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Permissive Natural Law and Property: Gratian to Kant

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 62, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 381-399 | 10.1353/jhi.2001.0031

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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.3 (2001) 381-399



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Permissive Natural Law and Property: Gratian to Kant

Brian Tierney


In his Doctrine of Right Kant set out to formulate a theory of property that would be based on purely rational argumentation, that would abstract "from all spatial and temporal conditions," and that would be applicable to any person, "merely because and insofar as he is free and has practical reason." But from the time when the work first appeared Kant scholars have found many difficulties in the teaching that he presented. Many of them relate to the idea of permissive natural law that Kant introduced at a key point to his argument.

In a previous, complementary article I discussed in detail various apparent aporias that arose in Kant's treatment of this concept and suggested that we might understand his problems better by setting them in a broader historical context than those considered in standard works like those of Reinhard Brandt and Wolfgang Kersting. 1 This is the theme that I want to explore further in the present paper.

To sum up briefly some of the difficulties in the Doctrine of Right: A central problem for Kant was to explain how rightful possession of individual property could emerge from a hypothetical state of nature where everything was common to all, where everyone had a right to everything. His argument was grounded on a concept of freedom understood as "a pure rational concept." Kant maintained that every person had an innate right to freedom and from this he deduced a universal law of Right: "[S]o act externally that the free use of your choice can coexist with the freedom of everyone." 2 But the person who first seized for himself what had been common to all evidently did encroach on the freedom of others (their freedom to use the property that had been taken). [End Page 381]

To address this problem Kant formulated a "postulate of practical reason" concerning property. Citing the Roman law doctrine of res nullius he argued that external things could in principle be acquired. 3 Then he restated the postulate as a permissive law that obliged others to respect the claim of a first occupant. "This postulate can be called a permissive law (lex permissiva) of practical reason which gives us an authorization ... to put all others under an obligation, which they would not otherwise have...." 4 But to put others under an obligation is to encroach on their freedom, which would be a violation of the universal law of Right. For Kant, laws that could be discerned by reason alone without promulgation by a legislator, were understood to be natural laws. 5 The universal law of Right and the permissive law of practical reason were both laws of this kind. It seems therefore that natural law contradicted itself. It prohibited and permitted an action at the same time.

Other difficulties arose as the argument proceeded. Kant repeatedly asserted that rightful possession must depend on consent expressed in "a collective general (common) and powerful will," "a will that is united originally and a priori"; 6 but he acknowledged that such a general will would not exist in a state of nature before the institution of civil society and that an act of original acquisition would necessarily proceed from a unilateral will. "But the will that a thing is to be mine ... can be only unilateral." 7 And yet Kant also wrote, "By my unilateral choice I cannot bind another to refrain from using a thing, an obligation he would not otherwise have." 8 Kant never did explain how a permissive law, allowing a person to act unilaterally, could impose an obligation on others.

In my earlier discussion of Kant's work I indicated that it might be fruitful to approach these difficulties by investigating some previous ways of using the language of permissive natural law, especially as it related to the origin of property rights. There is indeed a whole earlier tradition of thought to be considered. An investigation of this material...