Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


David Schmidtza1

a1 Philosophy, University of Arizona


When we’re trying to articulate principles of justice that we have reason to take seriously in a world like ours, one way to start is with an understanding of what our world is like, and of which institutional frameworks promote our thriving in communities and which do not. If we start this way, we can sort out alleged principles of justice by asking which ones license mutual expectations that promote our thriving and which ones do otherwise. This is an essay in the how and why of nonideal theory: in particular, how and why principles of property come first and principles of justice second. Ownership conventions, and property law as it develops under the pressures of case by case dispute resolution, tend to become touchstones for conflict mediation down through generations. They may be imperfect, retaining vestiges of adaptations to ancient problems that no longer exist, yet still they work, coordinating expectations so as to make it easier for people to live well together. A priori reasons for endorsing principles of justice generally are not good enough. A good enough reason would be something like this: to endorse this way of applying this principle in this kind of circumstance is to support institutional frameworks that position us to play positive sum games.

David Schmidtz is Kendrick Professor of Philosophy, joint Professor of Economics, and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Person, Polis, Planet (2008) and the coauthor with Jason Brennan of A Brief History of Liberty (2010).


I thank Dean Donald Weidner and his colleagues at Florida State College of Law for honoring me with the opportunity to teach their first-year Property course in the fall of 2007. Their trust, encouragement, and unstinting collegial support inspired this essay. Thanks also to the Earhart Foundation for their support on this and various related projects. For comments, I thank Jason Brennan, Michael Bukoski, Chris Freiman, Keith Hankins, Kate Johnson, Ben Kearns, Mark LeBar, Dan Russell, Daniel Silvermint, John Thrasher, Jennifer Zamzow, and Matt Zwolinski.