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27. Property Rights

XXVII. If I donate to UNICEF, I will be spending my own money, and my money belongs to me and is something I am free to spend as I see fit and I should not be condemned for not giving to UNICEF something that I have a right to in the first place.

Of course, it might be possible for John to claim something quite similar in the case of the Shallow Pond. He might say "My Gucci shoes belong to me and if rescuing the child requires that I get my shoes wet beyond repair and I elect to keep my feet dry, that is my right and I should not be faulted for refusing to destroy what I have a right to in the first place: my Gucci shoes. Property rights should count for something and I have a right to my own property and I should not be condemned for refusing to part with my property just to save a child from drowning." But leaving aside this retort from John, many of us suspect that property rights do count for something. Here's Singer on this score and although he is not speaking directly to our two cases he is trying to make sense of how property rights might cause difficulties for his views on our obligation to contribute to famine relief:

"Do people have a right to private property, a right that contradicts the view that they are under an obligation to give some of their wealth away to those in absolute poverty? According to some theories of rights (for instance, Robert Nozick's), provided one has acquired one's property without the use of unjust means like force and fraud, one may be entitled to enormous wealth while others starve. This individualistic conception of rights is in contrast to other views, like the early Christian doctrine to be found in the works of Thomas Aquinas, which holds that since property exists for the satisfaction of human needs, 'whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right to the poor for their sustenance'. A socialist would also, of course, see wealth as belonging to the community rather than the individual, while utilitarians, whether socialist or not, would be prepared to override property rights to prevent great evils.

"Does the argument for an obligation to assist others, therefore, presuppose one of these other theories of property rights, and not an individualistic theory like Nozick's? Not necessarily. A theory of property rights can insist on our right to retain wealth without pronouncing on whether the rich ought to give to the poor. Nozick, for example, rejects the use of compulsory means like taxation to redistribute income, but suggests that we can achieve the ends we deem morally desirable by voluntary means. So Nozick would reject the claim that rich people have an 'obligation' to give to the poor, in so far as this implies that the poor have a right to our aid, but might accept that giving is something we ought to do and failing to give, though within one's rights, is wrong-for there is more to an ethical life than respecting the rights of others.

"The argument for an obligation to assist can survive, with only minor modifications, even if we accept an individualistic theory of property rights. In any case, however, I do not think we should accept such a theory. It leaves too much to chance to be an acceptable ethical view. For instance, those whose forefathers happened to inhabit some sandy wastes around the Persian Gulf are now fabulously wealthy, because oil lay under those sands; while those whose forefathers settled on better land south of the Sahara live in absolute poverty, because of drought and bad harvests. Can this distribution be acceptable from an impartial point of view? If we imagine ourselves about to begin life as a citizen of either Bahrein or Chad, but we do not know which, would we accept the principle that, citizens of Bahrein are under no obligation to assist people living in Chad?"

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February 14, 1998
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