Sunday, March 2, 2008

Does Intrinsic Value in Nonconscious Objects Create Problems for Property Rights?

So I wrote earlier about the idea of nonconscious objects having intrinsic value, and I was wondering about the implications of what I said for our normal conceptions regarding property rights. Basically, I argued that some objects, like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, have the inherent capacity to inspire significant reactions in people. Accordingly, it seems fair to say that they have some kind of intrinsic value, and that therefore it is somehow wrong to destroy them wastefully; that is, it doesn't take proper account of this value to "destroy" them without good reason for doing so.

It occurred to me, though, that this account might seem to be at odds with our normal ideas about property rights. I figured it might be worth writing briefly about whether this is the case. I'll bring up two issues here, discussing neither in much depth (it's Friday, dammit). The first is whether the existence of intrinsic value in nonconscious entities could imply that we don't fully own our property. The second is whether intrinsic value creates problems for our ideas about just appropriation.

So why would intrinsic value have any bearing on whether or not we fully own our property? Well, the issue arises from the claim that it's wrong to destroy something with intrinsic value in the absence of a good reason for doing so. Does this mean that we could be entitled to stop someone from destroying something on her own property if she owned it? If so, this would clearly have significant implications for the way we think about our relationship with our property.

I think that we would have to start by pointing out that if someone were going to wastefully destroy an object with significant intrinsic value, she could probably sell it to someone else, or a group of people, who would clearly value it more than her. In his essay, "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values: A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism," Mark Pennington wrote, "...a case surely can be made that it is precisely for the ends that people value most highly that they should be required to make a personal sacrifice, including perhaps a material sacrifice." I think this makes some sense.

And if the object's owners were prepared to forgo such payment in order to see the object destroyed, then it seems clear that we would want to say that she had a reasonably strong interest in destroying the object, and that this could very well constitute the kind of "good reason" which would make legitimate the destruction of an intrinsically valuable object.

But what if transactions costs prevented the person from selling the object? Perhaps the object was extremely valuable, but it would simply be unfeasible to coordinate a trade? Would the owner be doing something wrong to destroy it? It seems that in this case, we would need to come up with a relatively good reason for overriding the property rights of the owner; if she rightfully owned the object, then we would generally want to say that the ownership rights included the right to destroy the object. This seems most obvious if we say that the owner created the intrinsic value in an object. Given that the value was "put into" the object by the owner, it seems that she would have every right to destroy that value.

However, I think that this intuition becomes slightly less clear if we suppose that the intrinsic value was a natural feature of the object. I don't think that this unclarity reflects that we don't believe that property rights should be respected. Rather, I think it is a consequence of an inadequate understanding the second issue that I wanted to touch on, which asks what kinds of things we can justly appropriate, and what that appropriation entails.

If you somehow come to own the Grand Canyon, and then you decide that you want to destroy it (for no good reason), I think that other people would be right to object. But this is not because you shouldn't have a right to do what you want with your property. I think it's more because people would object to the idea of you could justly be said to own something like the Grand Canyon. It just seems like something that a person couldn't fairly appropriate for themselves.

And I think that on some level, that sounds right. Objects with significant natural intrinsic value do seem to belong to all of us; it simply wouldn't be right for someone to declare himself the exclusive owner, with the right to destroy the object if he chose. But if we take to its logical end, then we not only restrict the appropriation of the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, but also the appropriation of a beautiful forest or scenic beach front.

I think that there is some intuitive strength to the idea that individuals should not be able to simply take such natural wonders for themselves, excluding others from accessing them. This idea seems grounded in the notion of Pareto improvement. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick writes, "It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, oif the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object's coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previously they were at use the object, they now no longer are." While this is a problem for all acts of appropriation, it seems especially significant when we are able to say that without any human improvement, an object naturally has the capacity to inspire strong positive reactions in people. Why should one person be allowed to appropriate all the benefits from these natural objects for themselves?

But it's not as if privatization can't be Pareto improving. I don't want to say more about this just now, because I haven't thought it out enough. But I want to appeal to the idea that human stewardship can augment the intrinsic value in natural objects, and make them more accessible and beneficial to the people who would have enjoyed them in their natural state. For example, creating hiking trails and camping areas on a beautiful mountain can enable more people to enjoy their beauty. However, I want to take into account some important objections raised by G. A. Cohen, which I'll get into some other time. For now, I'm just going to leave this as an unfinished project.

No comments:

Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Libertarian Blogs Add to Technorati Favorites Back to the Drawing Board - Blogged
"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."