Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Samuel R. Freeman


Property rights are central to debates over distributive justice. In this dissertation, I defend three interrelated claims about the nature of property rights and distributive justice. First, I argue that different types of property have different moral standing in social and political philosophy. Some property rights constitute basic moral (or natural) rights and therefore come with strong presumptions against state interference for redistribution. Other property rights are social conventions and as such do not enjoy any special moral status. There is no presumption against redistributing this latter type of property rights. Second, I offer a justification for private property rights as a basic moral right. Here I argue that the same considerations that generate the basic moral rights in Rawls’s Theory of Justice also generate a limited basic moral right to property. The justification for property as a basic moral right is that certain property rights are necessary for realizing our fundamental conception of personhood through the development and exercise of the moral powers. This justification also supplies the criterion for distinguishing the set of morally special property rights from the set of merely conventional ones. Only those property rights necessary for the development and exercise of the moral powers belong to the morally special set. Third, I defend a Hohfeldian conception of property and argue against Blackstonianism. Blackstonians conceive of property rights as despotic dominion. By contrast, Hohfeldians conceive of property rights as a bundle of rights, powers, duties and liabilities that can be specified in many different ways. Here I argue that property is a normative concept that must be tied and tailored to its justification. I conclude that only the Hohfeldian conception of property is capable of tailoring the incidents of property to its underlying justification. After developing and defending these three claims about the nature of property rights, I consider several consequences of the theory for property law and policy.


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