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THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Yet More on Property, II: Hudock’s Alleged Errors

Last week we noted that we had received a link to a three-year-old article in U.S. Catholic, “How Much Do You Really Own?” by Barry Hudock, sent to us in refutation of our contention that the right to be an owner (the right to property) pertains to the natural law, while the rights of ownership (the rights of property) come under human positive law, custom, and tradition — as long as these do not nullify the underlying right to be an owner in the first place.  This posting was originally titled, "Hudock's Fatal Errors," but we have since discovered that the individual who sent us the link asserting that it disproved our position may have been a little mistaken, and might have slightly misunderstood Hudock's position as well as our own.  We (mistakenly) assumed that our commentator could substantiate his interpretation of Hudock's article, which he could not.  We've taken this opportunity to correct this, and (incidentally) get rid of the bold typeface that somehow sneaked into the last two paragraphs.  And screwed up the rest of the formatting, of course.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Definitions are important.
Last week we gave our definitions of terms and understanding of property as it appears in Catholic social teaching.  Today we can examine the errors made in attempting to refute our position without understanding it.

The idea that the right to be an owner (the right to property, the generic right of dominion) is of human positive law and not the natural law — which the individual who sent the link incorrectly implied was Hudock's position, rests on the primary error of confusion over the definition of property, and the derived error over the distinction between access and use stemming from a misunderstanding of property.  These are the “small errors in the beginning that lead to great errors in the end.”

First, Hudock quoted John Paul II, and gave his, Hudock’s, understanding of what John Paul II meant.  Fine.  Nothing wrong there.  Unfortunately for our commentator's argument, John Paul II’s — and Hudock's — discussion was not about access as our commentator supposed, but use.

Paul VI: "Yes I can . . . write an encyclical."
Paul VI put a similar argument under the heading “The Use of Private Property” in Populorum Progressio when he explained that “the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.”  The fact that this is under the heading “The Use of Private Property” clearly indicates that the sense is “the right to use private property is not absolute and unconditional.”  You would otherwise have to make the argument that Paul VI didn’t know how to write an encyclical and was unable to put subjects under the proper heading:

The Use of Private Property

23. "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich." These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, "as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good." When "private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another," it is for the public authorities "to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups."

Fer th' luva Mars, just say it in Latin!
The official Latin is clearer on this point than the English translation, which leaves out a few key words and concepts.  Where the English has, “These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional,” the Latin has: Quae verba declarant, privatam bonorum proprietatem nemini ius tale concedere, quod supremum sit nullique condicioni obnoxium, a transliteration of which reads —

“These words declare that no one may take away such goods belonging to the private right of property [i.e., the rights that accompany ownership], subject to the condition that such [i.e., exercise of the rights that accompany ownership] is not overriding [“uppermost to none,” i.e., absolute].”

Thus, to understand this passage we must take into account the fact that the entire discussion is in a section headed “The Use of Private Property,” and that the official Latin text includes specific words that emphasize this point that are only implied in the English text.  No one, therefore, can legitimately claim that this passage overturns previous papal teachings that every human being has by nature the right to be an owner (the right to property, Rerum Novarum, § 6).  This is despite the fact that the good of the individual and common good as a whole require that the exercise of the rights of property be limited — as long as this is done without prejudice to the underlying right to be an owner in the first place.

"Even a dumb ox like me gets it."
Second, Hudock cites Aquinas’s strictures concerning the use of “external things.”  Again, no problem — with Hudock. What the commentator carefully ignored or failed to take into account, however, was Aquinas’s preceding discussion and conclusion on access to ownership of those same things (ST IIa IIae, q. 66, a. 1), and Hudock's assumption of its validity:

 It is by this argument that the Philosopher [Aristotle] proves (Polit. i, 3) that the possession of external things is natural to man.  Moreover, this natural dominion of man over other creatures, which is competent to man in respect of his reason wherein God’s image resides, is shown forth in man’s creation (Gn.1:26) by the words: “Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea,” etc.”

The bottom line here is that if you try to understand papal teachings on private property as proving that private property is not a natural right, having already concluded beforehand that private property is not a natural right, you are arguing from the conclusion you claim to reach, rather than from the evidence or by logic — and you're going to misrepresent what people such as Hudock are actually saying.  This is the circulus in probando (“circle in proving”) logical fallacy, i.e., a “circular argument” in which you begin with what you are trying to end with.

You also commit a “logical fallacy of equivocation” by confusing property in the sense of the right to be an owner inherent in every human being under natural law, with the sense of property as the necessarily limited and socially determined bundle of rights under human positive law, tradition, and custom.