Property

From Will Wilkinson:

I found this little thought experiment, inserted by a Forbes editor into an interview with Amartya Sen, pretty peculiar.

[Note: In the book, Sen describes a problem of divergent views on justice in which you have one flute and three children who want it. One child wants the flute because she knows how to play it, the second one wants it because he is poor and doesn’t have toys, and the third one says she made the flute, so she should get it. Who do you give it to?]

This is no knock against Sen, since there’s probably more context in the book. But this is not really such a puzzling question, is it? The correct answer is: It all depends on how “you” ended up with the flute!

Is the flute yours because you provided the materials (which were yours) and paid the kid who made it? If so, you can give it to anyone you want, or you can keep it. It’s yours! Did you steal it from the kid who made it? Then you should give it to the kid who made it. It’s hers! You’ve got no right to redistribute her flute.

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2 thoughts on “Property

  1. I haven’t read the Sen piece, and I don’t read Will Wilkinson unless paid (because he adopts the feminist practice of using “she,” “her,” “hers” as the singular common gender pronouns). But suppose a person commissioned the flute’s making for the purpose of bestowing it on “the one most worthy.” That pretty much eliminates the maker. He was chosen as the one most worthy of receiving the flute-making commission, but that has no obvious connection to his being the one most worthy of receiving the flute as a gift. The one who is poor and has no toys also has no obvious claim, because it is not clear that the flute can be a toy for him: there is no indication that he can play it or even learn to play it. (I would go further: Need is not a claim on wealth.) Of the three, then, that leaves only the one who can play it. Of course, we could imagine other scenarios, involving a search for the one absolutely most worthy, and then the person able to play the flute right now might not be the winner. But Wilkinson’s rejoinder that the owner can bestow it on whomever he likes raises certain other questions. If I owned the treasures of the Louvre, would the morality of burning them in a pyre be simply a matter of what I wanted to do with them?

    • I think the point–as I took it–was the assumption that the manner in which the flute was acquired from its maker was deliberately left out of the example. Will wasn’t saying anything about the morality of any potential distribution, but was rather highlighting the fact that the morality of taking the flute from it’s maker was deliberately obscured. If that distribution exists beyond the bounds of moral judgment, then there is no rational basis for claiming that any of the other possible outcomes is more or less moral than any other. Indeed, the only way to construct a coherent construction of moral distribution is to invoke some concept of property.

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