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David Hume on property as a convention which gradually emerges from society (1739)

The Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) argued that the idea of property and the need to defend it emerged gradually out of social practices. Once it had evolved into a widely accepted convention did it become a “right” which needed to be respected:

For when men, from their early education in society, have become sensible of the infinite advantages that result from it (property), and have besides acquir’d a new affection to company and conversation; and when they have observ’d, that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external, and from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another; they must seek for a remedy, by putting these goods, as far as possible, on the same footing with the fix’d and constant advantages of the mind and body. This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.

The remedy, then, is not deriv’d from nature, but from artifice; or more properly speaking, nature provides a remedy in the judgment and understanding, for what is irregular and incommodious in the affections. For when men, from their early education in society, have become sensible of the infinite advantages that result from it, and have besides acquir’d a new affection to company and conversation; and when they have observ’d, that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external, and from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another; they must seek for a remedy, by putting these goods, as far as possible, on the same footing with the fix’d and constant advantages of the mind and body. This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry. By this means, every one knows what he may safely possess; and the passions are restrain’d in their partial and contradictory motions. Nor is such a restraint contrary to these passions; for if so, it cou’d never be enter’d into, nor maintain’d; but it is only contrary to their heedless and impetuous movement. Instead of departing from our own interest, or from that of our nearest friends, by abstaining from the possessions of others, we cannot better consult both these interests, than by such a convention; because it is by that means we maintain society, which is so necessary to their well-being and subsistence, as well as to our own.

This convention is not of the nature of a promise: For even promises themselves, as we shall see afterwards, arise from human conventions. It is only a general sense of common interest; which sense all the members of the society express to one another, and which induces them to regulate their conduct by certain rules. I observe, that it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me. He is sensible of a like interest in the regulation of his conduct. When this common sense of interest is mutually express’d, and is known to both, it produces a suitable resolution and behaviour. And this may properly enough be call’d a convention or agreement betwixt us, tho’ without the interposition of a promise; since the actions of each of us have a reference to those of the other, and are perform’d upon the supposition, that something is to be perform’d on the other part. Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other. Nor is the rule concerning the stability of possession the less deriv’d from human conventions, that it arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression, and by our repeated experience of the inconveniences of transgressing it. On the contrary, this experience assures us still more, that the sense of interest has become common to all our fellows, and gives us a confidence of the future regularity of their conduct: And ’tis only on the expectation of this, that our moderation and abstinence are founded. In like manner are languages gradually establish’d by human conventions without any promise. In like manner do gold and silver become the common measures of exchange, and are esteem’d sufficient payment for what is of a hundred times their value.

After this convention, concerning abstinence from the possessions of others, is enter’d into, and every one has acquir’d a stability in his possessions, there immediately arise the ideas of justice and injustice; as also those of property, right, and obligation. The latter are altogether unintelligible without first understanding the former. Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is establish’d by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice. Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explain’d the origin of justice, or even make use of them in that explication, are guilty of a very gross fallacy, and can never reason upon any solid foundation. A man’s property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice. ’Tis very preposterous, therefore, to imagine, that we can have any idea of property, without fully comprehending the nature of justice, and shewing its origin in the artifice and contrivance of men. The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both. As our first and most natural sentiment of morals is founded on the nature of our passions, and gives the preference to ourselves and friends, above strangers; ’tis impossible there can be naturally any such thing as a fix’d right or property, while the opposite passions of men impel them in contrary directions, and are not restrain’d by any convention or agreement.

About this Quotation:

Hume devotes a chapter to the origin of justice and property in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Here he provides and alternative justification for property to the natural law approach taken by many others during the Enlightenment. Hume believes there are three different types of property, “the internal satisfaction of our minds, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquir’d by our industry and good fortune”. Only the first two in his opinion are “natural” rights, while the third type of property is “conventional”, in the sense that only after historical practices have become widely recognised by others does one acquire a “right” to own this kind of property. He states quite categorically that “This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.” Hume’s theory is interesting because it also has an aspect which is similar to Herbert Spencer’s “law of equal liberty” - Hume argues that “it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me” - and he also regards the emergence of property rights as just another kind of spontaneous order, like the emergence of language or the use of gold as money, which so interested the Scottish enlightened thinkers like Ferguson and Smith.

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