Theory Thursdays: Property rights in a state of nature

House owner/real estate agent giving away the keys

Throughout the writings of great political thinkers, such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, property plays an integral part. Yet, John Locke is probably the most notable theorist on private property, and the rights that come with it. Today, I am going to look at property rights, and how we might understand them.

For starters, both Locke and Hobbes – and to some extent Rousseau – argue that the purpose of man is his survival. As they would have written – “self-preservation”. For Hobbes and Locke, “self-preservation” was almost a duty of man to maintain. He could not do something to put his own preservation in danger, and Locke argued that one could not give up one’s body to anyone.

Here is where Locke’s ideas of property rights stem. He sees us, our own bodies, as property, and so we have a right to them, and a right to preserve them.

But what about other kinds of property? We do not need to do anything to acquire our own bodies except be born. How, then, do we appropriate property whilst we are alive?

Locke’s central argument on property is on labour. He writes in his text The Second Treatise of Government: “…every man has a property in his own person; this no body has any right to but himself.

“The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his”.

Thus, taking something out of its state of nature – that is, the state to which nature left it – is a laborious task, that means one has appropriated that thing, and so it is his property.

Fairly straightforward. If I were to get up and pick an apple, that apple is rightfully mine. The same would be for a field that I had tilled, or “the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place…become my property”.

We might say that the ability to appropriate things in such a fashion contributes to our self-preservation. Hobbes believed we had a “right to all things”, as he saw almost everything as potentially allowing our self-preservation. Yet, Hobbes did not set down this idea of property rights that Locke does.



For Hobbes nothing was safe in a state of war – a place without law, and where all men are focused on their own self-preservation, so man was always at threat of death or injury.

Locke brings a morality to Hobbes’ argument. That one man should ensure the survival of “all mankind”, and that a man’s property should be respected by others.

For Jean Jacques Rousseau, however, he has a slightly more optimistic impression of human nature.

Rousseau appears to suggest that in a pure state of nature, man is indifferent to possession. He admits that the only way for man to appropriate property is through labour, as there is no other means to do so in the absence of the law, yet he suggests that when man has no knowledge of jealousy, greed, or power, he is indifferent to that which he owns.

Rousseau draws upon love, and states that man does not have the knowledge or memory to discriminate between women, and that “any women is [equally] good for him”.

As improper as it sounds, one may argue that man can appropriate a woman through his labour. He may have toiled long to win her favour. So, how does this translate into other forms of property?

If we assume man has no knowledge of prference, is that to say, then, that he may acquire an apple, but not mind if it were taken from him – there are plenty of apples after all?

We then have a scenario where I may pick an apple from a tree, have it taken from me, acquire another, and the process repeat. I may then reach a point where I have no ability to attain another apple within my means. For example, not being able to climb a tall tree, or be tall enough to take one from the branches, and so I am left without an apple.

This may continue, and I may be left hungry, as other have taken my food from me. Am I to be content with this? This, ultimately, risks my self-preservation.

Therefore, Locke’s argument on property rights is a sound one. It safeguards us in our own self-preservation, but we must also leave enough for others to have, too. This is perhaps optimistic, though. Locke has often been seen as arguing for what should be, not what would be.

How can we trust others, in a world without law or government, to respect our property rights? We may be left to starve if we misplace our trust in other men. Realistically, Locke’s argument is hard to uphold in the state of nature.

I would argue that Locke’s theories are the founding principle of civil society, law, and government. However, in a state of nature, one would side with Hobbes in that man does indeed have a right to all things. No one person may set down his flag and claim a land to be his property, without the means to put that into law.

He is then open to the will of others, who may see his appropriation of his property as a risk to his self-preservation. It is al a matter of perception, and at which point we choose to observe human nature. Are we going to look at man in a pure state of nature, or at the stage to which he is in a “civil” society?


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