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Why Property Is

October 30th, 2002 · No Comments

Glen takes issue with my response to Sonia in a post so well reasoned that my brief and weak response shouldn’t deter you from reading it. My response is going to be brief and weak because, at root, the disagreement on IP between Glen and I is a function of the fact that he’s a rule utilitarian, and so thinks all property is justified by some variant of an incentives argument, whereas I’m not, and think there’s something else going on in the case of other sorts of property. Now, I may one day bore y’all with some sort of consequentialism vs. Kantian contractualism throwdown, but I’m not about to open that can of worms as a side-note to an IP dispute, though I guess it wouldn’t hurt to point the curious to my in-severe-need-of-updating piece from a few years back, “Why I Am Not a Utilitiarian.” From a consequentialist perspective, “baseline” reasoning is irrelevant. The point is to reach the best possible outcome, not to optimize relative to any hypothetical starting point. Since consequentialism is ultimately strictly forward-looking (even though it may for instrumental reasons produce “historical” looking rules), no baseline is morally privileged. I, on the other hand, think there’s a minimum level of deference people are entitled to, even if it might be much better for many others not to extend that deference: the baseline is a way of expressing that, what Rawls might call a “device of representation.” But since it now occurs to me that either (1) you’re familiar with this jargon, and the points I’m making are too elementary to be worth reading, or (2) you’re not, and this reads vaguely like one of Bush’s speeches — I’ll stop with this line of thought.

That said, let me at least minimally defend that initial post by observing that it was just intended as a rebuttal to Sonia. I argued, contra Sonia, that IP is merely instrumentally justified — that its scope ought extend only as far as that mode of justification will get us. There’s no deeper, deontological right to IP. Now, Glen thinks the same is true of all property, but if that’s the case, then a fortiori it’s true of IP, so to the extent that I’m primarily interested in shooting her argument down, the objection stands. Given that, I feel justified in copping out on the larger question, Eve having exhausted my brain’s philosotonin reserves for the week.

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