it's mine so I can do what I like with it ....
... if it doesn't hurt anyone else.
I've often met this line, and it has usually been going somewhere I don't like. So here is what I think is wrong with it.
is with "hurt" (or "harm" or "violate the rights
of"). Consider some examples. A has undisputed ownership to
an oasis as B comes crawling across the desert up to the fence. A
doesn't let B in for a drink and B dies of thirst. Did A harm
B? He hadn't squashed him with a rock, but he has failed to give
him help. Is failing to give help a matter of harming?
That's the distinction between acts and omissions, as moral theorists
say, and they all agree it is a hard distinction to sustain. It
is sensitive among other things to what language one is using, and what
active verbs are available. But surely that is irrelevant.
If we are speaking a language with no word for "shoot" but an
active word for refraining from shooting ("sparing ones aim towards"
might be a translation), then it isn't much defence if A shoots B that
he only refrained from giving B the assistance of refraining his
shot. Or I notice that there is a misleading sign that gives the
impression that a public path goes across my land. So I dig a
deep pit and fill it with alligators, then watch and giggle while
hikers fall into it. Have I caused their deaths? I didn't
push them. but I didn't warn them either, or help them out. One
definition of cause is that one event causes another when if the first
hadn't occurred then the second would not have. Add to this that
to harm someone is to cause injury to them. Then the pit digger
has harmed the hikers. But on this definition of cause there is
no act/omission distinction: if you are harmed because I refrain from
helping you, then my refraining causes your harm. Want a
different definition of cause? You're welcome to look for one.
second problem is with "anyone". A particular person? But
many things you can do with your property affect people who do not yet
exist, or whose identity is undetermined. Suppose you own the only supply of a rare earth that will allow
technology that will save lives, and you vaporize it. Besides the
present people who you have failed to help, there are the
great-great-grandchildren who will die, though there is no present fact
about who they are and how many they are. Are you implicated in
their deaths? A matter of how we twist the terms. But if you had
acted differently they would not have died.
about cause and problems about specificity ('harm" and "anyone")
combine when the uncooperative behaviour changes the probability of bad
things happening to people. Suppose that I and my pals joyfully expose ourselves, on our
land, to a mutant virus that is sweeping the
country, then go and have a drink in town. We make it more likely
that babies and old people will die of the virus. Have we killed
them? Unclear, since the virus was circulating anyway and we
didn't target anyone in particular. But more people are likely to
die as a result of our acts.
third problem is with
"can". If it means "legally permissible"
then the claim is generally true in many legal systems: I have legal
permission to dispose of my property as I wish. But with
exceptions: I can't legally burn all my money before paying
taxes, and in many jurisdictions there are restrictions on how much I
can leave to whom. But of course many things are legally
permissible that are
wrong. "Can" might mean "I have a right to do it". Then the
argument can get long, because there is not much agreement about what
rights people have. (The core of the consensus takes "A has a right to
do E" to mean "it's not permissible to prevent A doing E".) But on the
core of "right" that we all agree about, it can be wrong to do
something you have a right to do. If I have more money than I know what
to do with and you are my handicapped grandchild and instead of leaving
anything to you I have it all thrown in the sea then I am probably
acting within my rights, but this doesn't affect whether what I have
done is right. Or I discover a mortifyingly embarrassing fact
about you and I describe it on a billboard -- on my property -- and you
are so humiliated that you kill yourself. Then I am within my
free speech rights, but I have done wrong. So we can
criticise people who are doing things they have a right to do, and
adopt various means to persuade them to act otherwise.
is the issue when someone points to their having a legal right to do
something, as if that refutes criticism of them for it. Often the
right means that others cannot physically prevent them from doing it
(though they can change the law). But they can say loudly that is is
wrong, and try to persuade the wrong-doer to act otherwise. Then the
rights-worshipper is often annoyed and confused. "But you
interfere, I have a right to it." To which the reply is "So we
physically stop you, but there are many other things we can and should
fourth problem is with "mine". Concepts of property - what you
can own and what owning it entails - vary from culture to
culture. We don't think one can own air. In French law one owns
one's land down to the core of the earth, but that is not so in the law of other
countries. Questions of intellectual property rights are very
contested. In some countries there can be a right to cross
someone else's land, but not in others. It's a social
invention. Probably a good one, but the devil is in the
details. If you own some woodland, you don't own the air above
it. Do you own the water below it, or the widlife within
it? That is a matter of how we make our law.
to conclude? Crudely, that it is not true that if I own something
and I use it to act in a way that does not directly cause harm to
another person, then I have not done anything wrong. Right and
wrong are always vague and contested, but it is hard to see how the
claim could be true on even the bare intersection of the moralities that
sane and well-meaning people accept.
There's a connection between the issues about rights and
questions of tolerance and relativity. People have different
views about what is right, and most of us agree that it is good to
tolerate, even indulge, one another's crazy opinions about morality.
So we say that you have a right to your own opinions here.
This means that if I disagree with you I cannot force you to stop
thinking or expressing yourself the way you want. But it doesn't
mean I cannot try to persuade you that you are wrong. Sometimes I
have a duty to, in fact.