Property’s properties

August 27, 2013 § 7 Comments

Property is an authority that we, as proprietors, hold over other human beings.  Authority, in turn, is a capacity to create specific moral obligations that others are morally required to carry out.  As with all legitimate forms of authority, compliance with a proprietor’s authority is both mandatory and voluntary.

The authority we call “property” is frequently defined and thought of in relation to non-human things (houses, cars, land, stock certificates, contracts); but in its fundamental essence property represents legitimate moral obligations on the part of other human beings which we, as proprietors, can impose through our choices.

There are two general kinds of persons over whom a proprietor can impose obligations.  Firstly and most obviously he can impose obligations over other persons generally: e.g. the land owner can impose obligations not to trespass.  Secondly, the proprietor can impose obligations over the sovereign: one of the responsibilities of government is to prevent theft and trespass[1], and to carry out justice when theft or trespass has occurred.  So a proprietor imposes an obligation on the sovereign to enforce his choices in particular cases, when the choices the proprietor makes are morally good choices.

One thing a proprietor can never do, though (it is literally impossible for him to do this), is impose an obligation to do evil on another human being. That includes the sovereign.


[1] Theft (distinguished from trespass) I understand to be an unjust violation of a proprietor’s authority in a way which permanently (until restoration of the property, if restoration is possible) alienates the proprietor’s authority.

More on commitments and explicit qualifiers

June 16, 2013 § 12 Comments

A number of practical things follow from the fact that all explicit commitments, by logical necessity, have implicit qualifiers: that, more specifically, it is logically impossible to make a good-faith promise to do evil.

Promises made in good faith literally cannot bind us morally when circumstances obtain such that (superficially) keeping the promise involves doing evil.  The positivistic attitude about things like confidentiality agreements asserts something like “don’t commit to confidentiality unless you are willing to keep the secrets no matter what“.  But positivism is false: it is literally nonsensical to propose that one has a moral obligation to do something immoral, and in some circumstances it is immoral to keep secrets.  No human commitment to something like confidentiality can be understood to be morally binding in all conceivable circumstances: because positivism is false it is literally impossible to make a morally binding commitment in a prudential matter which completely covers all possible circumstances.

(Positivism, remember, involves a simultaneous insistence on consistency and completeness in some finite text; and positivism, while intuitively appealing to moderns, is literally and even provably irrational.  Completeness and consistency in meaning are like momentum and position in quantum mechanics: the more you insist on one, the less you get of the other).

And that’s why, no matter what confidentiality agreements that institutions and leaders require people to sign, the moral burden remains on the institutions and leaders to avoid asking people to do evil.  If you are asking someone to do evil he can refuse with a perfectly clean conscience, no matter what ostensible agreements have been signed.  It is possible that it may have been morally wrong for him to sign an agreement in the first place[1], of course, depending on the actual agreement; but two wrongs don’t make a right, and he faces no moral dilemma whatsoever when you ask him to do evil.

Someone who refuses to do evil – either by omission or commission – has not violated any morally binding agreement, by definition.   One never does moral wrong by refusing to do evil under the rubric of some ostensible explicit agreement.  It is the sovereign or other authority who abuses a good faith agreement when he attempts to coerce someone to do evil.


[1] Usually it is fine to sign an agreement which does not make all possible exceptions explicit; because that is true of pretty much all written or verbal agreements in a non-positivistic world, which is to say, in reality.  Every single explicit agreement in actual reality – reality with the non-positivistic nature of our reality – has implicit qualifiers.

On keeping commitments

June 14, 2013 § 6 Comments

Every single good faith commitment to do X carries with it the qualifier “to the extent that X is morally licit in the particular circumstances.” A commitment creates a moral obligation; but a moral obligation to do evil is self contradictory. It is therefore literally impossible to make a morally binding commitment to do evil.

Imperfect contrition and marriage, or, why positivists don’t have to go to Hell

May 21, 2013 § 11 Comments

A common sentiment I’ve seen expressed shows up in the comments of Dalrock’s guest post at the Orthosphere:

Thus, in effect with the advent of no-fault divorce, marriage has effectively ceased to exist, one’s marital contract is simply an illusionary contract, not a real contract at all. Thus when marital obligations gets subverted by “feelings” or “wants”, etc, it ceases to be an obligation, and thereby ceases to be a marriage in the first place. A promise to do something with the clause that, “provided I feel like it”, is not a promise at all, it is an illusionary promise.

This can only make sense if we take marriage – or consensual commitments more generally, for that matter – to be things which come into existence based on State enforcement.  This can only make sense if we are incapable of distinguishing between the actuality of a commitment and the enforcement of that commitment by some external authority.  This can only make sense if we have no concept of actual morality at all: if moral obligation is not deontologically objective reality, but rather is merely a matter of the selfish avoidance of personal negative consequences: in short, if the only reason to do good and avoid evil is to escape punishment by the State.

A promise which is broken doesn’t cease to exist as a moral object.  Nor do the eternal consequences of breaking it.  Whether that promise is or is not enforced by some earthly authority or other is just a side show: a given authority’s failure to enforce may represent the self-destruction of that authority; but it cannot, in any way, affect the existential reality of the promise.

In Catholic moral theology we have the concept of imperfect contrition: that is, being sorry for sin out of a fear of punishment.  Fortunately, when combined with a valid Sacramental Confession, imperfect contrition is sufficient for forgiveness.  Christ is truly just that merciful, that generous in the Sacramental graces offered to anyone and everyone who approaches the successors of the Apostles to have their sins sacramentally forgiven, the only condition being imperfect contrition and a firm purpose of amendment.  (Those who need to receive Christ’s forgiveness outside of the Sacrament of Confession, such as our Protestant brothers and sisters, require perfect contrition — a digression for another day).

But government edicts, actions, and inactions are not Sacraments.  King Henry cannot – literally cannot – unmake his marriage, assuming its validity at the time it was contracted, in an act of sovereign Will.

Those prophets of postmodernity, Soul Asylum, once lamented:

Trying to do the right thing, play it straight. The right thing changes from state to state.

People with the understanding that obligation literally doesn’t exist without State enforcement are bound to think that way.  But back here in reality, any marriage which can be unmade by the will of the State is not true marriage.  It was never true marriage in the first place.

Where is Danny DeVito when you need him?

March 27, 2013 § 86 Comments

Suppose I am the manager of a large investment fund, ZipFund.  I have a little of my own personal money in ZipFund; but the vast majority of it is investments from small Mom and Pop investors.

Suppose my fund had invested in Cyprus Corp a few years ago by buying interest-bearing bonds.  We’ll call these Zip bonds.

Cyprus Corp has other bond investors.  Many of them are small investors like the majority of investors in ZipFund: we’ll call their Cyprus bonds Mom-n-Pop bonds.  There are also some larger Cyprus investors who bought FatCat bonds.  Mom-n-Pop bonds are senior to FatCat bonds: they are insured by the company, so they get redeemed at face value before the uninsured FatCat bonds are entitled to any proceeds.

Cyprus Corp is in big financial trouble, and the board of directors has been replaced by a judge.  The new board has a fiduciary duty to make the best possible financial choice for existing Cyprus bondholders, and complete authority to make decisions.  The company is about to go belly up if it doesn’t get an infusion of cash, which will make Zip, Mom-n-Pop, and FatCat bonds all virtually worthless.

The ZipFund partnership has voted to allow a deal to provide that additional cash, buying WhiteKnight bonds from Cyprus, as long as in doing so the value of Zip bonds is preserved going forward.  Our goal is not as much to make a profit as it is to minimize losses on the capital we have already invested.

I offer the Cyprus board of directors a deal, and after shopping around a bit ZipFund is the only offer of new cash they get.  Our deal preserves the value of both Zip bonds and Mom-n-Pop bonds.  FatCat bonds are required to take a 40% haircut.

New cash from the deal would immediately change the viability of Cyprus going forward.  It might not create overall value; but the board thinks it has a good chance of preventing wholesale value destruction.  If they don’t do my deal, any Cyprus bondholders will be lucky to get pennies on the dollar and the uninsured FatCats will most likely get nothing at all.

If the Cyprus board accepts the deal, has anyone done moral wrong?

There are no time machines

March 8, 2013 § 5 Comments

It seems that many people think that the difference between a contract and a covenant is that a contract is reversible by mutual consent.

This view is mistaken.  It is true that some contracts are reversible by mutual consent.  But the vast majority of them are not.  Most of them reach a point of consummation, after which they are no longer reversible.

Once the meal has been eaten, it has been eaten.

Pope condemns covenant marriage movement

March 6, 2013 § 19 Comments

Let no one, then, be deceived by the distinction which some civil jurists have so strongly insisted upon – the distinction, namely, by virtue of which they sever the matrimonial contract from the sacrament, with intent to hand over the contract to the power and will of the rulers of the State, while reserving questions concerning the sacrament to the Church. A distinction, or rather severance, of this kind cannot be approved; for certain it is that in Christian marriage the contract is inseparable from the sacrament, and that, for this reason, the contract cannot be true and legitimate without being a sacrament as well. For Christ our Lord added to marriage the dignity of a sacrament; but marriage is the contract itself, whenever that contract is lawfully concluded. – Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapentiae


I had it in my head that the covenant marriage movement was all about separating the legal and sacramental parts of marriage, leaving the former to the state and the latter to the Church.  Upon reading the wikipedia page though I’ve concluded that I probably had a wrong impression, which makes my post title rather nonsensical and probably unfair.  I’ll leave it there for the record though.

If you don’t see what I am saying, check your contract lenses

February 9, 2013 § 39 Comments

Some folks[1] seem to be under the impression that contracts are rarified highly formal agreements which occur in the presence of lawyers and detailed written stipulations.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Contracts are ubiquitous in all human societies.

Any time one human being makes an offer, another human being accepts the offer, and consideration – something of value – is exchanged, that is a contract.  When you go to the grocery store you enter into, not one contract, but a contract for each and every individual item you purchase.  The selling company offers you a product at a price; you accept the offer; consideration (money and product) are exchanged.

Contracts are not limited to monetary consideration.  Any consideration at all will do.[2]

Now it is true that many trivial contracts never make it to the sovereign for adjudication, when there is a dispute.  Sometimes people work things out for themselves.  Sometimes the wronged party decides that it isn’t worth pursuing justice over a small matter.  Sometimes a whole genre of ‘reality TV’ is spawned based on resolving trivial contracts.  But the fact that many trivial contracts are not adjudicated by the sovereign – because the parties decide not to petition the sovereign – doesn’t mean that they are not contracts.

Steve Nicoloso was kind enough to distill the essence of the “get the government out of the marriage business” position to this:

 I want contracts enforced. Period. Full stop. All of them. By the letter. Enforce, enforce, enforce! Whether its called a “marriage” or a “pumpernickel”…, I want it enforced.

Take away the fig leaf. Just let the government enforce contracts. It would be great if they enforced marriage qua marriage. But if they’re not going to do that, then at least they can enforce contracts qua contracts.

The problem with this is that marriage qua marriage is (among other things) a contract.  If two people exchanging gum for a nickel is a contract – and it is – then marriage is certainly a contract.  It is not possible for government to be in the business of enforcing all contracts while at the same time not being in the business of marriage qua marriage.

I should say that the fact that I highlight the precise area where (in my view) disagreement arises does not imply disagreement in other areas.  I appreciate Steve and other commenters taking the time to engage with the issue, a great deal of what he says (and they say) on the subject is valuable and true, and his comments are well worth reading.


[1] Other recent posts on the subject of advocating “getting the government out of the marriage business” are Marriage and the death of reason, All the king’s horses and all the king’s marriages, What if only usurers could marry?, and What not to do about tyranny.

[2] Commenter ‘Our Heroine’ and I had an exchange over whether baptism is a contract in this thread.  Qua covenant with God, baptism is not a contract.   The Sanhedrin may have gotten away with taking God to court, but that isn’t something we can do.  But there may be contracts ancillary to baptism which give rise to some tort action, and in any event the point is that contracts are ubiquitous and adjudicating them is part of the very essence of governance, in all societies.  That is why disavowing governance becomes the other ‘bookend’ in this disputation.

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