duty. Hence Duty is primary and absolute; Right is secondary and relative to Duty.
As moral obligation and moral power presuppose a free will, Duties and Rights are predicable only of a Free Will.

The fundamental right of the free will is to be free, and not enslaved.

(1)(1) Summa Theologica, Ia-IIae, Q. ii, art. 4, 3rd reply.

Slavery is a hindrance of the good USE of power.

'To use is to apply a principle of action to its action.'(2) Hence 'To Use is properly an act of the will.' (3) Slavery is the evil of a being that has the internal quality of free will, but has not the external condition of freedom. Hence the fundamental property or the foundation of property and ownership is our free will. A being that cannot call its will its own can call nothing its own.

(2) ibid. q. xvi, art. 2
(3) ibid. Art. 1

By liberty our acts are our own; by property our goods are our own. Free will is the psychological condition of property; and property ist he material condition of freedom. 'A man by his will possesses (owns) things.'(1) To have (or own) is nothing else than to use or to be able to use; and this is only by an operation.(2) As a right is a moral power to use, Right is the fundamental form of property.

1. ibid. IIa-IIae, Q. lix, art. 3, 1st reply.
2. ibid. 1a-IIae, Q. xxxii, art. 1, 1st reply.

'OWNERSHIP' ... denotes the relation between a person and any right that is vested in him. That which a man owns is a right.

(3)3. Jurisprudence. By Sir John Salmond. 7th Edit. London, p. 277.

Whoever, then, admits the existence of human rights has denied any arguments against human property.

The right to property does not mean that a man shall have a right to as much as he wishes, but that he shall have a right to as much as he needs.

If ownership or property is a right, and especially if ownership is moral power, as distinct from physical power, to use, it is as misleading to speak of the ownership of a thing as to speak of the right to a thing. There are as many limitations of ownership as there are limitations of right and of power.

Where there is no physical power there is no moral power; a blind man has not the right to have electric-light shades.

Yet there may be no moral power where there is physical power. Physical power to use is not moral power to us; and moral power to use in one way may not be moral power to use in another way.

In one and the same material thing there may be centred many physical and many moral powers to use and thus to own.

Of God alone, who alone has full physical and moral power over everything, can we say 'God has the ownership of A. or B.'

All other bings have only an ownership in whatever they are said to own: Thus, in land the nation has not the ownership but only an ownership of the land. All England belongs to all England. The nation has the 'altum dominium', the highest ownership of the land of the nation. But this kind of ownership is quite compatible with another kind of ownership by the individual.

Some examples may stimulate thought. (a) Lord B.---- has a valuable picture-gallery; but is blind. His valet is an artist who has found no money in painting. The valet has the physical and psychological power to use the pictures. Lord B.----, who is said to own them, has not the power to use them, but has only the power to prevent other people from using them.!

(b) Mr. E.-----, the millionaire shipowner, owns half a Scotch county; but his asthma confines him to the South of France. His tenants have the physical and psychological power to use his land both for tillage and for enjoyment. He can neither till nor enjoy. Almost his only ownership of the land is the power of selling; or is a selling-ownership.

(c) A certain Government holds the Communistic doctrine that no one can individually own land. But the individual land-workers have alone the physical power to till the land and largely the physical power to control the fruits of the land. Whether or not their very real control of the 'earth and the fruits thereof' is called ownership by the central authority, it is a more effective ownership than the shadowy overlordship of a doctrinaire bureaucracy. The land-workers, who have no official ownership, can bring the land under cultivation; whereas the central Government's official is a power of putting the land out of cultivation.

All this may lead us to generalize about the words Right and Property. Right is an old word with something like a simple definite meaning. Property (like Capital, Industrial, Employee, Income, etc.)is a new word with a complex or indefinite meaning.

Again, the things which are the objects or RIghts and Property are of many kinds. At the one extreme there are things like food and clothing, whose use is their consumption. At the other extreme there is the earth or land which can be used in a thousand ways and even abused, but cannot be consumed. Between these two extremes there are different classes of things with different ways of being used. To state man's relation to these things, with their complex and multifold ways of use, in terms of one word 'Property,' is to court ambiguity. The older word Right is at once more illuminative and scientific. Thus we can say, Right of Production, Right of Use, Right of Usufruct, Right of Occupation, Right of Selling, etc. etc.

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