Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 17, Respect of Property

PROPERTY IS AN IMPORTANT but not absolute right in Mercier's view. "Property, as synonymous with ownership, is the right to use and dispose of an animal or thing for a legitimate end without the interference of any other person." [279(82)] Mercier distinguishes between use and disposal, and is critical, from the perspective of natural law, of a notion of a right of absolute disposal of property. Essentially (at least in Mercier's time, it is certainly less true now), the positive law does not enforce, though it does not necessarily deny, the moral restrictions that may govern an individual's particular disposal of property. In some cases, restricting the disposition of property so as to conform to moral requirements would give rise to worse abuses. Yet here, as in many cases, "certain acts which the positive law refuses to punish may still be infringements of the moral law." [280(83)]

Two factors can limit the right to private property from a moral point of view. The first is the nature of the goods that are committed to our particular dominion. The second arises from our own nature as a rational and social being.

Private property is to be understood as existing under the design of divine Providence. Destruction of property out of mere caprice, with no purpose in view of oneself or others, disregards such aspect of property ownership. The abuse or poor treatment of animals, the infliction of unnecessary suffering, falls under that same limitation. Similarly, to use property to gratify illicit desires is an immoral use of property.

Because man is by nature a rational and social being, property ought not to be used in a way that contradicts those aspects of his nature. Thus, property use or disposition cannot be purely based on selfish motives. But this prohibition does mean that the only proper use of property is social.
Since the individual has a his personal life to consider, he can aim at furthering his own development and his own happiness by the disposal of his goods; only he must never forget that he is a social being as well. . . . If he possesses a superfluity, he will share with those who are in want of the bare necessaries of life.
[280-81(84)] This principle may also be used with respect to celebrity. One who enjoys the fruits of celebrity is to use his celebrity not to further his selfish whims, but is to recall that he must use that celebrity to exercise positive moral influence on others. It is not to be used as a platform for scandal or bad example.

Mercier explains the source or basis of the right to private property. Various theories have been advanced to explain its basis. Some base the right on mere convention (social contract) or positive law (e.g., Hobbes, Montesquieu). Others base it by extending it or tying it to the right of each man to the fruits of his labor (e.g., Locke, Adam Smith). Mercier rejects these theories as insufficient or self-defeating. With respect to the social contract theory of ownership, Mercier observes:
Men could never have set out to divide goods [by compact], if they had not previously the right to dispose of them, that is to say, the right of ownership . . . . Ownership must therefore logically precede the social compact.
[281(85)] The Lockean justification for private property is probably the most widely accepted contemporaneously. Mercier rejects its sufficiency as an explanatory basis for right to property:
[L]abour is not the foundation of ownership; it is an exercise of it and presupposes the general right to dispose of the goods of the earth. I cannot claim to transform anything by my labour if I do not first of all possess the right of making it serve my purpose, that is, the right of disposing it.
[282(86)] How can we claim the crops we, through our labor, have grown, if we do not first have the property right to land and the the fruit of our labor? Basing private ownership on labor begs the question.

Mercier finds the right to property to be based upon human nature.
The earth and its wealth were made for the use of man. . . . Man has the right to use and to dispose of things and of animals, because, as we have already said, he is a person. As such he has the [natural] right both to provide for his own preservation and to make use of his natural powers. Hence he may establish his dominion over things, since this is a necessary condition both for his existence and for his development. And it is clear that this dominion must not only look to the satisfaction of his present needs . . . . As a rational and free being capable of foreseeing the future and of restraining his appetites . . . he acts in conformity with his nature when he regulates his conduct with a view to his future needs. As the head of a family he is bound to some extent to provide for the future of those whom Providence has entrusted to his care.
[283(87)] However, this natural right to property may be exercised either privately or communally, for the justification of property may be viewed from either individual or communal perspective. Mercier believes that "what is due to man by virtue of his humanity does not belong simply to the race as a whole but to each individual member of it." As a result individual ownership is a legitimate expression of the natural right to property. Against this view is the communist and the collectivist (socialist) notion of property, which would deny the individual, at least to great extent, the individual right to property. Mercier engages the standard arguments brought by communist and collectivist theories of property, and disposes of them. He also addresses the typical objections to private property and capitalism, and offers responses or counterarguments against them. These will not be reviewed here. [284(89)-306(93)]

In the last three sections of his treatment of the right to property, Mercier discusses the various titles to property (by occupancy, by prescription) [307(94)-311(95)], the (natural) right to make a will [311-14(96)], and the (natural) right to inheritance [314-15(97)].

Mercier next addresses the rights of members of the family, a matter we will reserve for our next blog posting.

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