Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A puzzle about property rights

Frank lives on a roughly triangular plot of land bordered on each side by a different neighbor: Joanna, Therese, and William. That is, his property is completely surrounded by the property of others. 

When he purchased this property, there was a well on the property. Through no fault of his own, nor through any actions of his neighbors, the water in the well has become undrinkable.

Because of some unchosen characteristic of Frank’s—his ethnicity, his sexual orientation, his nationality, … you may pick—his neighbors have taken a dislike to him. This dislike is so strong that they would just as lief that he be dead. However, his neighbors all respect his (negative) right to life as much as they respect property rights, absolutely. 

Thus, when Frank comes to them asking to buy water, they refuse to sell the water to him. No price that Frank is able to pay is a price that they are willing to take. There are more distant sellers willing to sell Frank water at a price agreeable to him, but they would have to cross the property of Joanna, Therese, or William to do so. And, none of these are willing to allow access at an agreeable price.

What may Frank justly do to rectify the situation and obtain water? And, why?


Topak said...

How about Lateral drilling from his well then under one of his neighbors properties to a neutral point for him to establish a water pipeline. The lateral drilling would be deep enough not to inconvenience the neighbor, and for all intents and purposes, they'd never even know it was there.

Darrin Gitisetan said...

Several issues should be clarified before a solution is found. Can Frank dig another well somewhere else on his property? Does he live in a lawful country where he is a lawful resident and can seek justice from the courts?

Assuming he cannot dig a new well, and that he lives in the US as a lawful resident, the key to the puzzle is easement. Surely, he must have been entitled to an express or implied easement when he obtained his property ("easement by necessity"). Otherwise, how could he get out of his landlocked house without trespassing the properties of his hostile neighbors? He would be imprisoned in his own house! An easement also gives him the right to leave his property for the purpose of obtaining water, for example, by negotiating a fair price with other citizens. He then can deliver the water to his property, even if the easement does not allow others to reach his property to deliver water. In a lawful country, he can justly sue his neighbors for denying him the exsercise of his legal rights and seek relief.

The solution suggested by Topak is not desirable, because it could be considered encroachment on his neighbors' properties which is illegal. It would probably be immoral as well if he would not inform his neighbors of his plan.

Darrin Gitisetan

Darrin Gitisetan said...


I was reading an interesting article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy regarding "thought experiments."

The following was given as an example of an ethical thought experiment:

"Judith Thomson provided one of the most striking and effective thought experiments in the moral realm (see Thomson, 1971). Her example is aimed at a popular anti-abortion argument that goes something like this: The foetus is an innocent person with a right to life. Abortion results in the death of a foetus. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong. In her thought experiment we are asked to imagine a famous violinist falling into a coma. The society of music lovers determines from medical records that you and you alone can save the violinist's life by being hooked up to him for nine months. The music lovers break into your home while you are asleep and hook the unconscious (and unknowing, hence innocent) violinist to you. You may want to unhook him, but you are then faced with this argument put forward by the music lovers: The violinist is an innocent person with a right to life. Unhooking him will result in his death. Therefore, unhooking him is morally wrong.

However, the argument, even though it has the same structure as the anti-abortion argument, does not seem convincing in this case. You would be very generous to remain attached and in bed for nine months, but you are not morally obliged to do so. The parallel with the abortion case is evident. Thomson's thought experiment is effective in distinguishing two concepts that had previously been run together:“right to life” and “right to what is needed to sustain life.” The foetus and the violinist may each have the former, but it is not evident that either has the latter. The upshot is that even if the foetus has a right to life (which Thomson does not believe but allows for the sake of the argument), it may still be morally permissible to abort. "
*********End of quote****

I believe, there is a disanalogy in this thought experiment: "You," who in the thought experiment are FORCED to keep the violinist alive, have no role in the violinist's condition (i.e., his being in a coma) and therefore, no obligation to keep him alive. Therefore, the argument deducing from this thought experiment seems to be valid for a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape, not a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of engaging in consensual sex, on her own free will, knowing that she could become pregnant and be responsible for the birth of a child.

It seems to me most thought experiments are similar to arguments from analogy and therefore week. They are useful when logical or other constraints do not allow other, more robust, types of argumentation, such as deductive, inductive, etc. to be used.

What do you think? Do you agree with my argument about the logical flaw in the above thought experiment?

Submitted by: Darrin Gitisetan

Tyler said...

Thomson's intention in that particular thought experiment is just to show that the fact of personhood alone is not sufficient to create an obligation in another to be kept alive.
That, if it works, it does. Her overall strategy is to remove, piece by piece, the intuitions that together support the anti-abortion position.

Even though I use them, I do, however, think it's good to be suspicious of thought experiments.