That’s my bowl of turtle soup
March 28, 2013 § 16 Comments
A recent discussion got me thinking about how prescinding from claims about the origin of a thing is often represented as undermining a claim about the essence of a thing. In other words, the idea is that if we can’t clear up controversy about how a thing came to be, that undermines our claims about what it is now.
This is an example of the genetic fallacy.
The discussion in question was about property and ownership. I’ve been very critical of libertarian conceptions of property rights in the past, and remain so today. But just because liberalism misapprehends the nature of property, it doesn’t follow that property is arbitrary, or is a creation of the sovereign. The relation between owner and property is a part of the natural law, prior to any government:
For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. […] The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from the law of man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. — Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum
… and …
That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,” and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity.” Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. – Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno
Ownership is an example of a kind of authority, and I would suggest that modern concepts of authority tend to totalize will and eliminate nature. “Ownership” thus means either libertarian individual demi-godhood over specific material things or it means socialist government (sovereign) demi-godhood over material things.
Part of what gives this totalizing-eliminative view its apparent force is appeals to origins:
I am trying to imagine how, just exactly how, you came to own a piece of land. Did you make the land? Dig it up out of the river or the ocean? If so, well then maybe it really is “yours”. But no, you (with 99.99% probability) bought it. From whom? Oh, from some other guy who made, invented this land? No. He got it from someone else and so on. A sovereign entity once granted squatting rights on this land, and since he was sovereign no one challenged him.
The “turtles all the way down” approach here is thought to cast doubt upon Church doctrine that private property ownership precedes the sovereign, as opposed to following the sovereign as a creation of the sovereign will. But what that indicates to me is a problem with the reasoning process which produced the approach, not a problem with the reality of ownership as a legitimate authority which – like fatherhood – precedes the State.
At the present time we have no idea how (for example) single-celled organisms came to be in general; and we certainly can’t give a specific account of precisely how a specific randomly chosen bacterium came to be. It does not follow that therefore single-celled organisms don’t exist, and that our knowledge of their properties is in doubt. For any real thing we can play the curious child’s game of asking where it came from, repeating the question for each answer given, on into infinite regress, until we hit the wall of silence. But in general, lack of a definitive and comprehensive account of the specific origin of a specific thing doesn’t cast doubt upon our knowledge of the nature of that thing.
Turtle regression doesn’t cast any more doubt upon private property ownership – as an authority which legitimately precedes the authority of the State – than Zeno’s Paradox cast’s doubt upon our ability to cross all the way to the other side of the room.
Standard disclaimer: When I swipe commenters’ words as a springboard for discussing ideas I am not attempting to paraphrase the views of commenters. The fairest authority on the views of any commenter is the commenter himself; followed by his own words in the original context.