An attempt at a complete formulation of the ethics of ownership


How ethical reasoning works

The difference between action and inaction

The principle of peace, that people must not force perceptions on each other, is where all concepts of property and ownership come from. The rule is very simple, but the applications are nuanced and non-obvious enough that I'm going to go through them in as much detail as I can. Even I'm not certain that I have all the details right.

Bodily autonomy

Since people are forced to feel what happens to their body, it's wrong to affect another person's body against their will. This is the most obvious instance of ownership, such that even communists accept it. It isn't limited to sensory pain or injury either. It's violence to force any type of perception onto someone, including tickling, restraining, or continuing to speak to someone who requests to be left alone.

Possession = property

Possessing something allows you to use it in ways that affect your experience, so taking it away would count as forcing an effect on someone. In light of metaphysics, this is just an extension of bodily autonomy because there's no difference of kind between your limbs and your possessions, only a difference of degree.


Sharing nature

Given the above, a realization can be had: *appopriation of natural resources forces an effect on those who could've had it otherwise*. You can see this less deniably with this example: your house is next to a river. Assume you didn't know about the river when you bought the house, but now value it highly. A company from another area sends in trucks that harvest all the water. Even many anarcho-capitalists would agree this is theft, but what's the difference of kind between that and this:

Your hometown is destroyed by a natural disaster, and you move to the nearest other area that has a water source. The river there is monopolized by a company that uses machines to harvest all its water. They've taken resources that, otherwise, you would now have access to. Time can't be the difference because even the water taken from the river next to your house you weren't *already* using; they let you keep the water you had already extracted. Both cases only involved *potential* access to the natural resource, and it counted as you "possessing" it for the purposes of property.

Thus natural resources can generally not be claimed as property in the same way as artificial things. To appropriate a natural resource is to deprive others of something they could've had otherwise, so you have to compensate anyone made worse off by your appropriation.

Unnegotiated transactions

When you do something for someone else without communicating a condition of repayment, you consent to not receiving any because you make a voluntary choice to do it and give them the impression that repayment isn't required. If you do communicate that you're only doing it under the assumption of being repaid but nothing is mutually negotiated, then they must repay the minimum of your sacrifice and half their benefit from it, because you didn't consent to doing it for free, so if they repay less than that they're violating you, but they also didn't consent to anything, so they can't be obliged to give up anything worth more to them than the result of your favor (and it's half because you also wouldn't have been able to collect anything without them).

Non-scarce goods (freeloading)

The situation that a software vendor makes their software available for download with pay and (against their intention) you have a way of downloading it for free can be exactly rewritten as follows:

Alice makes a substantial personal sacrifice to provide some benefit to Bob, telling him she's doing it under the assumption that he'll do something else in return, although Bob didn't actually get any input in the matter. This is exactly the inaltruistic favor scenario above and the answer is the same: Bob must repay her the minimum of the value of her sacrifice, half his benefit, and her requested price (since she consented to that).

Of course, the specific nature of the software version of this scenario creates different abilities for the consumer. In particular there's nothing wrong with the consumer pirating it and paying after using it - he can't be obliged to pay more than the software is worth to him and paying before using it means paying before finding out how much it's worth to him.

The obvious difficulty might be: but surely it's always moral to not use the work and pay nothing, and if the only difference between a moral course of action and the one in question is that someone benefits, how can that be considered theft? But here's the insight: if the work isn't worth anything to you, then you wouldn't have been asking this question anyway since the value you're obliged to pay is zero. If the work *is* worth something to you, then by definition the alternative to freeloading would have been paying that amount to use it, not not using it.

Any other form of non-scarce good would be the same way: using someone's artwork, for example. It's worth noting that using someone's artistic or intellectual property without paying them but with credit and in a way that doesn't devalue the product they're selling (such as posting music from a movie on Youtube) is generally of substantial *benefit* to the artist, since it gives them publicity at no cost to them. A lot of people who are stingy about copyright of their works overlook that and think they're being stolen from when they're actually being helped.

Trespassing isn't the crime you think it is

Entering someone's home without their permission is forcing your presence on them. However, since you can only violate someone by causing them an experience, being on someone else's land but not in their house or in their immediate yard is generally *not* a crime because it won't cause them any disturbance.

This consequence may seem repulsive to many, so I'll give another intuitive reason why you should reconsider: the "encirclement" problem. Suppose you live in a small circle of land and all the rest of the world is "owned" by other people who don't allow anyone on their land, so you can't leave your area. Would the "owners" of the surrounding land be justified in keeping keep you in the circle? Does your conscience *really* tell you that you wouldn't have the right to trespass?

Restitution after death

A steals from B, then A and/or B dies. There are a few possible cases here, and they're somewhat murky:

Of course, all that is under the assumption that the criminal and victim will never meet again and so properly resolving the situation is impossible. If we're not to assume that people stop existing when they die, if the criminal and victim were to meet after death in some other world, the debt and/or crime would still be there unless the criminal had been punished or redeemed themself and the victim restituted in the interim. If only one of those is the case, you'd have to balance for example a victim owed restitution from a criminal who does not owe restitution. The whole situation is messed up at that point because a third party got involved and now can't be called in for the resolution, but you can try to reach a compromise. The only reason I advocate resolving through the above methods is because from what we know a reunion between the criminal and victim in such a way that they'll recognize each other is very unlikely.


If you labor on an object not knowing it's owned, you still own your investment, but the object also still needs to be the original owner's property. Time / order of events doesn't actually make a difference if you didn't know about it (I'll explain what does in a minute). Since both people have valid ownership claims, assuming it isn't possible to separate the improvements made from the original object, ownership is split.

Obviously, if you labor on someone else's property knowing it's someone else's property then you can't claim any ownership of the resulting object that conflicts with theirs. If there was a probability of it being owned, multiply the ownership ratio by that.

Lying as a non-peaceful act

Lying is another act that's commonly defended from the same realm of moral judgement as obvious crimes like theft and assault. But giving someone false information generally affects them and insofar as it does, you're responsible for forcing that effect on them, since you prevented them from making an informed choice. Therefore, lying is a crime with the magnitude of the harm it causes. (This doesn't mean it's okay to tell a 100% harmless lie; just that it only violates the value of truth and not peace.)

Moral values


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