My two year old nephew has a habit of telling his onlookers that a certain object, say a toy or Â a ball, Â is “mine”. What makes this interesting is that it cannot be chalked off to the self-absorption of youth. For he will often remind us to heed the fact that certain objects belong to others, as in when he says, “that’s George’s car”. Though I have sometimes wondered whether this reflected an inborn human trait, not having kids of my own, I was inclined to conclude from the smallness of my sample (namely, one child) that my nephew just happened to be uniquely attuned to property rights.
Well, it turns out that the behaviour of my nephew may well be genetically encoded in human nature. Â In a study conducted by Ori Friedman of the University of Waterloo, young children demonstrated an appreciation for property rights. Â This is significant because kids have been subject to limited socialization. So any behaviour spontaneously exhibited by them is more likely to reflect nature as opposed to nurture.
One experiment went as follows:
Friedmanâ€™s team presented a simple quandary to 40 preschoolers, ages 4 and 5, and to 44 adults. Participants saw an image of a cartoon boy holding a crayon who appeared above the word â€œuserâ€ and a cartoon girl who appeared above the word â€œowner.â€ After hearing from an experimenter that the girl wanted her crayon back, volunteers were asked to rule on which cartoon child should get the prized object.
About 75 percent of 4- and 5-year-olds decided in favor of the owner, versus about 20 percent of adults. [to read the whole article, link here]
The big question, of course, is whether any moral conclusions can be drawn from this evidence. In other words, does this mean that property rights are natural? Have 17-18th century classical liberals like John Locke been proved right?
To say the least, this is a thorny issue. The main obstacle to deducing a natural right to property from the fact that human beings seem hard-wired to recognize that right is what moral philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy — to wit, one would be trying to infer “ought” from “is”. Â This is widely thought to be a logically invalid move because the conclusion to an argument must be limited to what is contained in the premises. In this instance, the conclusion, that individual control of resources ought to be respected, comprises a value judgement that is nowhere to be found in the factual observation that such control is instinctually respected.
One way around the ought-is dilemma is to say that no matter what moral value one happens to prize — whether it be freedom, equality, fairness, the pursuit of happiness, human excellence, or some combination thereof– one must take the structure of human nature into account. This structure helps illuminate what the costs/benefits of advancing a given value are likely to be. It will do so by indicating whether one is going with the grain of human nature or against it.
Better to go with the grain if the tendency in question can be channeled to socially beneficial purposes, such as peace and economic prosperity. Â And these are what we tend to get when society acknowledges individual property rights.