Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?

These are some intuitions people often have:

  • You are not required to save a random person, but you are definitely not allowed to kill one
  • You are not required to create a person, but you are definitely not allowed to kill one
  • You are not required to create a happy person, but you are definitely not allowed to create a miserable one
  • You are not required to help a random person who will be in a dire situation otherwise, but you are definitely not allowed to put someone in a dire situation
  • You are not required to save a person in front of a runaway train, but you are definitely not allowed to push someone in front of a train. By extension, you are not required to save five people in front of a runaway train, and if you have to push someone in front of the train to do it, then you are not allowed.

Here are some more:

  • You are not strongly required to give me your bread, but you are not allowed to take mine
  • You are not strongly required to lend me your car, but you are not allowed to unilaterally borrow mine
  • You are not strongly required to send me money, but you are not allowed to take mine

The former are ethical intuitions. The latter are implications of a basic system of property rights. Yet they seem very similar. The ethical intuitions seem to just be property rights as applied to lives and welfare. Your life is your property. I’m not allowed to take it, but I’m not obliged to give it to you if you don’t by default have it. Your welfare is your property. I’m not allowed to lessen what you have, but I don’t have to give you more of it.

[Edited to add: A basic system of property rights means assigning each thing to a person, who is then allowed to decide what happens to that thing. This gives rise to asymmetry because taking another person’s things is not allowed (since they are in charge of them, not you), but giving them more things is neutral (since you are in charge of your things and can do what you like with them).]

My guess is that these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism—are part of the mental equipment we have for upholding property rights.

In particular these well-known asymmetries seem to be explained well by property rights:

  • The act-omission distinction naturally arises where an act would involve taking someone else’s property (broadly construed—e.g. their life, their welfare), while an omission would merely fail to give them additional property (e.g. life that they are not by default going to have, additional welfare).
  • ‘The asymmetry’ between creating happy and miserable people is because to create a miserable person is to give that person something negative, which is to take away what they have, while creating a happy person is giving that person something extra.
  • Person-affecting views arise because birth gives someone a thing they don’t have, whereas death takes a thing from them.

Further evidence that these intuitive asymmetries are based on upholding property rights: we also have moral-feeling intuitions about more straightforward property rights. Stealing is wrong.

If I am right that we have these asymmetrical ethical intuitions as part of a scheme to uphold property rights, what would that imply?

It might imply something about when we want to uphold them, or consider them part of ethics, beyond their instrumental value. Property rights at least appear to be a system for people with diverse goals to coordinate use of scarce resources—which is to say, to somehow use the resources with low levels of conflict and destruction. They do not appear to be a system for people to achieve specific goals, e.g. whatever is actually good. Unless what is good is exactly the smooth sharing of resources.

I’m not actually sure what to make of that—should we write off some moral intuitions as clearly evolved for not-actually-moral reasons and just reason about the consequentialist value of upholding property rights? If we have the moral intuition, does that make the thing of moral value, regardless of its origins? Is pragmatic rules for social cohesion all that ethics is anyway? Questions for another time perhaps (when we are sorting out meta-ethics anyway).

A more straightforward implication is for how we try to explain these ethical asymmetries. If we have an intuition about an asymmetry which stems from upholding property rights, it would seem to be a mistake to treat it as evidence about an asymmetry in consequences, e.g. in value accruing to a person. For instance, perhaps I feel that I am not obliged to create a life, by having a child. Then—if I suppose that my intuitions are about producing goodness—I might think that creating a life is of neutral value, or is of no value to the created child. When in fact the intuition exists because allocating things to owners is a useful way to avoid social conflict. That intuition is part of a structure that is known to be agnostic about benefits to people from me giving them my stuff. If I’m right that these intuitions come from upholding property rights, this seems like an error that is actually happening.

12 responses to “Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?

  1. There’s an unfinished sentence: “Unless what is good is exactly the smooth sharing of resources. So these ‘moral’ intuitions”

  2. Social rules aside, many of these asymmetries might come from empathy. I experience loss aversion in my own life, and thus recognise that your perceived loss of a thing will be greater than the gain when first acquiring it.

    It may be that loss aversion itself develops only under property rights. But humans tend to experience baseline happiness regardless of wealth. Is the amount of maximum negative deviation from the baseline greater than maximum positive deviation? I intuit they’re of similar value, but this could otherwise be an explanation for asymmetries.

  3. michealvassar

    It seems weird and unnecessary for property intuitions to be agnostic about the possibility of helping people by giving them things. Capitalists like Christmas shopping, right?

    • As I read it, Katja is saying that a conflict arises between property intuitions and consequentialism, to wit: property intuitions say that we are not obliged to give away our property even when the recipient would probably derive greater utility from it than we would. It seems like the issue is that consequentialism makes no distinction between the obligatory and the supererogatory. In the final paragraph, she speculates that one might try to resolve this conflict by denying that acts considered supererogatory (according to property intuitions) can be better than neutral, but concludes that that would be a mistake.

  4. I just want to say that this is the most illuminating blog post I’ve read in at least a year. Your hypothesis here sound really quite plausible.

    Thank you for writing this.

  5. Daniel Kokotajlo

    Very interesting! Thank you!

    Your model seems to be: Dividing resources without waste and conflict –> property rights –> act/omission distinction –> asymmetric moral intuitions. Hence “our asymmetric moral intuitions are part of the mental equipment we have for upholding property rights.”

    What about this alternative model: Avoiding waste and conflict –> act/omission distinction –> ( asymmetric moral intuitions & property rights )
    The corresponding slogan of this model would be “the act/omission distinction is part of the mental equipment we have for living together peaceably with people who have different goals/values/beliefs than we do; this distinction is useful for property rights and also for various common moral situations.”

    Points in favor of the second model:
    (0) The first model involves stretching the definition of your property. It’s not a ridiculously unnatural stretch to think of your life as your property, but it is a bit weird. So the second model might generate slogans less likely to mislead.
    (1) If we can’t spell out what property rights are and how they work without using the act/omission distinction, then arguably the act/omission distinction is more fundamental and property rights and moral asymmetries come from it rather than the other way around. And indeed it seems to me that the notion of a “default outcome” is doing tons of the real heavy lifting in all of these examples–the common thread is a rule like “You only get to seriously complain about what someone else does if it gives you less utility than the default outcome would.”
    (2) I suspect that our asymmetric moral intuitions aren’t just spandrels of our property rights intuitions. I’d bet that they directly serve a helping-us-all-get-along purpose, rather than merely indirectly via property rights. If we lived in a communist society with no property rights I’d bet that they would still be useful, for example. Or if we were different kinds of beings, with goal functions but no need for resources or objects, I’d bet that they would still be useful. (Relatedly, I’d bet that we *can* spell out the act/omission distinction without reference to property, but not vice versa.)

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  7. The root problem here is that the category “moral” lumps together (a) intuitions about what’s intrinsically valuable, (b) intuitions about what the correct coordination protocols are, and (c) intuitions about what’s healthy for a human. Kantian morality, like the property intuitions you’ve identified, is about (b) (“don’t lie” doesn’t fail gracefully in a mixed world, but makes sense and is coherent as a proposed operating protocol), while Rawlsian morality and the sort of utilitarian calculus people are trying to derive from weird thought experiments about trolleys is about (a) (questions about things like distribution *presuppose* that we already have decent operating protocols to enable a shared deliberative mechanism, rather than a state of constant epistemic war).

  8. Do we know the standard ethical systems of societies without the explicit/state-enforced property rights of modern Western societies, like hunter-gatherer tribes?

  9. Richard Kennaway

    >My guess is that these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism

    Ponens or tollens? A standard criticism of consequentialism is that it defies these asymmetries.

    I recently heard the issue put to Peter Singer, that his ethics appear to require caring not a fraction more about your own children than about any other child in the world, and I did not hear a straight answer. He just said that that would be another valid way of acting. The programme is downloadable from

  10. Gnostic Gnome

    Most likely the asymmetries in property rights and other human rights come from Schelling Points – bright line norms that contribute to functioning society and/or human flourishing. It is almost impossible to have a concept that I must save every person in trouble (though one drowning right in front of me is a different story and we probably do have some ethical obligation there) because there are billions of people and who could live up to such a rule. As an ethical principle it doesn’t work. But “don’t murder” is easy to follow and easy to shame those who don’t follow it. Put a line in the sand there and any who cross it are lost/dangers to others/a threat to be countered. Most of morality comes from such rights/such Schelling Points, and property rights do too. Of course the lines can be drawn brightly in a different place than they are, but it’s tricky to move them once they’re set up because if we don’t treat them as fixed, we don’t know how far they’ll be moved.

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