The Lawfulness and Social Character of Private Ownership

by Henri Grenier

The Québécois priest, theologian, and philosopher, Henri Grenier (1899-1980), was the author of a popular Cursus Philosophiae that was translated into both French and English. He was a major Thomistic opponent of personalism, and is thought to have been an influence on the great Laval School Thomist, Charles De Koninck. The following passages are taken from Thomistic Philosophy, Vol 3: Moral Philosophy, trans. J.P.E. O’Hanley (Charlottetown: St. Dunstan’s University, 1949). A scan of the complete text of this volume can be found here.

I

LAWFULNESS OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP

  1. Statement of the question.

1° We know that man has perfect dominion over external things, i.e., over things which are inferior to him, in as much as they are destined for man’s use. Such being the finality of external things, we may now ask: may the individual man and the family possess external things? This is the question of private ownership.

2° To understand what ownership is, we must consider the principal acts which man can exercise in regard to external things. These acts, according to St. Thomas,[1] are three in number: a) management, i.e., administration, production; b) distribution, i.e., the disposing of goods; c) use, or, in the language of economists, consumption, i.e., the immediate application of external goods to their essential end, which is man.

The third of these three acts, use, is the end of the other two.

3° Ownership is anterior to and distinct from use or consumption. The thing which a man consumes may be his own, may belong to another, or may be an unclaimed thing which belongs to nobody (res « nullius »). Therefore ownership is conceived as having reference to the acts which antecede use or consumption, i.e., to production or management and to distribution.[2] Therefore ownership may be defined: the power to administer and to dispose of external things as one’s own.

This power is called common, collective, or public ownership, when it belongs to a community; and private ownership, when it belongs to a private man, i.e., to an individual man or to a private moral person.

4° Private ownership can have various forms; it can be individual, domestic, patriarchal, etc.[3]

Again, we may consider private ownership in the abstract, i.e., in relation to extrenal things generally and indiscriminately, or in the concrete, i.e., in relation to particular things.

In our present study, we are not concerned with the various forms of private ownership, but with private ownership in the abstract, i.e., under its general aspect. In other words, the question which at present concerns us is this: has the individual man, i.e., the private person, the right of owning, of administering, and of disposing of external things, or does this right belong solely to civil society?

5° The principal division of external things is their division into consumptible goods and productive goods. Consumptible goods (consumption goods) are goods which are consumed in their use, as food and drink. Productive goods (production goods) are goods which are destined for the production of new goods or products, as a piece of land, etc.

  1. Opinions.

Absolute Communism holds the ownership of all goods, including consumptive goods, belongs exclusively to the community. Such is the teaching of Plato.

Moderate Communism, i.e., collectivism, reserves all productive goods to the community.[4] It teaches that the public authority is bound to distribute the fruits of labor
 among its citizens, either according to perfect equality, or according to each one’s necessity, or according to labor and merit. Such is the teaching of Marx, Engels,[5] and generally of communists today.

3° Others admit the lawfulness of private ownership, but hold that this lawfulness derives either from the civil law, as teach Montesquieu, Babeuf, Bentham, Robespierre, and the National Socialists in Germany, or from an explicit or an implicit pact, as teach Locke, Grotius, Pufendorf, etc.

4° According to the doctrine commonly accepted among Catholics and sanctioned by the Holy See, the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is naturally lawful, i.e., in conformity with the natural law; moreover, it is necessary, i.e., imposed by the natural law. Hence, the right of private ownership may not be abolished by the civil authority, for it has its origin in nature.

  1. Statement of the thesis.
    THESIS.— ACCORDING TO THE NATURAL LAW, THE PRIVATE OWNERSHIP OF BOTH PRODUCTIVE AND CONSUMPTIBLE GOODS IS NOT ONLY LAWFUL, BUT NECESSARY.

First part.— According to the natural law, the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is lawful.— Ownership to which man has a strong natural inclination is lawful according to the natural law. But man has a strong natural inclination to the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods. Therefore, according to the natural law, the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is lawful.

The major is evident, because the natural law is in accordance with natural inclination.

Minor.— a) Because individual man is a rational being, he has a share in divine Providence, and therefore is destined to provide for his own necessities and his own progress not only in the present, but for the future. But, in order that individual man provide for his necessities and progress, especially in the future, he has a natural inclination to the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods; indeed, he cannot hope to cope with life’s many normal eventualities, as old age, sickness, and accidents, without the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods. Therefore.

b) Individual man as head of a family must provide for his wife and children, who are naturally dependent on the father for food, clothing, and the other necessities of life. But, to provide for his wife and family, the head of the family has a natural inclination to the acquisition of private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods. Therefore.

c) Individual man has a natural inclination to what is most useful for the protection and safeguarding of his lawful liberty. But the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is most useful for the protection and safeguarding of man’s lawful liberty: without private ownership, individual man is too dependent on others and on civil society. Therefore.

The whole argument may be stated very briefly as follows: The conservation of life, liberty, etc., are proper ends which individual men and the family are destined by their nature to attain. But the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods are most useful for the attainment of these ends. Therefore, according to the natural law, the private ownership of these goods is lawful.

Second part.— According to the natural law, the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is necessary.— Any institution which stimulates production, facilitates the orderly management of human affairs, and fosters peace among men is, according to the natural law, a necessary institution. But the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is an institution which stimulates production, facilitates the orderly management of human affairs, and fosters peace among men. Therefore, according to the natural law, the private ownership of both productive and consumptible goods is necessary.[6]

Major.— The natural law requires production: according to nature, external things are made useful for man by means of labor and production.

In like manner, the natural law requires order and peace in society.

Minor.— a) Private ownership … stimulates production.— Private ownership is a stimulus to labor: a man takes much more care in looking after something which belongs solely to himself than he does in looking after what belongs to everybody, or to a large number of persons: a man will shirk work and leave to another duties which belong to the community, as happens when many are entrusted with the accomplishment of work.

b) Private ownership … facilitates the orderly management of human affairs.— The management of human affairs is more orderly in the degree in which individual men are entrusted with affairs of their own; confusion results from the indiscriminate assigning of the management of affairs to a group of individuals, but to no person in particular.

c) Private ownership … fosters peace among men.— A man is contented when he possesses goods as his own. On the other hand, we know from experience that quarrels frequently arise among those who possess goods in common.

  1. Scholia.

1° Private ownership is necessary according to the secondary precepts of the natural law. For, in the present state of human nature, it is a means which is necessary, in order that the essential end of external things, which is man’s utility, may be easily and readily attained.

Many Catholics hold that it is only because of Original Sin that private ownership is necessary. For, they say, if our First Parents had not fallen, the common ownership of goods would be sufficient to ensure man’s giving his due share of labor, and to maintain order and peace. While we admit that the necessity of private ownership was made greater because of Original sin, we maintain that it would have been necessary even if Original sin had not been committed.

2° The ownership of certain goods may be reserved to civil society when the private possession of them would give individual citizens an economic power which would be harmful to the common good.[7] But it is a grievous error to hold that the private ownership of productive goods is of its nature unlawful.[8]

3° The civil authority has an obligation to protect private possessions by the authority of its laws,[9] but, in doing so, must ever safeguard the common good. Therefore the State must not exhaust the means of individuals by crushing taxes and tributes.[10]

  1. Modes of acquiring ownership.

Preliminaries.

a) The modes of acquiring ownership are the ways in which a man can acquire the ownership of determinate things.

b) The modes of acquiring ownership are divided into two main categories: primitive modes and derived modes. Primitive modes of acquiring ownership are those which do not presuppose the previous ownership of the thing. Derived modes of acquiring ownership are those which presuppose the previous ownership of the thing.

c) The primitive modes of acquiring ownership are
 two in number: first, occupancy of an unclaimed thing which belongs to no one (occupatio rei « nullius »); secondly, labor.

Occupancy of an unclaimed thing which belongs to no one is the appropriation of that thing with the intention of possessing it as one’s own. The appropriation of a thing may be physical, as the appropriation of a deer or other wild animal by a hunter; or it may be moral, which consists in placing on a thing a durable sign indicating that the thing has been appropriated by someone.

Labor is a primitive mode of acquiring ownership in as much as man by his own labor produces something in a material thing, as when he produces a statue from a block of marble « The only form of labor which gives the workingman a title to its fruits, » writes Pius XI, « is that which a man exercises as his own master, and by which some new form or new value is produced ».[11]

The derived modes of acquiring ownership are also of two kinds:

—the first consists in transfer from one possessor to another;

—the second consists in this: the thing possessed by a man grows (increment) and produces fruit (fructification), as when an animal which a man possesses grows and engenders offspring.

Transfer from one possessor to another can take place in two ways:

1) by tradition, i.e., by a positive act of the will extrinsically manifested by which a possessor transfers his property to another, either by donation, or by sale between the living, or by will or testament;

2) by natural intestate succession,— natural transfer by an intestate person,— in as much as the possessions of parents naturally, i.e., solely in virtue of the natural law, become the property of their children, even without an express act of the will of the parents.

2° In the light of the foregoing observations, we shall now prove the propositions which follow.

1) Occupancy of an unclaimed thing which belongs to no one is a primitive mode of acquiring ownership.— A primitive mode of acquiring ownership is a natural mode of acquiring ownership which presupposes no previous possession. But occupancy of an unclaimed thing which belongs to no one (occupatio rei « nullius ») is a natural mode of acquiring ownership which presupposes no previous possession. Therefore occupancy of an unclaimed thing which belongs to no one is a primitive mode of acquiring ownership.

The major is self-evident.

Minor.— An unclaimed thing which belongs to no one is negatively common, and therefore lies open for occupancy by anyone: by occupancy a man manifests his will to possess the thing as his own by excluding all others from the possession of it.

2) Labor is also a primitive mode of acquiring ownership.— If man has dominion over his own activity, labor is a primitive mode of acquiring ownership. But man has dominion over his own acts. Therefore labor is a primitive mode of acquiring ownership.

Major.— If man has dominion over his own activity, he has dominion also over its term, i.e., over the products of his labor. Hence a man who in his own name expends labor on something which belongs to himself has a right to the ownership of the fruits resulting therefrom. But if a man hires his labor and expends it on what belongs to another, he has a right only to what was determined by a just contract.

The minor is evident from what has been already said.

3) The increment and fructification of a possessed thing constitute a derived mode of acquiring ownership.— A man who possesses an external thing possesses also its powers and its activity, and hence also the term of this activity, i.e., whatever it produces from itself.

4) The transfer of a possessed thing from one possessor another is a derived mode of acquiring ownership.— Transfer of this kind is made according to modes which result from the possession of things, and are required by the common good.

a) The modes of acquiring ownership by tradition, e. by a positive act of the will extrinsically manifested by which a possessor transfers his property to another, either by donation or by sale between the living, or by will:

—result from the possession of things: a man who has perfect possession of a thing may freely dispose of it, and hence transfer it to another, even after his death by means of a will;

—are required by the common good: man’s social nature, which demands that individual men assist one another by a mutual exchange of goods, requires that tradition or exchange of ownership among the living be a derived mode of acquiring ownership.

The common good also requires that transfer of ownership by will be a derived mode of acquiring ownership: the opportunity of choosing his heirs by means of a will provides a man with a great incentive to persevere in his work and to avoid prodigality; on the other hand, if a man were not free to bequeath his property to heirs of his own choosing, especially to his children, he would be inclined, to his own detriment and to that of society, to squander his goods. Finally, the good of the family requires that parents be able to make their children, not strangers, their heirs, and that they be able to distribute their goods among their children according to their deserts and needs.

b) The mode of acquiring ownership by natural intestate succession results from the possession of things as something required by the common good of the family, for the good of the family is the special end of private possession: it is especially as head of the family, as we have seen, that man naturally tends to acquire ownership.


II

SOCIAL CHARACTER OF PRIVATE OWNERSHIP

  1. Statement of the question.

1° We have already seen that man as a private person may possess as his own both the production and distribution of things. Now we must deal with the question of whether the use of things which are possessed privately is wholly private, or whether it remains in some way common. This is the question of the social character of private ownership.

2° Use is the immediate application of an external thing to its essential end, which is man’s utility. It is called the consumption of goods by modern writers.

  1. Opinions.

1° Among some peoples, as Aristotle observes,[12] each one used to have his own field apart from that of others, but all the fruits of the fields were made common property and distributed among all. Hence private ownership among these peoples remained wholly common as regards its use.

2° The adherents of Economic Liberalism, in virtue of the principles of their doctrine, which leads to individualism, do not recognize in a positive manner the existence of the social character of private ownership. Moreover, they deny it at least implicity from the fact that they claim for the individual a liberty in economic matters which is too absolute.

3° According to the opinion of Aristotle and St. Thomas,[13] and also according to the social doctrine set forth by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, private property remains in some way common as regards its use. Private property is also private as regards its use, because it is destined for the utility and perfection of its owner; nevertheless, it remains common in as much as a man who possesses external things as his own ought more readily to share them with others who are in need.[14] In other words, « the temporal goods which God grants us are ours as to the ownership, but, as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone, but also to such others as we are able to succour out of our superfluous goods ».[15] Superfluous goods are goods which are over and above what is necessary for the person,[16] that is to say, over and above what is necessary that a man and those dependent on him live in keeping with their social station and condition.[17]

  1. Statement of the thesis.
    THESIS.— PRIVATE PROPERTY REMAINS IN SOME WAY COMMON AS REGARDS ITS USE.

1° If private property is destined for the end of civil so- ciety, it remains in some way common as regards its use. But private property is destined for the end of civil society. Therefore private property remains in some way common as regards its use.

Major.— If private property did not remain common in any way as regards its use, it would not be destined for the end of civil society, which is the common good, but only for a private good.

Minor.— Private property is a good proper to the members of civil society, i.e., proper to the individual person or to the family. But the good proper to the individual person and to the family is, as we saw in the preceding article, destined for the end of civil society. Therefore.

2 ° Private property was instituted, in order that external things attain their essential end, which is the common utility of men. But, in order that external things attain their essential end, which is the common utility of men, private property must remain in some way common as regards its use. Therefore private property remains in some way common as regards its use.

Major.— Private property was not instituted for the utility of this or that man, but for the common utility of men, for, where this institution obtains, production is intensified, and order and peace among men are safeguarded.

Minor.— If private property did not remain in some way common as regards its use, it would be no longer destined for the common utility of men, but exclusively for the utility of this or that man.

3° According to the distributive justice of God, every man has a right to the goods which are necessary for him. But, if private property did not remain in some way common as regards its use, every man would not have a right to the goods which are necessary for him. Therefore private property remains in some way common as regards its use.

Major.— Every man, according to the ordinance of nature, i.e., of God, the author of nature, has a right to his life, and even to a virtuous life. Hence, according to the distributive justice of God, Who is the supreme Lord, every man has a right to the goods necessary for life, and even for a virtuous life.

Minor.— If private property did not remain in some way common as regards its use, the poor and needy, as is evident, would have no right to the goods necessary for life, or, a fortiori, for a virtuous life.

  1. Scholia.

1° Private ownership is the power of producing and of distributing external goods, and is distinct from the use of external goods.

a) Private ownership, i.e., the right of ownership, is not forfeited or lost by the misuse or even by the non-use of this right.[18]

b) The property owner cannot be forced, in virtue of commutative justice, to make the use of his goods common except in the case of extreme necessity; for the indigent, outside the case of extreme necessity, have no strict right to the goods of the property owner,[19] who is free to distribute his goods as he will, provided that in doing so he does not act in violation of the common good.

The common use of private property is demanded by other virtues, viz., friendship, liberality, mercy, magnanimity, and especially Christian charity. Nevertheless, it is specifically required by legal or social justice, which directs all acts of the other virtues to the common good.

2° The obligation of almsgiving results from the common use, i.e., from the social function, of private property. But almsgiving is not the only obligation imposed by this function of private property.

According to Pius XI, « the investment of superfluous income in searching favorable opportunities for employment, provided the labor employed produces results which are really useful, is to be considered… an act of real liberality particularly appropriate to the needs of our time ».[20]

The use of private property is also made common by the foundation and endowment of hospitals, schools, universities, and institutions destined for the support of the poor, the orphan, etc.

3° Superfluous goods are not unlawful,[21] but should be directed to the common good.

4° Since the common use, i.e., the social function, of pri- vate property is required by social justice, the civil authority should make laws governing private ownership that will protect 
the common good.[22] The legislator, nevertheless, must always act with prudence, even though sometimes with firmness and courage.


NOTES

[1] II-II, q. 66, 2.

[2] The chiefest and most excellent rule lor the right use of money is one which the heathen philosophers indicated, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men’s minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money, and another to have a right to use money as one pleases.— LEO X I I I , Rerum Novarum.

[3] Leo XIII has wisely taught that « the defining of private possession has been left by God to man’s industry and to the laws of individual peoples ». History proves that the right of ownership, like other elements of social life, is not absolutely rigid, and this doctrine We Ourselves have given utterance to on a previous occasion in the following terms: « How varied are the forms which the right of property has assumed! First, the primitive form used amongst rude and savage peoples, which still exists in certain localities even in our own day; then, that of the patriarchal age; later came various tyrannical types (We use the word in its classical meaning); finally, the feudal and monarchic systems down to the varieties of more recent times. »— Quadragesimo Anno.

[4] Nor is the individual granted any property rights over material goods or the means of production, for inasmuch as these are the source of further wealth, their possession would give one man power over another. Precisely on this score, all forms of private property must be eradicated, tor they are at the origin of all economic enslavement.— Divini Redemptons, n. 11).

[5] ENGELS, in Anti-Durhing, teaches that « social ownership extends to lands and to the means of production, and individual ownership to prod- ucts, i.e., to objects of consumption ».

[6] II-II, q. 66, a. 2.

[7] Quadragesimo Anno.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Rerum Novarum.

[10] Rerum Novarum.

[11] Quadragesimo Anno.

[12] In Politic., l. II, l. 4

[13] Unde manifestum est quod multo melius est quod sint propriae possessiones secundum dominium, sed quod fiant communes aliquo modo quantum ad usum.—In Politic., l. II, l. 4.

[14] II-II, q. 66, a. 2, c.

[15] II-II, q. 32, a. 5, ad 2.

[16] Ibidem, c. Necessary to the person, i.e., the official necessities of a person in position.

[17] II-II, q. 32, a. 6, c.

[18] Rerum Novarum.—Quadragesimo Anno.

[19] Quadragesimo Anno.

[20] Ibidem.

[21] Quinimo potest esse summa perfectio cum magna opulentia.—II-II, q. 185, a. 6, ad 1.

[22] 185, a. 6, ad 1.
(4) In Politic, 1. II, 1. 4.— CAJETANUS, in II-II, q. 118, a. 4, n. III.

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