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My question has to do with the moral status of property rights when the property in question is something that was gained by removing/killing/enslaving earlier inhabitants. This can be illustrated by a thought-example: Imagine you are an explorer in the 1800s and you discover an island. On it, you see great potential to grow bananas and coffee. Everything is ideal: the temperature, the moisture, the land. You decide to fetch 200 compatriots to come and settle this virgin territory.

Six months later you arrive with a party of your pals with modern instruments to farm and settle this place. When your party arrives, you are surprised to find that there are hundreds of inhabitants in what you thought was unsettled land. You and your party, while apprehensive, decide to move in anyway. The local inhabitants view the land as "theirs" since they have lived there for centuries and their culture holds it dear. They don't want you to set up farms on "their" territory (they could want their own farms or view the land as sacred etc.) and they oppose you. This starts with shouting at you and your party and ends with them firing arrows when you oppose them. You realize they have started a war to get you to go home and you want this land. You retaliate with modern weaponry which decimates the tribe opposing you (they have primitive weapons). Eventually you kill all of them, including innocents back at their village. Now the land is yours and you happily continue farming it and making it productive.

What is the moral status of land/property acquired in this manner? Was it OK for our plucky explorer to continue farming and modifying the land when he discovered that it was "owned" (no deeds etc. of course) by the local tribe? What should he have done? You guys will undoubtedly see that this is a simplified version of much of colonial history where land was taken from indigenous tribes. I wondered how objectivists saw the moral status of land so-acquired.

Please note: I have asked a variant of this question before http://www.objectivistanswers.com/questions/3132/what-are-the-rights-of-undeveloped-cultures-and-their-people but I wanted to concretize the question beyond the "how should we treat others who are less developed"?

asked Jan 10 '13 at 17:55

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


You have the moral high ground since you and your party were peacefully producing something of value. The natives lost their moral high ground as soon as they fired the first arrow at you.

(Jan 11 '13 at 23:01) user890 user890's gravatar image

This approach could be used to sanction huge brutality such as that visited by Conquistadors on the natives of S. America. I am sure our less developed cousins felt scared and threatened by the newcomers just as you would by a stranger coming into your house. Arrows fired/stones thrown often led to [conveniently excused] genocide of natives in the past. Was that right/proper? It would be great if all the advances of civilization could be brought about without slaughtering humans. I hold advanced people more culpable because they have more efficient weapons and should be more careful.

(Jan 12 '13 at 01:28) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

User890, I cannot agree with you. The first arrow was not the initiating force. The occupation of the property was.

(Jan 23 '13 at 07:50) trini trini's gravatar image
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The essence of this question is an appeal to "collective rights" (again). Refer to that topic in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for an overview of why only individuals possess rights, not collectives.

Remember, also, that Objectivism and capitalism stand for instituting a system of individual rights, production, trade and free markets, not for conquest and enslavement or extermination of primitive peoples living in a state of nature. Remember, further, that a state of nature is inherently a state of domination by the strongest, fiercest competitors. Primitive peoples live with that basic context constantly, not only in their relations with other humans, but also in their interactions with wild animals and geological forces of nature. There is inherently no morality in a state of nature. It is rational civilization that brings reason and individual freedom and rights to regions where only a state of nature existed previously.

The question mentions war (along with a strong appeal to "collective rights"):

[The natives] don't want you to set up farms on "their" territory (they could want their own farms or view the land as sacred etc.) and they oppose you. This starts with shouting at you and your party and ends with them firing arrows when you oppose them. You realize they have started a war to get you to go home and you want this land.

Capitalism does not start wars, and any capitalist would most likely withdraw (perhaps after trying very hard to negogiate a trade) when facing a potential war in a new terrority where he is not already heavily invested, rather than engage in a war at great expense to himself. Capitalists need to rely on governments to wage wars. A proper government for a capitalist society would be strictly limited to its proper functions, which would not include conducting wars of conquest upon primitive peoples. Refer to the topic of "War" in the Lexicon for a more detailed overview of the roots of war. Capitalism fosters world peace, not world war.

The question's fictional story is similar to the recent movie, "Avatar," in which the primitives prevail against overwhelming odds (with a little help from a handful of their enemy who decide to change sides). Capitalists know very well how expensive war is, and how even the most powerful technology may not be enough against a determined opposition.

There is a further implicit issue in this question that has often become explicit over the years: whether or not past wrongs by one's ancestors impose any duty of recompense upon distant descendants and relatives toward the distant descendants and relatives of the victims. The resolution of such issues generally depends on weighing the moral status of the various claimants, with civilization weighing far more heavily over any yearning for a state of nature, as Ayn Rand has commented when asked. (There are also those today who long to return to a state of nature. They are free to do so -- at their own expense and within their own means, so long as they do not violate the individual rights of others. Most often, however, they actually seek to abolish individual rights and private property entirely, neither of which exists, after all, in a state of nature.)

Update: Good Capitalist

In a comment, it sounds as if the questioner is equating the perspective of Objectivism as a philosophy (and guide for future action) with the actual history of non-Objectivist, non-capitalist explorers and conquerors. This is already addressed in my answer (above) and in the Lexicon references cited. If someone seeks to mis-apply Objectivist principles to serve non-Objectivist ends, consistent Objectivists will oppose him (as they have already done regarding Libertarians). Also, the cost of war is a real economic deterrent for capitalists acting without government backing. It's not an issue of being a "good capitalist" or not; it's basic economics. When reviewing the actual history of wars, it's important to recognize what was made possible by governments and would not have been possible otherwise.

answered Jan 12 '13 at 12:09

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Jan 12 '13 at 12:52

You are correct in that I am puzzled about rights when there is no developed system. To simply shrug and say that a "good capitalist" would withdraw from war is fine but not really helpful. The point is many people from "advanced civilizations" have been wantonly cruel towards lesser developed men and sometimes seem proud of this. Indeed, people who advocate individual rights can even appear to excuse their ultimate violation (killing humans) in the name of progress from a "state of nature". Sates of nature don't mean that your tribal cousins are somehow animals to be treated with ferocity.

(Jan 12 '13 at 12:30) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

"Any material element or resource which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the application of human knowledge and effort, should be private property—by the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort."

That quote from Ayn Rand explains the origin of property rights. Now if your explorer was objectivist he would do one of two things:

a) Ask permission to the natives to own part of the land which isn't in current use, explaining that by using it he could produce goods of value that could benefit them all.

b) Leave.

Even if he doesn't accept the concept of collective property, the explorer is not a native and his government doesn't own the land so he doesn't have any real say in the matter or even to be there without permission of the locals authority.

answered Jan 22 '13 at 23:08

Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

Juan Diego dAnconia

This is interesting. If we go by your Rand quote, the natives "own" the land since they farmed it/took care of it and used it for their needs. The explorer was trying to make better use of it for himself and the question boils down to whether the explorer's desires to exploit the land for better use supersedes the natives' "ownership" (not in the legal but in the actual sense) of the same.

(Jan 23 '13 at 10:14) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Not quite, that would mean that if someone can do better at my own job then he could legally take it away from me, since he can produce more. The question of property comes when someone, anyone, applies knowledge and effort in any material or natural source, he owns it. And when it becomes property, no power in the world should be able to take it away. That's why in the first possibility the explorer would ask for a land not in use. Now if this occurred in the explorers own land, an objectivist country, that land which is not being used can't possibly be property of anyone.

(Jan 23 '13 at 10:41) Juan Diego dAnconia Juan%20Diego%20dAnconia's gravatar image

I apologize for answering a question asked long ago, but I just had to make a few points. First, I will answer your main question at face value, and then I will address your elaboration on the main question which I feel does not line up with the main question.

In general, it is wrong to initiate force against someone in order to take their property—whether the person is “pre-industrial” or not does not matter. If this has occurred, then the person whose property was taken should (1) have their property returned if that is feasible, (2) be compensated for the value of the property if return thereof is not feasible, and (3) be compensated for other (objectively provable) losses resulting from the taking (e.g., income lost because the property was unavailable for use in generating the income, etc.). In addition, the person who took the property should very likely be punished as a criminal matter.

Of course, the preceding paragraph presupposes that it is objectively provable that the property was owned by the purported victim at the time of the purported taking. If the property was owned by no one at the time of the "taking", then there is no rights violation by taking it (although there might be other rights violations involved, depending on the facts).

However, when a purported "taking" occurred long in the past and the purported victim and purported perpetrator are dead, the proper resolution of the matter becomes very difficult for a number of reasons. First, it often becomes very difficult to objectively prove the facts that would be required to establish that a wrongful taking occurred, including who owned the property (if anyone), who took the property, and how was it taken (e.g., was it purchased?, was it stolen?). You cannot simply claim that "the natives" owned "it all", because property is not owned collectively, and the fact that the natives lived on part of the island (or continent) does not mean that they owned the entire island (or continent). You have to objectively prove that this specific parcel of land was owned by this specific person. Second, even when you can objectively prove that person A owned a plot of land and it was wrongfully taken by person B, because person A and person B are both long dead the normal resolution of the situation (discussed above) becomes inapplicable: A cannot be compensated, because A is dead; B cannot do the compensating (or be criminally punished), because B is dead. Some people would contend that the victim’s progeny should be compensated in the place of the victim (i.e., reparations), but this is not the correct answer. (if the questioner is curious about why reparations are not proper, the questioner can post a separate question on that issue).

With regard to the story in the elaboration of the question, many key points are ambiguous, which results in it being impossible to answer whether the settlor was wholly wrong, wrong in some respects but innocent in other respects, or wholly innocent.

First, it is unclear from your story whether any individual natives owned any of the land that was “taken”. The fact that “The local inhabitants view the land as 'theirs' since they have lived there for centuries and their culture holds it dear[, and t]hey don't want you to set up farms on 'their' territory” is meaningless—the real question needs to be whether the land that was taken was owned by the natives. For example, those parts of the island that individual natives had settled on and/cultivated would very likely be owned by those individual natives, and it would have been wrong for the settlor to take these plots of land. However, the story is not clear about whether the settlor tried to take these owned portions of the island, or whether the settlor tried to take unowned portions of the island (just because the natives consider the entire island as being theirs does not establish ownership thereof).

Second, it is not clear from your story who initiated the force (partly because it is not clear who owned what). In particular, whether the natives’ firing of arrows is an initiation of force, or a retaliatory use of force depends on whether the settlor’s taking of the land constituted an initiation of force—if the taking of the land by the settlor was an initiation of force, then the native’s use of force constituted a retaliatory use of force, but if the taking of the land was not an initiation of force, then the native’s use of force was the initiation of force.

You state that “Eventually you kill all of them, including innocents back at their village.” Why is this fact included in your question? It does not relate to the property ownership or the purported taking of the property, and seems to be included merely to inflame the reader and make the settlor seem even worse than he otherwise might appear. OF COURSE murdering innocent people is wrong—did you really need to ask that? If the settlor really did murder innocent people, then he is guilty of a grave crime; however, that does not somehow make the taking of land wrong. Whether or not the settlor was wrong to take the land depends entirely upon whether or not the land taken was owned, and is unrelated to whether the settlor later went on to become a mass-murderer.

answered May 28 '15 at 14:10

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

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Asked: Jan 10 '13 at 17:55

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Last updated: May 28 '15 at 14:10