Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Why do humans have property?

Property is a rather old subject. We’ve been writing about it since at least the time of the Sumerian tablets, in part, because after four and a half millennia we still haven’t settled on what property is, who has it, how we get it, or even what it’s for. Recently, arguments have surfaced that the destruction of property constitutes serious political speech. But property has a greater, very human, purpose worth understanding.

In the humanities, property is theft, violence, the cause of wars and quarrels in the world. To biologists, property is the possession or defense of food, mates, or territory. By that account many animals have property. But property is not inherently evil, and in fact indicates a willingness to respect that what is “yours” by definition cannot be “mine.” Recognizing this trait sets Homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

How might a social scientist in the middle go about defining property? It’s clear that whatever property is, it involves people doing something with a material thing. It also appears that property isn’t discovered anew each generation. “No!” is how parents teach their children the rules of property.

Answering the question “Why do humans have the custom of property?” sheds light on the purpose property serves in modern society and how to view it. Aristotle gave us four explanations: material, formal, efficient, and final explanation. When taken as a whole, the four different causes explain the custom of property.

Material explanation

Humans have the custom of property because when our body sees, hears, and touches the physical world, it connects a certain person to a certain thing by classifying the thing as “mine.” This explanation requires physical matter, including the human body itself. Our eyes see the world of people and things, and our ears hear the things people say about things. Our minds then classify such neurological impulses and return as output an instruction to act, to say things like “This is mine.”

Homo sapiens is the only animal whose mind classifies a thing as “mine.” Primatologists have good reason to believe that chimpanzees think things like “I want this,” but “I want this” does not mean the same thing as “This is mine” in the human animal, as every two-year-old learns, with great disappointment, from their parents. Mine means mine, atomically and reflexively, and it serves as the core for the custom of property in all human groups. In every language someone can say, “This is mine.”

Formal explanation

Property is not just about one person feeling and thinking, “This is mine,” and property is not a growl delivered with a curled lip and wrinkled nose. Property is a speech act, witnessed by other people, all of whom have been taught by the previous generation when such claims can be made. While the circumstances and the set of things may vary from culture to culture, there is a common abstract form by which someone can claim something as mine. Humans have the custom of property because people learn from their mentors under which circumstances someone can say “This thing is mine,” others can know that what this person says is true, and others cannot say “This thing is mine.”

Even though only I can use the concept “mine” to predicate a first-person claim on something, everyone else must use the concept “yours” when referring to my claim. I rely on the concept “yours” when I want others to acknowledge my claim that something is mine. There is no abstract concept of “yours” in any other animal because there is no abstract concept of “mine” in any other animal.

Efficient explanation

The material and formal explanations come together in the human agency that creates the efficient cause of property. Humans have the custom of property because when someone severs our connection to a certain thing, we resent the harm and injury we feel and attempt to defend ourselves by beating back the injury with some injury in return.

Resentment is the sentiment that prompts us to retaliate. It isn’t unique to humans. There’s a reason why you don’t poke a bear or even stand between a sow and her cubs. What is unique to humans is that we turn our disputes over to elders, judges, or juries to sift through conflicting claims of “This is mine.” In a tribal species, we tend to share our in-group resentments and empathize with in-group injuries. Two conflicting claims of “This is mine” can easily escalate to group-on-group violence which runs the risk of destroying the community. To mitigate such a disaster, humans have stumbled upon the tradition of using third parties to articulate what the expectations of the disputants should have been regarding the thing.

Final explanation

If, as David Hume noted, material things were not scarce and people by nature not selfish and limited in generosity, we would not need the custom of property. There would be no conflicting claims of “This is mine.” We would be bonobos in abundant fields of leaves and herbs. But that is not the world we live in. Humans have the custom of property because it confers peace to a species which is—as the seventeenth century German jurist Samuel von Pufendorf eloquently put it—often malicious, insolent, and easily provoked, and as powerful in effecting mischief as it is ready in designing it. We practice the custom of property because proximately there is not a short supply of people with an equal or stronger hand who may challenge our claim of “This is mine.”

Such is the Biblical story of Naboth’s vineyard. The uniquely human custom of property stood between King Ahab and the vineyard to protect Naboth from those who had a stronger hand to challenge his claim. When Queen Jezebel suggests that Ahab king up and take the vineyard from Naboth, it was not the custom of property that failed Naboth. Ahab’s character failed Naboth, Jezebel, and everyone who practiced the custom and depended on it for their protection. The custom of property doesn’t make us do evil things. An ethical character restrains our unlimited thoughts of “I want this” with a cultivated, reciprocal respect for “That is yours.”

Featured image via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Carlo Natali

    And also because property allows us to make virtuous activities as helping friends and acting generously. In general, Aristotle seems to think that property is a necessary condition for human moral acting.

  2. Celia Nyamweru

    Such clarity and economy of explanation – I loved reading this! Especially as the grandmother of 6 and 3 year olds! The distinction between ‘I want this’ and ‘This is mine’ is such a powerful message to put across to them.

Comments are closed.