Conventionalism about Property and the Outsider Challenge


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Conventionalism about property is the view that all moral duties correlative to property rights depend essentially either on the existence of a convention that assigns conventional ownership of objects, or on the existence of a body of positive law that confers legal property rights. It has been objected that, if Conventionalism about property is true, then it is impossible for someone to have her property right violated by someone who is not a member of the community in which her conventional property right is assigned. But it is possible. When Christopher Columbus sailed up to the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he and his sailors wronged the inhabitants by forcing them off their land. So, Conventionalism is false. This is the Outsider Challenge for Conventionalism. The Outsider Challenge (and its first premise, in particular) receives support from the Benefit Condition, according to which one can be morally obligated to comply with a conventional rule only if one benefits or has one’s interests protected by the convention of which it is a part. Despite its provenance and plausibility, however, I think that the Benefit Condition should be rejected. Doing so in a principled way allows us to square Conventionalism with our moral intuitions and, thus, address the Outsider Challenge. My main aim in this essay is to reject the Benefit Condition in one such principled way by providing a Contractualist answer to the question of when, and why, someone is morally required to respect another’s conventional property right. One is morally required to respect the conventional property rights of another when and because failing to do so would run afoul of the Principle of Established Practices (pep) – a principle for which I give a Contractualist justification. Roughly, the pep requires us to comply with sufficiently just social practices in the absence of special justification, and the fact that one’s interests are not protected by a property convention is not always a sufficiently strong reason for one to violate the duties assigned by that convention. Since the fact that one’s interests are not protected by a property convention is not necessarily a special justification for violating the pep, the pep gives us reason to reject the Benefit Condition and, thus, the Outsider Challenge, too.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Moral Philosophy
Early online date29 May 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 May 2023
Externally publishedYes

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  • Contractualism
  • Conventionalism
  • directed duty
  • property right


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