Book 8, Chapter 01 : Preliminary Observations

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Book 8, Chapter 01




Importance of this topic. - Plan for its dis-
cussion. - Definition. Subject of the present 
chapter.- of the next. - Principle of decision 
stated. - Rights of man. - Superfluities appre-
ciated- Love of distinction. - Direction, which,
this passion is capable of receiving. - Of merit
and  reward. - System of popular morality on 
this subject. - Its defects.

THE subject of property is the key-stone that completes the fabric, of political justice. According as our ideas respecting it are crude or correct, they will enlighten us as to the consequences of a simple form of society without government, and remove the prejudices that attach us to complexity. There is nothing that more powerfully tends to distort our judgment and opinions than erroneous notions concerning the goods of fortune. Finally, the period that must put an end to the system of coercion and punishment is ultimately connected with the circumstance of property's being placed upon an equitable basis.

Various abuses of the most incontrovertible nature have insinuated themselves into the administration of property. Each of these abuses might usefully be made the subject of a separate investigation. We might inquire into the vexations of this sort that are produced by the dreams of national greatness, and the sumptuousness of public offices and magistrates. This would lead us to a just estimate of the different kinds of taxation, landed or mercantile, having the necessaries or the luxuries of life for their subject of operation. We might examine into the abuses which have adhered to the commercial system; monopolies, charters, patents, protecting duties, prohibitions and bounties. We might consider the claims of the church: first fruits and tithes. All these disquisitions would tend to show the incalculable importance of this subject. But, excluding them all from the present inquiry, it shall be the business of what remains of this work to examine the subject in its most general principles, and by that means endeavor to discover the source, not only of the abuses above enumerated, but of others of innumerable kinds, too multifarious and subtle to enter into so brief a catalog.

The subject to which the doctrine of property relates is all those things which conduce, or may be conceived to conduce, to the benefit or pleasure of man, and which can no otherwise be applied to the use of one or more persons than by a permanent or temporary exclusion of the rest of the species. Such things in particular are food, clothing, habitation and furniture.

Upon this subject two questions unavoidably arise. Who is the person entitled to the use of any particular article of this kind? Who is the person in whose hands the preservation and distribution of any number of these articles will be most justly and beneficially vested?

The answer to the first of these questions is easy upon the principles of the present work. Justice has been proved to be a rule applicable to all the concerns of man. It pronounces upon every case that can arise, and leaves nothing to the disposal of a momentary caprice.1 There is not an article of the kinds above specified which will not ultimately be the instrument of more benefit and happiness in one individual mode of application than in any other than can be devised. This is the application it ought to receive.

We are here led to the consideration of that species of rights which was designedly postponed in an earlier division of this work,2 Every man has a right to that, the exclusive possession of which being awarded to him, a greater sum of benefit or pleasure will result than could have arisen from its being otherwise appropriated. This is the same principle as that just delivered, with a slight variation of form. If man have a right to anything, he has a right to justice. These terms, as they have ordinarily been used in moral inquiry, are, strictly and properly speaking, convertible terms.

Let us see how this principle will operate in the inferences it authorizes us to make. Human beings are partakers of a common nature; what conduces to the benefit or pleasure of one man will conduce to the benefit or pleasure of another.3 Hence it follows, upon the principles of equal and impartial justice, that the good things of the world are a common stock, upon which one man has as valid a title as another to draw for what he wants. It appears in this respect, as formerly it appeared in the case of our claim to the forbearance of each other,4 that each man has a sphere the limit and termination of which is marked out by the equal sphere of his neighbor. I have a right to the means of subsistence; he has an equal right. I have a right to every pleasure I can participate without injury to myself or others; his title in this respect is of similar extent.

This view of the subject will appear the more striking if we pass in review the good things of the world. They may be divided into four classes; subsistence; the means of intellectual and moral improvement; inexpensive gratifications; and such gratifications as are by no means essential to healthful and vigorous existence, and cannot be purchased but with considerable labor and industry. It is the last class principally that interposes an obstacle in the way of equal distribution. It will be matter of after-consideration how far and how many articles of this class would be admissible into the purest mode of social existence.5 But, in the meantime, it is unavoidable to remark the inferiority of this class to the three preceding. Without it we may enjoy to a great extent activity, contentment and cheerfulness. And in what manner are these seeming superfluities usually procured? By abridging multitudes of men to a deplorable degree in points of essential moment, that one man may be accommodated, with sumptuous yet, strictly considered, insignificant luxuries. Supposing the alternative could fairly be brought home to a man, and it could depend upon his instant decision, by the sacrifice of these to give to five hundred of his fellow beings leisure, independence, conscious dignity, and whatever can refine and enlarge the human understanding, it is difficult to conceive him to hesitate. But, though this alternative cannot be produced in the case of an individual, it will perhaps be found to be the true alternative, when taken at once in reference to the species.

To the forming a just estimate of costly gratifications, it is necessary that we should abstract the direct pleasure, on the one hand, from the pleasure they afford us only as instruments for satisfying our love of distinction. It must be admitted in every system of morality not tainted with monastic prejudices, but adapted to the nature of intelligent beings, that, so far as relates to ourselves, and leaving our connection with the species out of the consideration, we ought not to refuse any pleasure, except as it tends to the exclusion of some greater pleasure.6 But it has already been shown7 that the difference in the pleasures of the palate, between a simple and wholesome diet on the one hand, and all the complexities of the most splendid table on the other, is so small that few men would even think it worth the tedium that attends upon a change of services, if the pleasure of the palate were the only thing in question, and they had no spectator to admire their magnificence. "He who should form himself, with the greatest care, upon a system of solitary sensualism, would probably come at last to a decision not different from that which Epicurus is said to have adopted in favor of fresh herbs, and water from the spring."8 The same observation applies to the splendor of furniture, equipage and dress. So far as relates to the gratification of the eye, this pleasure may be reaped, with less trouble, and in greater refinement, from the beauties which nature exhibits to our observation. No man, if the direct pleasure were the only thing in consideration, would think the difference to himself worth purchasing by the oppression of multitudes.

But these things, though trivial in themselves, are highly prized, from that love of distinction which is characteristic of every human mind. The creditable artisan or tradesman exerts a certain species of industry to supply his immediate wants. But these are soon supplied. The rest is exerted that he may wear a better coat, that he may clothe his wife with gay attire, that he may have not merely a shelter, but a handsome habitation, not merely bread and flesh to eat, but that he may set it out with suitable decorum. How many of these things would engage his attention if he lived in a desert island, and had no spectator of his economy? If we survey the appendages of our persons, there is scarcely an article that is not in some respect an appeal to the good will of our neighhours, or a refuge against their contempt. It is for this that the merchant braves the perils of the ocean, and the mechanical inventor brings forth the treasures of his meditation. The soldier advances even to the cannon's mouth, and the statesman exposes himself to the rage of an indignant people, because he cannot bear to pass through life without distinction and esteem. Exclusively of certain higher motives which will hereafter be mentioned,9 this is the purpose of all the great exertions of mankind. The man who has nothing to provide for but his animal wants scarcely ever shakes off the lethargy of his mind; but the love of honor hurries us on to the most incredible achievements.

It must be admitted indeed that the love of distinction appears, from experience and the past history of mankind to have been their ruling passion. But the love of distinction is capable of different directions. At present, there is no more certain road to the general deference of mankind than the exhibition of wealth. The poet, the wit, the orator, the savior of his country, and the ornament of his species may upon certain occasions be treated with neglect and biting contempt; but the man who possesses and disburses money in profusion can scarcely fail to procure the attendance of the obsequious man and the flatterer. But let us conceive this erroneous and pernicious estimate of things to be reversed. Let us suppose the avaricious man, who is desirous of monopolizing the means of happiness, and the luxurious man, who expends without limitation, in pampering his appetities, that which, in strict justice, is the right of another, to be contemplated with as much disapprobation as they are now beheld by a mistaken world with deference and respect. Let us imagine the direct and unambiguous road to public esteem to be the acquisition of talent, or the practice of virtue, the cultivation of some species of ingenuity, or the display of some generous and expansive sentiment; and that the persons who possess these talents were as conspicuously treated with affection and esteem as the wealthy are now treated with slavish attention. This is merely, in other words, to suppose good sense, and clear and correct perceptions, at some time to gain the ascendancy in the world. But it is plain that, under the reign of such sentiments the allurements that now wait upon costly gratification would be, for the most part, annihilated. If, through the spurious and incidental recommendations it derives from the love of distinction, it is now rendered, to many, a principal source of agreeable sensation, under a different state of opinion, it would not merely be reduced to its intrinsic value in point of sensation, but in addition to this, would be connected with ideas of injustice, unpopularity and dislike. So small is the space which costly gratifications are calculated unalterably to fill in the catalog of human happiness.

It has sometimes been alleged, as an argument against the equal rights of men in the point of which we are treating, "that the merits of men a different, and ought to be differently rewarded." But it may be questioned whether this proposition, though true, can with any show of plausibility be applied to the present subject. Reasons have been already suggested to prove that positive institutions do not afford the best means for rewarding virtue, and that human excellence will be more effectually forwarded by those encouragements which inevitably arise from the system of the universe.10 But, exclusively of this consideration, let us recollect, upon the grounds of what has just been stated, what sort of reward is thus proposed to exertion. "If you show yourself deserving, you shall have the essence of a hundred times more food than you can eat, and a hundred times more clothes than you can wear. You shall have a patent for taking away from others the means of a happy and respectable existence, and for consuming them in riotous and unmeaning extravagance." Is this the reward that ought to be offered to virtue, or that virtue should stoop to take?

The doctrine of the injustice of accumulated property has been the foundation of all religious morality. Its most energetic teachers have been irresistibly led to assert the precise truth in this respect. They have taught the rich that they hold their wealth only as a trust, that they are strictly accountable for every atom of their expenditure, that they are merely administrators, and by no means proprietors in chief.11 But, while religion thus inculcated on mankind the pure principles of justice, the majority of its prosessors have been but too apt to treat the practice of justice, not as a debt, which it ought to be considered, but as an affair of spontaneous generosity and bounty.

The effect which is produced by this accommodating doctrine is to place the supply of our wants in the disposal of a few, enabling them to make a show of generosity with what is not truly their own, and to purchase the submission of the poor by the payment of a debt. Theirs is a system of clemency and charity, instead of a system of justice. It fills the rich with unreasonable pride, by the spurious denominations with which it decorates their acts; and the poor with servility, by leading them to regard the slender comforts they obtain, not as their incontrovertible due, but as the good pleasure and grace of their opulent neighbors.


1Book 11, Chap. 11.
2Book II, Chap. V, p.199.
3Book III, Chap. 111, p. 183.
4Book II, Chap. V, p. 198.
5Chap. VII.
6Book IV, Chap. XI, P. 391.
7Book I, Chap. V, pp. 129, 130.
8Book 1, Chap. V, pp. 129, 130.
9Chap. VI.
10Book V, Chap. XII; Book VI, Chap. I.
11Mark, ch. x, ver. 21: Acts, ch. ii, ver. 44, 45. See also Swift's Sermon on Mutual Subjection.

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