Having and Being
Having and Being: A Thomistic Critique of Private Property as an Absolute Right
Daniel Bradley, PhD
A great deal of our contemporary thinking and the structures of power that dominate our lives are rooted in the Lockean notion of private property as an absolute and inalienable right. This toxic and alienating ideology sickens our most important relations, including our relation to the beauty of nature, to our neighbors as companions to which we are bound by moral obligation and civic friendship, to the animals and plants with which we share our world, to our labor as a rich and creative expression of our human nature, to the things we use as lasting sources of satisfaction and cultural heritage, and to our urban spaces as centers of civic and cultural life. In this article, I turn to the work of Thomas Aquinas to challenge the pernicious ideology of private property as absolute. For Aquinas rights to property are not a product of natural law, but are a human construction rooted in the pursuit of human flourishing. Thus, property claims are not inalienable, but always amenable to human wisdom and judgments in the context of human needs. This has important implications for challenging the dominant Lockean ideology.
Keywords: Thomas Aquinas, Private Property, Locke, Ideology, Critique, Political Economy
It is a widely held assumption in contemporary philosophy that religion plays an important ideological role in legitimating the current structures of power, and in many cases this assumption can be an important hermeneutic key for understanding certain aspects of religion. In this paper, however, I will argue that Catholic philosophy offers a powerful critique of the contemporary notion of the absolute right to private property and thus provides an important challenge to the ideological foundation of the current Capitalist structures of power that dominate our world. In our current political and economic situation, then, Catholic thought is counter-ideological—at least on the question of property.
In particular, I will turn to the thought of the great medieval Dominican, Thomas Aquinas. This may seem a strange choice in looking for Catholic allies in challenging contemporary notions of private property. We could look at the ideas of John Ball, Lollard Priest and spiritual leader of the 1381 Peasants revolt in England, the French worker-priest movement of the 1940s, the Liberation theology of the Latin American Jesuits in the later parts of the 20th century, among others. Those are all worthwhile projects, but for this paper I will focus on Aquinas. Partly this is because, while there is a mountain of literature on the critiques of property in these other Catholic traditions, there is a great lack of work on Aquinas’ critique of property as an absolute right that I would like to begin to ameliorate. Partly this is because Aquinas’ thinking is generally extremely balanced and his arguments insightful, thus making his work a perennially valuable resource. Perhaps most importantly to many of the readers of this journal, though, the turn to Aquinas is important because it offers an underdeveloped resource for those who wish to challenge many of the worst aspects of our contemporary political economy while retaining a place for some version of private property that is more amenable to the practice of wisdom in response to particular contexts and human needs. Finally, for my own purposes, this article is also a step towards a larger project that argues against the claim that the more radical Catholic movements are aberrations or at best minorities that represent only the left fringes of Catholic thinking and defends the idea that, by its very nature, Catholic philosophy is unified in its rejection of universal and inalienable property rights.
Aquinas’ careful study of Aristotle taught him a wonderfully nuanced and balanced approach to the intellectual life, for unlike Plato’s disdain for common opinion, Aristotle was committed to always trying to find a way to harmonize the conflicts between “the wise and the many” or between different authorities by showing how both sides in the apparent dispute contained aspects of truth, but were approaching the same subject in different contexts or at different levels of reality or of human development. In the case of private property we see Aquinas at his most intellectually charitable, in this regard. He notes that important authorities, including the Apostles in the New Testament and many of the church fathers argued for communal property, and yet others such as St Augustine argued for private property. Both must be right, says Aquinas, on the basis of the distinction between the “use” of things, which we must consider common to all, and the “procuring and dispensing” or possession of things, which can be properly relegated to the individual. So, Aquinas does defend the legitimacy of private property; however, it is crucial to see that he explicitly rejects the claim that private property is a natural or inalienable right. According to Aquinas’ argument, by natural all things are given in common to all; thus, “the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law.”1
This social construction is justified based on what it accomplishes. In particular, the institution of private property, with regard to the possession of things, effects three important goals, for Aquinas.
Firstly, because everyone is more solicitous about procuring what belongs to himself alone than that which is common to all or many, since each shunning labour leaves to another what is the common burden of all, as happens with a multitude of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each has his own duty of procuring a certain thing, while there would be confusion if each should procure things haphazard. Thirdly, because in this way the peace of men is better preserved, for each is content with his own. Whence we see that strife more frequently arises among those who hold a thing in common than individually.2
Thus, for Aquinas private property is valuable because it raises us above the level of servants by making us more solicitous, that is more attentive, careful, and invested in our work. It allows us to be less haphazard, working in fits in starts here and there, and helps to keep our relation to our work orderly and sustained. Finally, there will be more peaceful and harmonious relations among people if they are not constantly trying to negotiate who gets to use which of the common goods. In sum we can see that Aquinas thinks private property is legitimate because it leads to a healthier relation to one’s work and to better relations among people, thus enabling the creative activity by which we are the stewards of nature in the fulfillment of our human nature.
This puts Aquinas much closer to Marx than to modern Liberals in their agreement on the criteria by which to judge the legitimacy of private property. The difference between the two is that Marx believes the conditions that once justified private property no longer hold. As Marx writes in his 1844 manuscripts, “precisely in the fact that division of labor and exchange are embodiments of private property lies the two-fold proof, on the one hand that human life required private property for its realization, and on the other hand that it now requires the supersession of private property”3
So, the stronger challenge to the status quo, stemming from Thomist constructivism, would be the claim that the conditions under which private property is a wise policy have passed, that what was appropriate for the pre-modern world no longer holds. But that terrain has been well-traversed by the Liberation theologians and Catholic Socialists. The weaker version, which I will pursue here, accepts that Aquinas’ view of property still holds, but looks to the ways that his rejection of the Lockean claim of private property as a natural right challenges our contemporary political economy by changing our understanding of the grounds on which property is philosophically justified.
Private Property as Wise Social Construction
In order to see the alternative offered by Aquinas, we must briefly characterize the contemporary position to which it offers a challenge, and, of course, it is John Locke who provides the definitive argument for the dominant contemporary understanding of property:
Though the Earth…be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labor of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labor with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labor something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men.4
At the heart of the argument lie two intuitions: (1) when I work, the fruit of that labor becomes mine, by right, to do with as I alone please and without interference, as long as (2) that fruit was obtained without violating anyone else’s right to private property, in other words as long as I produce something using only property to which no one else has a legitimate claim. The first claim is not true, as we will see below, and the accompanying condition never applies completely to any actual situation, for even a brief look at history suggests that most property was not originally taken justly from the public domain by settlers coming to virgin land or by explorers venturing in unspoiled wilderness. Almost every property was at one point or another unjustly pillaged by colonizers from the people who originally lived in a place and used those resources. But this means that any advantages a person has are not just the result of property that was gifted to him or her by someone who earned it or to whom it was given in turn by someone who did earn it. Rather it means that inherited property is, at least in part, the result of original injustices.5
This problem could theoretically be solved in a society where children are taken at birth from their families and raised by the state under conditions of equal opportunity, rather like the scenario that, for different reasons, Plato suggested. The implausibility of this proposal does not mean we should neglect to work for restorative justice in the case of historical wrong-doing, but it does highlight the problem with an absolute understanding of rights. In reality rights are always partially conflicting. This is why contemporary combatants over abortion and universal health care cannot even enter into conversation, for when a woman has an absolute right to her body and a fetus has an absolute right to life or when one person has an absolute right to life-saving health care and another person has an absolute right to do whatever he wants with his money (i.e. not to be taxed for someone else’s health care bills) then rational discussion becomes fruitless and decisions are made, not by discussion and persuasion, but by those with the brute political power to silence their opposition.
Absolute Natural Right/Result of Human Needs
For modern liberals who see property as an absolute and foundational right these disputes between rival rights-claims remain insoluble. For Aquinas, on the other hand, property rights are not absolute but are a social response to deeper philosophical truths about the human condition and our place in the cosmos, thus opening a space for dialogue about conflicting rights claims through appeal to something more fundamental on which both claims depend. In fact, according to Aquinas, before we can ask whether private property is legitimate, we have to ask whether there can legitimately be any kind of human property, personal or communal, for as he notes Psalm 23 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” a line quoted again by St. Paul in the Christian Scriptures. To solve this problem Aquinas distinguishes between ownership as power of the will over a thing’s nature verses ownership as use. The former is only appropriate to God, for only God, and not human beings, have the right to change a thing’s nature, according to Aquinas. But humans do, he argues, have a legitimate right to use the things of nature. Aquinas writes, “God has sovereign dominion over all things: and He, according to His providence, directed certain things to the sustenance of man’s body. For this reason man has a natural dominion over things, as regards the power to make use of them.”6 We must not forget this in the turn to positive law. After the discussion of private property as a social construction, Aquinas reminds us, “Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things.”7
So the legitimacy of any claim to possess the things of nature at all is rooted in our need for them in order to live and to thrive. Further, Aquinas links this need to our ability to reason as constitutive of our human nature. This rational capacity explains why, for Aquinas, it is morally reasonable for a human to kill a deer to feed a hungry neighbor, but not morally permissible to kill a human to feed your dog, but it also points to the fact that for humans reason is not a luxury added to our animal nature, but a necessity for a being for whom instincts alone are not enough to ensure survival. Rather, as the Thomist, Jarrett Bede, writes:
the human animal is bound by the law of his own being to provide against the necessities of the future. He has, therefore, the right to acquire not merely what will suffice for the instant, but to look forward and arrange against the time when his power of work shall have lessened, or the objects which suffice for his personal needs become scarcer or more difficult of attainment. Property, therefore, of some kind or other, says Aquinas, is required by the very nature of man. Individual possessions are not a mere adventitious luxury which time has accustomed him to imagine as something he can hardly do without, nor are they the result of civilised culture, which by the law of its own development creates fresh needs for each fresh demand supplied; but in some form or other they are an absolute and dire necessity, without which life could not be lived at all. Not simply for his “well-being,” but for his very existence, man finds them [possessions] to be a sacred need. Thus as they follow directly from the nature of creation, we can term them “natural.”8
For even the earliest human beings, tools replaced fur and claws, and without these possessions we cannot live. But this means that property is not a foundational truth but a response to needs that are themselves only to be understood as obstacles to human flourishing. Thus it is human flourishing that is foundational, and property, in whatever form, is legitimated only to the extent that it serves human flourishing.
Inalienable Right/Conditioned Right
From this understanding of property in general as a response to human need, it follows that private property is not rooted solely in the individual possessor. Rather, its use must be responsive to the social conditions that surround it. For example, in response to the argument made by Ambrose who says: “Let no man call his own that which is common,” Aquinas argues that Ambrose is “speaking of ownership as regards use, wherefore he adds: ‘He who spends too much is a robber.’” Use is socially constructed and legitimated by the needs of human beings, and so when a person spends wastefully while others are in need, this is an illegitimate use of private property, as morally reprehensible as theft. Further, not only is the right to property not unconditional, it is not inalienable. As Aquinas writes,
Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.9
For the Modern follower of Locke, the rights to justly obtained property are inalienable, for the Thomist the legitimacy of possession is only upheld by continued moral use of a resource. In particular we have a moral obligation to use our possessions in ways that help those in need. Even more radically, those in dire need have a right to those things necessary for human life that supersedes the right to property, for as we have seen rights-language derives its legitimacy only from the more fundamental natural need for the use of possessions that make possible human life.
Wealth as Deserved/ Wealth as Gift
If the notion of property as absolute and self-grounding is undermined from below, so to speak, by the recognition of a more fundamental reality on which claims to property must be based, namely characteristically human needs, property as absolute and self-grounding is also undermined “from above” by the turn to metaphysics, which yields an understanding of property as gift rather than desert. Thus, we must return to Locke’s conditions for the acquisition of private property. As we have already sketched, first occupancy conditions never hold absolutely and thus cannot be the grounds of absolute rights to private property. Now we must argue that the claim that I deserve the fruits of my labors is not absolutely true. This is hard to see in a culture where we get paid by the hour or based on our productivity under conditions of carefully controlled industrial production. If I work longer hours or pick more pounds of strawberries or perform more surgeries, I expect to get paid more. And this is proper, but it is the result of social institutions into which I was born, not a result of some universal moral law. The hunter who often returns empty-handed to camp, and the farmer who faces ruin from a stretch of bad weather know that there is no universal and necessary link between labor and reward. Thus, for these workers it is much easier to see the fruit of their labors with gratitude as a gift. First this is a gift from all those others who make society possible, from those who gave me the gift of life and the nurturing of my talents, and from the goodness of nature, but for Aquinas wealth is ultimately a gift from a divine source. He tells us that the “the rich man is reproved [by Jesus] for deeming external things to belong to him principally, as though he had not received them from another, namely from God.”10 Further, this understanding of property as a providential gift extends not just to the fact that I have anything at all, but even to discrepancies in wealth. Aquinas quotes Basil approvingly, “Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience?”11 Wealth is not understood as the deserved and expected result of one’s labor but as a gift of providence, and greater wealth is not understood as the result of harder work, but as the missioning of a task through which I cultivate my own character while helping others, while less wealth is not understood as the result of less merit but as the gift of the opportunity to grow through reliance on others.
Private property as rise from barbarism/ as fall from grace.
Finally we see a major difference between the contemporary liberal12 claim for the absolute right to private property and the traditional writings of the Thomist tradition in the place in history to which private property is assigned. According to most modern liberals the original human condition is one of savagery out of which we have slowly climbed in a progressive march towards freer and freer markets and ever greater peaks of civilization.13 We hear from von Mises,
The history of private ownership of the means of production coincides with the history of the development of mankind from an animal-like condition to the highest reaches of modern civilization… Nowhere and at no time has there ever been a people which has raised itself without private property above a condition of the most oppressive penury and savagery scarcely distinguishable from animal existence.14
According to the traditional Catholic model, on the other hand, private property is a result of the corruption of humanity in its falling away from an originally superior position. As Bede Jarrett writes,
Created in original justice, as the phrase ran, the powers of man’s soul were in perfect harmony. His sensitive nature, i.e. his passions, were in subjection to his will, his will to his reason, his reason to God. Had man continued in this state of innocence, government, slavery, and private property would never have been required. But Adam fell, and in his fall, said these Christian doctors, the whole conditions of his being were disturbed.15
Rather than a glorious peak of human achievement, private property is understood, on the analogy of slavery, as a necessary evil. This falling away from a higher state in an immemorial or mythical past is mirrored in historical time after the original apostolic fervor of the early Church in the first century of the Common Era is found to be unsustainable and the socialist economics of the first Christian communities are abandoned. However, even in society contemporary to the Medieval theorists, the fall into the inferior social arrangement of private property was not considered absolute, for among monks and nuns a life lived in community was possible and indeed considered by many a more elevated life than that of the secular clergy or laity.
A Thomist view of private property, as a social construction legitimated by its success at promoting the flourishing of the rational and social human animal, will provide a myriad of challenges to our society, in which the dominant power structures are rooted in a Lockean conception of absolute rights to private property. Certain tentative starts on developing the implications of this project in terms of particular economic, political, and cultural questions have been made, but the territory is largely uncharted. So let me end by tentatively pointing to a few starting points for developing a Thomist critique of private property in the American context. Where many liberals see wealth as the deserved reward for hard work and thus property as an absolute right which is the beginning and end of political economy, Aquinas sees wealth as a gift to human beings that makes possible their flourishing and the development of their character, thus showing political economy, not as an autonomous discipline but as pointing towards a metaphysical background out of which it springs and forward to its completion in ethics and cultural studies. Thus, whereas many Americans understand their culture as defined by their allegiance to particular economy, for a Thomist the economy is supposed to serve the culture, and the study of economics ought to be subservient to both metaphysics and the liberal arts.
Where many Americans see charity to the poor as supererogatory or an optional personal virtue best left to individual choice, Aquinas sees it as a requirement of justice and in fact posits the right of the poor to life as more fundamental than the right of the rich to their property, thus placing the question of charity in the civic square and opening it to rational debate in our communal discussions of ethics and politics. Where many liberals see private property as an inalienable right subject only to my will, Aquinas sees private property as legitimate only for possessions which are held by an individual in good stewardship, while allowing for common use. This has important practical political implications for welfare, public health care, city planning and zoning, but the dearest to my heart is the challenge it provides to claims to private ownership of our most beautiful places, including the natural beauty of our rivers, the seaside, and mountaintop land, that bars access of others to these goods.
Where many liberals sees private property as the glorious culmination of human history, Aquinas sees private property as a necessary evil resulting from our falling away from the great socialist high points of the past, namely the Garden of Eden and the Apostolic community, and as unnecessary for the more spiritually cultivated such as members of a religious order. This emphasis on private property as an amelioration of our human condition that has not always been necessary and is still not necessary among certain communities, which society at large can aim to imitate, is a deep challenge to a triumphalist neo-liberalism that would impose its economic system, as the only possible rational choice, on the world.
For the Thomist, who would critique Capitalist ideology on the grounds that human flourishing is more fundamental than property rights, there remains much work to be done.
1 Summa Theologiae, II,II, Q 66, Art. 2.
2 Summa Theologiae, II,II, Q 66, Art. 1
3 Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 134.
4 Two Treatises on Government. 1988 , II, para. 27)
5 For a particularly powerful account of this truth see Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
6 ST, II,II. 66. 1
7 ST, II,II. 66. 7
8 Bede Jarrett, Medieval Socialism, Ch. 4 “The Schoolmen.” Originally Published, London: T.C. and E.C. Jack, 1913. Accessed through Internet Archive: https://archive.org/ details/mediaevalsociali00jarr
9 ST, II,II. 66. 7
10 ST, II,II. 66. 1
11 ST, II,II. 66. 2
12 Words matter, and I see it as unfortunate that defenders of absolute rights to private property are now often called “conservative,” when they are properly described as “liberals.” See von Mises: “The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production.”
13 Which is why free market apologists, like von Mises, are most properly described as progressive liberals.
14 Von Mises, Liberalism, San Francisco: Cobden Press, 2002. p. 60.
15 Bede Jarrett, Medieval Socialism, Ch. 1 “Introduction.”