David Hume: On Property

Hume wrote that “it is well known that men’s happiness consists not so much in an abundance of [the commodities and enjoyments of life], as in the peace and security with which they possess them” (Essays 54-5). This, for Hume, was the purpose of government, and may well be one of the foundational thoughts concerning his notions of property. Property, to Hume, was not the metaphysical extension of self that Locke had argued, but was a conventional idea that arose out of society. When only a few people associate with each other in a simple relationship, then the concept of property – as a self-realizing concept – has no existence or purpose (i.e. utility). In a rather Aristotelian concept of man’s nature as a political being, Hume argues that men naturally form society – upon the foundation of families – and that the concepts of justice and property are only known through social utility. For Hume, justice and property are artificial and conventional ideas.

The Argument, Establishment, and Definition of Property

In the Treatise, Hume takes a rather Hobbesian approach to explain that man naturally struggles to obtain his wants and necessities (i.e. nature has “exercis’d more cruelty” towards man than any other animal, for, with the many things man requires to live, nature has provided “slender means” for him to secure these things (Treatise Man, therefore, forms society to better supply himself with his necessities and overcome the defects that would make this more difficult. Before man forms society, however, he must first become sensible of its advantages; indeed, man must realize the necessity of society to better secure the possessions that he has acquired through his industry (Treatise

Hume identifies three different “species of goods” that our passions lead us toward concerning out outward circumstances. First, we possess an “internal satisfaction of our mind” that we are “perfectly secure in the enjoyment of.” Secondly, we possess the “external advantages of our body” that may be “ravish’d from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them.” Finally, we possess the “enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquir’d by our industry and good fortune.” It is this third good of our passions that we are most in jeopardy of losing through violence and which can also be transferred without us “suffering any loss or alternation;” furthermore, this good, because of the “cruelty of nature,” is limited (instable) by the scarce resources that we must struggle to obtain (Treatise

Personal and social survival and happiness are universal human goals, and whatever fulfills these goals has utility. Through various habits and customs, societies will formalize various institutions separate and different from each other. These institutions will vary from one society to another, as one society perceives that a particular institution is better equipped at maximizing a particular utility. So adamant is Hume to this, that he appears in disbelief that anyone could see otherwise, for he asks “Who sees not, for instance, that whatever is produced or improved by a man’s art or industry ought, forever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments?” (EPM 3.2.28). For Hume, securing the individual’s property establishes habits that increase utility in society.

While nature has acted cruelly towards man, man should not, therefore, digress into “uncultivated nature” (Treatise, but, rather, should seek to establish limits within society to secure those possessions that one has taken within a state of scarcity. The protections and safeguard of these possessions are not an inherent formation of nature itself, but are conventional and artificial to each society as best as they can establish.

It is in this argument that we can implicitly see that Hume perceives property as both a natural and a conventional thing. Property (i.e. “Any thing, which it is lawful for [a man], and for [that man] alone, to use” (EPM 3.2.35).) is a natural thing in that man naturally acquires first possession of it out of a state of scarcity for his very sustenance and life. At the same time, however, Hume asks “what other reasons, indeed, could writers ever give, why this must be mine and that yours, since uninstructed nature, surely, never made such a claim?” (EPM 3.2.30). Nature itself has never defined property, so the concept that we have of property is also conventional and artificial. Although Hume appears to take a dualistic interpretation to nature, he most notably argues for the conventionality of both property and justice.

Locke on Property

For John Locke, property was not a matter of mere convention – it was an individual natural right. The law of nature, argued Locke, “gives us property,” but also places bounds upon that property too.  God has given all in abundance for our enjoyment (not our destruction), and the limits placed on property is that we can take “as much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others” (2nd Treatise §31). The individual, therefore, has a divine right to property, but only so far as he can make use of it with his time and effort. How does Locke justify this assertion?

In the Second Treatise, Chapter V, Locke argues for the natural right that mankind possesses to preserve his life through eating and drinking. This requires that man takes things from nature, as is the will of God that we should do (2nd Treatise §25). Furthermore, in taking from nature for our own preservation, that which we take metaphysically becomes a part of ourselves (in a very real sense). Property, then, for Locke, is that which “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands” has produced out of nature (2nd Treatise §27).

Hume rejects any metaphysical notion or thought towards property. Hume also rejects Locke’s argument that property is an individual’s natural right, for, to Hume, property, like justice, is only understood in a state of scarcity and interaction with other people. By way of example, if Robinson Crusoe were alone on an island that provided his every physical need, then, positing that Crusoe has never before seen another human being (i.e. there was no competition for any resources), Locke would state that Crusoe had a natural right to anything he mixed his labor and work with on the island. Hume, however, would argue that a notion of property, for Crusoe – the man who had never before seen another human being or ever felt threatened by scarce resources – would never have existed. Property, for Hume, is derived from justice, in that society creates – through convention – artificial rules for the promotion of good habits and utility. In other words, for Hume, the concept of property happens because of society and the threat of basic theft of acquired possessions.

Critique, Answer, and Conclusion

I personally find interesting details about property in both Locke and Hume, but I tend agree more with Locke’s argument of property. Having said this, I do find problems with Locke’s metaphysical assertion that property becomes a very real extension of the self. Hume, however, appears to have taken a more Aristotelian approach to the nature of man – namely, that “man is by nature a political animal’ (Politics 1253a2). Men, out of their nature, form societies for the protection of their interests – namely, their property. However, I believe there is something more to property than a mere convention of social utility.

Hume rejects the state of nature as “poetical fiction” (EPM 3.1.14), but, in a certain way he accepts Hobbes’ version of the state of nature – although he makes special notice to also say that the “state of war” was also acknowledged by Plato. There are other grounds that Hume rejects the state of nature (e.g. on the basis of language), but his general acknowledgement that society is naturally formed for the purpose of securing the necessities of life (i.e. property) does not appear to be a total rejection of the hypothetical state of nature but, rather, a more specific rejection of Locke’s state of nature where everyone is at perfect liberty. Hume questions how we can know various claims to property and justice through nature, but Hume does not really appear to give a full argument against the state of nature – just against how Locke sees the state of nature (state of perfect liberty). Contra Locke, Hume tends to agree more with Hobbes’ version of the state of nature (state of war over scarce resources). Ironically enough, while Locke and Hobbes appear to contrast each other, both philosophers have generally the same reason for the concept of “coming out of the state of nature” – to better secure property – and so does Hume.

Hume wants to establish his theory of property and of justice outside the confines of the state of nature, but Hume’s foundational claims over how man enters society through becoming sensible of the advantages that society brings seems to unavoidably fail in overcoming this hypothetical state of nature. This is because Hume has to go back to a time before society existed to give arguments for its legitimacy and Raison D’etre.

Hume’s strongest argument against Locke and Hobbes here in promoting property as convention is his argument concerning the family as being the natural nucleus of society. By asserting the family as the fundamental building block of society (that family naturally occurs, therefore, there is no real “state of nature”), as opposed to the individual alone, Hume has the ability of rejecting Locke’s assortment for natural justice and natural rights such as property. If the family were the consistent building block of society, then talks of individualism need not reach the extreme level that Locke had approached. As such, by asserting the family as a natural institution and building block for conventional society, Hume may have dodged the “state of nature” bullet.