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Do Objectivists see any limits to the actions of a person with his private property ? Are there any limits of what one can do with one's own property?

Here are some "thought experiments" that perhaps better characterize the question:

Can a man who owns large tracts of land in a rain forest ethically create a parking lot from the forest if it pleases him to so so? In doing so, he would be forestalling any discoveries that may have been made from the rain forest flora and fauna (they're now extinct for future scientists). He'd also be destroying old growth trees that the planet would not realistically be able to replace in several lifetimes (maybe this is just a "prettiness" issue but it is a permanent alteration). Is there anything he owes anyone else on the planet ? If not, I guess if the tracts were vast enough and the destruction thorough enough, he could actually impact many, many people negatively through flooding, destruction of food chains etc. The question is: are his actions ethical?

Does a guy who buys a lake teeming with fish which has fed several villages for years (the previous owners let the villagers fish there) have all the right to render the lake sterile if he so chooses (perhaps because he prefers the nice blue color of a dead lake from his bedroom window) ? Does he owe the villagers who have lived in the area anything? If they now have to become refugees for food/water, does he bear any responsibility?

I ask these admittedly extreme questions because I am interested in the limits that Objectivism would see to property rights (if any). In the case where one pollutes some one else's property, I think matters are pretty clear: one would be sued in a court and made to pay the aggrieved party some restitution.

In the case where a large property owner does things that indirectly cause harm (perhaps much later) is unclear to me. Clearly nature does not recognize human property rights: animals, plants and habitats certainly do not. Yet these animals, plants and habitats do depend on each other and what happens to one part of the ecological web does ripple through it --if you kill the plankton in one part of the sea, you do affect whales in another. Man does actually depend on the existence of animals, plants and habitats but the dependency is unclear to many. How does Objectivism see this issue as far as property rights go ? I do not really know the Objectivist position on ecology, so if this is an answered question somewhere, I'd appreciate a pointer.

I am not yet sure where I stand on this (thus the question) but I do know that I geratly prefer the United States with its huge abundance of (sometimes governmentally, sometimes privately) protected wildernesses to, say, China where every square inch bears the mark of man: development, cultivation, factories etc. Having experienced both, it is clear which one is preferable (at least to me).

asked Jul 17 '11 at 21:04

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


Is your question about the "large tracts of land" one of ethics or politics?

(Jul 18 '11 at 08:44) anthony anthony's gravatar image

My question is more accurately about the fact that nature tends to be connected and does not obey legal boundaries. Actions in one part of nature can and often do affect other parts of it. Thus private actions by property owners can impact many other people's lives. I was asking about (admittedly fictional) cases when someone's private actions affect man other individuals. Large tract examples make this clear. If you dam up a river you purchase and create a private, industrial lake for example, people downstream could be impacted. I ask about the ethics thereof.

(Jul 18 '11 at 09:59) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

In the case of the man who owns large tracts of land in a rain forest, I don't think you've given enough information about his thought process to determine if he was acting rationally (which is a prerequisite to him acting ethically). You also haven't given much information about his ownership. Does he own the lands that he's flooding? If not, it seems to me that he is violating the rights of the owner(s) of those lands. But impacting other people is not the same as violating their rights.

(Jul 18 '11 at 22:34) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As for the guy who decides to kill all the fish in a lake (destroy a value) simply because he "prefers the nice blue color of a dead lake from his bedroom window" (on a whim), I think that's clearly irrational/unethical, even if he does have a legal right to do so. So, if that's a question of ethics, and not a question of politics, it's an easy one.

You also ask if that guy owes the villagers who have lived in the area anything. Well, it's your hypothetical, so it's up to you. Did he promise them anything?

He doesn't owe them anything simply due to the fact that he owns something they want.

(Jul 18 '11 at 22:35) anthony anthony's gravatar image

The rain forest guy could just be selling all the lumber and thus turning the land into a desert/parking lot (rain forests don't tend to grow back). Perhaps his goal is to retire comfortably in Hawaii after doing that? He doesn't own the lands that flood as a consequence but he doesn't care (they are not his land). As for the lake guy, he just bought a mid sized lake for the view and doesn't likethe color green (living algae) and likes the bright blue color that dead lakes exhibit near volcanoes. I am curious why you say it is irrational for him to use his property for his pleasure?

(Jul 18 '11 at 22:43) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

It is irrational for him to prefer blue to green for no reason. Rational = based on reason. Irrational = based on no reason.

(Jul 18 '11 at 23:24) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anthony- regarding rationality and color preference, you may wish to look at this http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/2989/is-there-such-a-thing-as-a-rational-color

The thoughtful answers given by Kate Yoak and Ideas For Life seem to view color preference as "optional values". Remember that AR herself famously loved blue-green and to the best of my knowledge, she did not explain rationally why.... I am not sure I could tell you rationally why I love sage green but I do. I don't think I am being irrational in having my preferences for that. I also like steak and french fries ;-)

(Jul 18 '11 at 23:33) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Regarding Kate's answer, I'd have to say that loving the color of a lake which represents that you've killed all the fish in it and caused an entire village to become refugees, falls under one of those rare times where there is specific evidence of depravity. This sounds like a really twisted and evil person to me, or at the very least, someone with some severe mental problems. But hey, we're dealing with a hypothetical, so I guess you could hypothesize your way around it, somehow.

(Jul 18 '11 at 23:51) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Look it is not about the preference -- he could love the color blue because it represents the freedom and openness of the sky or it is the theme color of his company's logo or whatever... The issue is: is he depraved because he is exercising his property rights to suit himself? Your answer would seem to indicate that he needs to consider other people's lives in making decisions about his own property? Does he owe the villagers anything? Does he owe the fish anything? What about the ecosystem? This is at the heart of the question. If he doesn't owe 'em anything, why is he depraved?

(Jul 18 '11 at 23:59) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Of course he needs to consider other people's lives in making decisions about his own property. Other people are a value. In order to answer your question about ethics, unless you are going to come right out and say that the guy is being irrational/evasive, I have to make assumptions. My assumption is that those villagers are a value, and that they're a higher value than a blue lake. Ultimately, it's your hypothetical. If you want to set it up so that other people are not a value, you are free to do so.

(Jul 19 '11 at 00:05) anthony anthony's gravatar image

I already answered whether or not he owes the villagers anything. It's your hypothetical, so it's up to you. He doesn't owe them anything simply due to the fact that he owns something they want.

He doesn't owe the fish or the ecosystem anything.

He is depraved because he is intentionally destroying a great value for the sake of an "optional value" and/or whim. At least, that is my assumption. As I said, if you want to set up the scenario so that people are not a value to him, then you are free to do so. But then the hypothetical becomes even more uselessly unrealistic.

(Jul 19 '11 at 00:08) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In other words, he is depraved because he is exercising his property rights to destroy himself.

Who is ever going to trade with this guy who caused an entire village to become refugees just because he liked the color blue? How is this guy going to live without the help of other people (and without any fish to boot)?

A guy comes into ownership of a vibrant lake which is loaded with fish which feed an entire village, and the most rationally selfish thing he can think of to do with it is kill all the fish so the water turns blue? Seriously? Why not sell/trade the fish?

(Jul 19 '11 at 00:11) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Thanks for a great riposte. Food for thought. Maybe even fish ;-) I like the idea of humans in the value matrix. I think John Allison spoke of that very eloquently at OCON 2011. Making the world a better and more beautiful place through voluntary rationally selfish means is something that could help many people better understand the benevolence that can come from this point of view. Far too often, it folks cast Objectivism as the philosophy of self-absorbed, misanthropes (not hard to do if you read The Fountainhead at a surface level...). They miss the "humans flourishing" part.

(Jul 19 '11 at 09:38) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Under a proper (laissez-faire capitalist) system, the limit is that a person may not use his property in a manner that violates the rights of others. And that is all.

The details of what constitutes a violation of rights belong to the specialized field of law. In other words, the answers to many of your hypothetical situations cannot be dictated from philosophy, which deals with the most general principles of right and wrong.

One Objectivist principle is clearly relevant here, however. The government's use of force must be only for the protection of individual rights. This means actual, identifiable people; neither groups qua collectives nor animals nor nature in general have rights. And the rights of people mean the rights of every person to his life, his liberty, and any property he has earned. There is no right for any person to have the world be a certain way according to his preferences. Such a notion would require the government to violate others' property rights, as it is already doing at the behest of the environmentalists.

If people under a capitalist system value having undisturbed wilderness, then no one will stop them from purchasing (or pooling resources together to purchase) land for such a purpose.

answered Jul 17 '11 at 21:52

Andrew%20Dalton's gravatar image

Andrew Dalton ♦

Thanks for the clarity. While I'd like to believe that people would pool resources and purchase wilderness to keep it pristine, I think that is pretty far-fetched in reality. People sadly tend to behave with the range of the moment in mind and many times the very short term answer can be opposed to very long term rational self-interest. Often, folks learn and change their behavior and set longer range action plans. Unfortunately with nature, sometimes there is no second chance and the "oops" moment can come a bit late (see the example of Easter Island and its collapse).

(Jul 18 '11 at 01:06) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

You don't think it's far fetched for an entire village to rely on the kindness of a single individual, who then suddenly sells or gives away his property to someone who decides "to render the lake [which all those villagers depend upon] sterile...because he prefers the nice blue color of a dead lake from his bedroom window"?

(Jul 18 '11 at 08:43) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Danneskjold: The idea that there is no "second chance" is mistaken. Given enough "oops" moments, people learn. How else could they learn? Unfortunately, many people use these "oops" moments as excuses to increase government violation of the rights of individuals. If property rights were uniformly protected, people might invest more in the commercial value of "pristine" land. Or not. Their choice.

Freedom of people is much more important and beneficial than protecting the Earth from people. Let people live, and see what they make of the Earth. And if you don't like it, tough.

(Jul 18 '11 at 09:17) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Individuals might make errors, but to really, really, really mess things up requires a government. Government is never a way of preventing an "oops" moment. Government is not a source of awareness, but a source of force.

(Jul 18 '11 at 09:21) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Anthony-- maybe you find all this far fetched ;-) Maybe another closer-to-reality example of this sort of behavior could be industrial concerns buying and then dynamiting and clear cutting mountains (essentially "using" them up for a long time) and the floods, landslides etc. that have resulted from this kind of use. NOTE-- I am not anti-industrial at all. You only have to see aerial pictures of Haiti vs. Dominican Republic. There is a "green line". To the left: Haiti, a denuded desert. To the right, Dominican Republic, verdant and lush. Haiti = fedual. DR = semi capitalistic.

(Jul 18 '11 at 10:06) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

John- I was not suggesting any government intervention. I was asking if there are any ethical implications. I'd agree that the government remedies have proven ineffective, inefficient and in some cases corrupt.

(Jul 18 '11 at 10:08) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

If people are using a mountain to avoid floods on their property, then really they have an ownership interest in that mountain, don't they?

I do think it's an interesting question.

(Jul 18 '11 at 23:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image
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Asked: Jul 17 '11 at 21:04

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Last updated: Jul 19 '11 at 09:38