Good to Coöperate: Property

I happened upon an entry in Current Anthropology: Is It Good to Cooperate? [PDF] (Volume 60, Number 1, February 2019), wherein the authors claim there are 7 universal moral codes. The universality is suspect insomuch as they found a preponderance of observations, so unanimity was not always found. I am also concerned with the specificity of the definition of property.

The group studied ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, across over 600 sources. The universal rules of morality are:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favours
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

It’s well past my bedtime, and I should be sleeping, so I just want to pick out one of these universals: property rights.

La propriété, c’est le vol!


Property can mean several things: In the description of methodology, it appears that these authors are referring to property rather than possession, as a key identifier is the ability to transfer property intergenerationally. What is the scope of the definition of property. There is a difference between passing along a family home and passing along vacant property a world away. Is rent-seeking property ownership universal? Would all societies subscribe to the notion held by Western Capitalism, wherein one can own property that, theoretically, one may never have seen? In the United States, they have concepts like intellectual property, which is at best a subversion of the notion.

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There may be a problem with reading (or at least posting) at 2AM—and property is a hot button item for me. I may have been hyper-focused on the intergenerational wealth transfer. I’d like to read more about how other societies view this as well as which ones do and don’t. Of course, I’d like to understand how the interviewers couched the questions.

In the end, the summary was about possession and not property:

Private property, in some form or other, appears to be a cross-cultural universal (Herskovits 1952). Morality-as-cooperation leads us to expect that this type of cooperative behavior—deferring to prior possession—will be regarded as morally good .

Op. cit.

As an anti-Capitalist, I notice that no claims are being made into the morality of competition. I may may a few posts on my observations of the remaining 6 list items.


What Still Remains

I haven’t done any film reviews, and I’m not about to start now. I’ve just watched What Still Remains on Netflix.

People become their own kind of monster.

What Still Remains Film Trailer

This is decent post-apocalyptic fare, some catalyst, societies, competing factions, good versus evil, at least in the eyes of the devout. But that’s not what I am going to be writing about.

What still remains contains good writing and strong character development. It does over-employ tropes, but this seems to be the norm these days: modular writing; rearranging the Lego pieces to make something that appears fresh. So what do I have to say?

Spoiler Alert: Proceed with caution…

This is a perfect depiction of the problems with property rights and social contract theory. There are apparently 3 factions—4 if you count independents.


Initially, there were the Changed, never seen on screen and perhaps not even contemporaneous to the current period, though they may reside in the unseen cities. Anna, the protagonist, and her family are among the independent. Peter, a preacher from the ordained, holier than thou faction. In the realm of ‘if you’re not with me (and our God), you’re against me, thence evil’, they are the arbiters of all that is good. And then there are the Berserkers, as named by the Ordained. To the Ordained, Berserkers aspire to be Changed, but the Berserkers view themselves more along the line of Spartans: Pain is good.


All scenes are shot in the wilderness, but the various factions have staked property claims with wide perimeters. The penalty for trespass appears to usually involve death of the offending party—or at least a hefty fee. This is Hobbes’ ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ life outside of society quip, though he didn’t exactly account for a class of societies despite this being common in his day.


So, these factions don’t actually have property rights; what they have is a notion of property, and they defend it with violence, as is a necessary condition for all property. In so-called modern societies, the violence is obfuscated much in the same manner that supermarkets obscure the carnage behind the meat. It’s still there; it’s just at arm’s length. Violate one of these ‘rights’, and you’ll see the violence inherent in the system.

And then there’s social contract theory—or the gaping flaw in the logic. Anna is an independent, but one can only be as independent as the ability to defend their independence. It’s sort of like contract law. If you can afford to defend a contract, you are entitled to having it enforced.

Redact intellectual property rant.

Anna doesn’t particularly want to belong to either faction, who have divided their world into two pieces in the same manner that, say, Britain and Scotland might have. If you happen to be born there through some loin lottery, you pretty much have to choose a side. Given Sartre’s no excuses policy, you can choose neither; it just won’t bode well for you. You’ve got no real choice.

Social Choice Theory

In Anna’s eyes, upon the death of her mother and brother, she is persuaded with reluctance to return with Peter to his community, a God-fearing bunch. Her mum had indoctrinated her into this cult of God through bible readings, so she was primed for the eventuality. Some independent interlopers attempted to block their return journey by claiming trespass, so Peter summarily offed them rather than paying their ransom—a fee Anna has been willing to tender.

When the two finally reached the sanctuary, Anna quickly realised that she had no say in the matter: she was either a (good) member or (an evil) dead. To reiterate, this is an underlying problem with social contract theory. There is no exit clause.

Side Bar: Some have argued that the cost of coerced—though they’d never use this term—participation and compliance is owed to the greater good. There is no reason given why this is preferred or across which dimensions better is being assessed—or good for that matter—, so don’t ask. Long live Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill with a hat tip to David Hume.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau each approached social contracts from their own perspectives, but it may be interesting to note that each was a privileged white male of his day. Sure, Hobbes was a monarchist, and Rousseau was the Thoreau of his day, a nostalgist, but he like the others were beneficiaries of the status quo, save perhaps at the margins.

Anna thought she had sovereignty over her choices. In the end, the plot line prevailed, but then again, this was just a movie, so even her choices were scripted.

Calvin & Hobbes

On Property

We take property for granted. John Locke espoused life, liberty, and property. Rousseau observed that “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine”, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

But property and its defence is nothing more than some accepted rhetoric. Libertarians presume this to be some inviolable right, and Anarchists and Socialists believe that property—well, private property anyway; real property—is a common good.

I have an issue with ownership of real property, though I don’t have such a strong opinion on possession. In reality, this is more of a practical matter than a defensible philosophical position. It has emotivist roots. As Hobbes noted (or I’ll paraphrase liberally), even animals in his state of nature have possessions, but there is no right to these possessions (which belong to the monarch anyway in society); there is only the ability to try to retain ownership through force.

In practice, this is what society does. Insomuch as the force is more potential than kinetic, allowing the state or community to exercise this force by proxy, it is not dissimilar to our consumption of meat products at arm’s length by sheltering the violent reality by intermediary grocers.

And we shelter ourselves through language. We don’t eat cows and pigs, we eat beef and pork, chateaubriand and bacon.

Returning to property, real property, it’s yours as long as you possess it, but it is not yours from a distance, and it’s not yours to bequeath. If we are to embrace capitalism—which I don’t, but for the sake of argument—, we should allow the property to go to the purpose that will provide the greatest utility. History as a judge demonstrates that it is unlikely to happen to be the someone’s heirs.

Is Taxation Theft?

Philip Goff presents a strong argument published on Aeon as to why taxation is not theft, primarily because it is based on false assumptions about the morality of property ownership.

I have written a lot of short pieces addressing this question (the answer is always no). But this piece for Aeon magazine is the most extensive thing I’ve written so far, and goes into much more detail about the nature of ownership. I’m always amazed at how much this stuff angers people. I’ve been enjoying […]

via Is Taxation Theft? (and why the answer matters..) — Conscience and Consciousness


Neoclassical Morality


Episode 8 of The Moral Foundations of Politics with Ian Shapiro was another difficult lesson to watch—rather to listen to—the student responses. Evident is the degree of indoctrination or brainwashing these students have been through. I want to document some pieces I feel are relevant to my position.

  1. The fact that morality is perniciously imposed and infused on the unsuspecting
  2. The fact that property rights change over time
  3. The fact that legal interpretation changes over time

The responses were primarily knee-jerk responses anchored on institutional indoctrination. Whilst it makes sense to indoctrinate a group, I am opposed to imposing an obvious relative morality but passing it off as absolute.

Asking how prostitution could be illegal when sex and commerce are both legal, the responses—to be fair, only a couple people responded—were about how it might somehow ‘harms’ women or society as a sort of negative externality, be violent, have been coercive or a form of slavery, have involved a married or otherwise committed spouse, or have involved an under-aged person. These were poor man’s strawman arguments at best, each potentially with merit, but each a separate issue from the question.

In fact, we can likely find evidence of each of these in a ‘typical’ employment situation: coercion, under-age, a threat of violence, implied or expressed; the spousal issue doesn’t fit these situations, but even if we want to legislate keeping people safe from their own actions, it is as illegal for unmarried persons, so the rationale is insufficient.

The point I hold is that prostitution in and of itself is no more exploitative than any other source of employment, a source income. Given that Western society imposes income as the primary means to support one’s self, the wrong here is that artificial barrier. Were income not a veritable necessity, prostitution to earn money (or use as a barter) would also be unnecessary. This is not to say that the other aforementioned objections would be resolved; this because, as I mentioned, they are different issues.

Next, we are told that marital rape originally not considered a crime because a woman was considered to be chattel property transferred patriarchally from her father to her husband. As I’ve written previously, I do not subscribe to the notion of property in the first place, but taken that as given, it is obvious that property is determined through whimsy. Property rights change over time, whether receding as just noted or expanding to include intellectual property and the expanse of patentable ideas. It’s disconcerting that application of the law can be so arbitrary and, though perhaps not capricious, frivolous. And given it is all open to interpretation, the pendulum can swing in the other direction, as the women of Iran and other fundamentalist theocracies has experienced.

Apparently, I’m done ranting. Basic income has been mentioned as a solution to some prostitution, as some women participate out of desperation. Though I feel that this might kerb some prostitution, some women would still seek to supplement this base income, if only to advance their personal standard of living.