Zippy Catholic had a great post the other day on the nature of property that got me thinking about legal property versus ontological properties. I think I have been able to tie his account of ownership of property to a metaphysical basis.
Zippy’s post is short and succinct – unlike this one – and worth a read. The most important bits for my purposes here are these:
But real authority which produces genuine moral obligations does not ultimately derive from the human will, either simpliciter or in some theoretical aggregation mediated through some heretical theory of consent of the governed. The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God. …
Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects.
By “object” we don’t mean physical objects: we mean the things in the property relation which are not subjects. Subjects are of course persons: moral agents with the capacity to choose behaviors.
Bear these paragraphs of Zippy’s in mind as you work your way through what follows. We don’t begin with them; rather, we are working our way toward them.
To begin then at the beginning: the form of a thing is ordered to its telos. The form of an acorn cannot be even partly that of a carburetor, or it won’t be able to produce an oak. If it is to act as an acorn acts, it has to have the form of an acorn, which is to say, all the properties of an acorn.
We could equally say that the telos of a thing is implicit in its form. Formality and finality, then, are mutually reducible, each implicit in the other.
The form of a thing, which characterizes it as just the thing that it is, and allows us to distinguish it from other things, is impressed upon it, engraved or stamped, by that portion of the Logos peculiar to it. ‘Character’ is “from Greek kharakter, ‘engraved mark,’ also ‘symbol or imprint on the soul.’”
A property of a thing is a feature of its character. ‘Property’ is “from Latin proprietatem (nominative proprietas) ‘ownership, a property, propriety, quality,’ literally ‘special character’ (a loan-translation of Greek idioma), noun of quality from proprius ‘one’s own, special’ (see proper: “’one’s own, particular to itself,’ from pro privo ‘for the individual, in particular,’ from ablative of privus ‘one’s own, individual’”).” Idioma is “from idios, ‘personal, private,’ properly ‘particular to oneself.’”
‘Property’ translates literally as ‘quality for through.’ The qualities of the acorn are for the oak that can be actualized through the acorn. The properties of any object, then, are aspects of its formal ordination toward its final end.
The properties of a thing include both essential and accidental features. The former are given by the sort of thing it is. The latter are given by what it is vis-à-vis its historical circumstances – vis-à-vis the accidents of its history.
Essential properties are inalienable. Delete the essential properties of a thing and you destroy it, transforming it into another sort of thing altogether. To destroy the essential properties of a thing is obviously to prevent the perfection of its telos in act.
Accidental properties are alienable. Move a hammer from Arizona to New Mexico, and it is still a hammer. This does not mean that they are trivial, for the accidental properties of a thing are also Providential. The accidental aspects of the telos of a thing – i.e., those aspects of its final end that relate to the act for which it is formed vis-à-vis its accidental circumstances – are a derivate of the Divine integration of disparate creaturely acts into the Providential Act that furnishes to each creature its world. It is by virtue of that Act that each thing has its existence in the first place, and with it a Divinely ordained Purpose in regard to its cosmos, and thus its form and character, and also its importance and significance.
As in the final analysis there can be nothing in a coherent causal system that is merely adventitious, neither is anything ultimately trivial. The world hangs together only because every one of its members assumes exactly the position it does vis-à-vis all its fellows. An essentially small thing like a horseshoe nail, a bacterium, a diamond, or a bullet may have great import on account of its accidental properties. Likewise, an essentially great thing may come to very little, as do many human lives.
The want of a nail can spell – can signify – the loss of a kingdom; or not. Either way, the nail (however relatively unimportant or insignificant it may be to one person or another) plays a crucial part in maintaining the causal order. That order being, evidently, valuable to God (or it would be unmade), all actualities are more or less valuable absolutely.
So no actuality is utterly insignificant, or wholly unimportant. The zero of import and signification is the zero of being.
Value is a measure of significance and importance – and, consequently, of causal efficacy, of power.
The absolute value – the value to God – of a thing is a function of its role in salvation history – i.e., of its accidental telos in the history of the cosmos as it is understood by God. And the relative values of things – their value to each other, each from its own perspective – derive from that absolute value, as relative being derives from absolute being.
All of economics and physics – and, therefore, law (whether natural, moral, or juridical) – are implicit in the differentials of causal value – of import, significance, efficacy, power, agency – between different creatures. All transactions are moved by such differentials, and proceed in pursuit of homeostasis at optimality for the whole world – of perfect and perfectly general rest in the Good. So it is that the duties and privileges of things, as expressed and manifest in their teleotropic features and properties, jointly encode and embody the coordination of events that procures a coherent and regular world. Then the whole order of the world is implicit in each member thereof. Whitehead somewhere says, “each atom is a system of all things.”
As coherent in its world, so each atom is, not just for the ends given by its own essential nature and accidental circumstances, but also for all the ends of all its fellow creatures, with whom it participates and coordinates to enact their world; and the ends of each creature are integrated in and by the source and end of all creatures, their Alpha and Omega, in and by whom they live, move, and subsist: the Way of Heaven, the Tao, the Logos.
Thus the acorn is not only for the production of oak trees. It may turn out to be valuable also as mast for the rooting pig, or for the production of squirrel meat. Is the acorn eaten, rather than sprouting and growing into an oak? Then such was its Providential telos, given its accidents.
However we find things to be for us, from one moment to the next – no matter even how ugly or painful our inheritances from our past, or therefore how difficult things now are – we must take such deliverances as somehow meant, and indeed important (albeit not strictly necessary) to and for the Providential plan of salvation for the whole cosmos. Humility under suffering then is noble, while pride goeth before a fall – and a further fall is always possible.
The value of things in themselves, quite apart from our own purposes, and deriving from their Providential arrival in the world, ought then to give us pause in all our operations upon them. It is fitting and prudent for the artisan of any sort to treat his materials with respect, and to take heed of the causal valences they embody. After all, the objects we discover around us cannot be for us, or pertinent to our purposes, unless they are first in and for themselves; they are fit to our purposes, or not, on account of what they themselves are. So it behooves us to treat them, and to dispose of the values they embody, with due care.
To use a screwdriver as a chisel, or vice versa, is suboptimal. Misuse ruins a thing for the perfection of its telos. It is just then, and correct – literally ‘with the right’ – to operate upon an object in such a way as to permit it to achieve its end, its telos: to realize that portion of the Logos peculiar to itself – its privy logos, its privilege. To do this is to recognize and honor its natural dignity, and to magnify the Glory of the Lord in his creation. To do otherwise is to increase the creaturely cost of the world’s fruition at the eschaton – to increase the suffering she must endure, her groaning and travailing.
Thus it is that in our doings we are bound to consider and respect the essential and accidental properties of the objects we encounter. This is no great insight; indeed, it is mere common sense, and known in ordinary speech as keeping one’s wits about oneself.
Among the accidental properties of objects we are bound to consider is that of possession. That a hammer happens to be in Joe’s hands rather than Peter’s, as belonging particularly to Joe, and under his authority, is an accidental property of the hammer that, as being after all an artifact of Providence, we are duty bound to notice and respect. This is so even if Joe came by the hammer unjustly.
Read now again from the first two of Zippy’s paragraphs quoted above:
The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God. …
Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects.
Ownership of an object consists in the authority to use it according to its telos – or, obviously, to fail thereat. It is respect for that telos of an object – as implicit in both its essential and accidental features, including that of its ownership – that exerts moral suasion upon subjects other than the owner to treat it as properly his, so that he has special and private authority over its disposition.
Now the powers of a man over objects, which are the incidents of his ownership, are his own accidental properties. His historical powers – natural, social, political – derive from his predicaments, his circumstances. And these too come about Providentially. They are not merely adventitious. No more then are his political circumstances – his duties and rights in respect to his polis – at all adventitious. They were produced by intentional acts (whether those acts intended such productions, or not). If a man holds a certain office, or owns a bit of property, this fact is in some sense ultimately due to the outworkings of Providence. And Providence has some purpose in mind, some telos, for men in their offices and properties, given their station in the order of history.
This is why it is wrong to steal (and to covet). Stealing is to the accidental properties of a man as murder or enslavement is to his essential properties. Both sorts of crime prevent the realization in act of a man’s Providential telos. We are bound to respect a man’s proprietary relations to objects over which he has power, for the same sort of reason we are obliged to respect his proprietary relations to his essential features.   A failure of either sort of respect to a man has the same result: the prevention of the perfection in act of his Providential telos.
 Note that “feature,” too, denotes an element of a thing that is ordered to its telos: “feature” = “facture.”
 What does not exist can have no features. It cannot therefore be fungible – cannot change owners. This is why usury is sinful; for it is a type of lie about what exists. As a fraud upon the borrower, it is both false witness and theft.