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Francis Hutcheson on Property’s Origins: 1725-1755

Francis Hutcheson (August 8, 1694 – August 8, 1746) was a philosopher born in Ireland to a family of Scottish Presbyterians who became one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment (which would also include David Hume and Adam Smith).

Stephen Buckle, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney, sums up Hutcheson’s views on property’s origins:

“The basic starting-point of Hutcheson’s account of property can be regarded in either of two (roughly equivalent) lights: as a Lockian revision of Pufendorf, or as an attempt to produce a naturalized (and thus secular) version of Locke’s theory. He affirms that the original condition of the first human beings with respect to the earth and its bounty was, as Pufendorf had said, a negative community; and he implicitly demonstrates how that notion underlies Locke’s theory, by erecting a substantially Lockian theory on that foundation. To suppose an original negative community, he holds, is to imply that the original establishment of property required neither an agreement, as Grotius and Pufendorf had supposed, nor an explicit (divine) parental grant, as Filmer had argued. Rather, property arose from the original negative community directly through labour.” [Buckle: 223-224]

Rephrased: the land and all property was originally owned by no one, and a right to it comes from our use of it through labor, not from God’s divine grace to Adam or from any sort of agreement, which would not be realistic. Hutcheson differs from Grotius and Pufendorf in another way, as they thought private property arose due to a shift to a more refined mode of life. Hutcheson was more pragmatic, and thought it arose from necessity, as resources became limited and scarce. Scarcity, furthermore, is directly caused by population increases, he believes. (One could argue conversely that a lower population would require less emphasis on property. Marx, in a related way, argued that the need for private property would disappear once goods reached a level of abundance.) Until population reached a point that goods had to be divided accordingly, little concern was given to what was “yours” or “mine”, because we could always find more.

Hutcheson maintained that private property encouraged industry, and added to the sum total of human happiness. He may be tied to Aristotle in this way. However, he was not very enthusiastic about the fledgling capitalist system, being highly suspicious of its implications for traditional virtues like benevolence and generosity. What we are to infer from this is unclear: he seems to suggest that desire for property is good, but it has its limits. Stepping on the toes of others would be an improper way to acquire property.

Norman Fiering, a specialist in the intellectual history of colonial New England, has described Francis Hutcheson as “probably the most influential and respected moral philosopher in America in the eighteenth century.” [Fiering: 189] Others may give that title to John Locke. Among others influenced by Hutcheson was Adam Smith, the original modern economic philosopher and proponent of capitalism.


Buckle, Stephen. Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume Clarendon Press, 1991.

Fiering, Norman. Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard: A Discipline in Transition University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

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