The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

Aristotle on Property Rights

Fred D. Miller Jr., Bowling Green State University

Fred Miller Jr. presented “Aristotle on Property Rights” at the meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy with the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association March 28, 1986, in Los Angeles. A revised version was published in John P. Anton & Anthony Preus, eds. 1991. Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, Vol. IV: Aristotle’s Ethics. SUNY Press, 227-248. See also his Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics, Oxford 1997.

For information about the author see: Wikipedia “Fred Miller (philosopher)”


The thesis is that a theory of private property rights can be reconstructed from the remarks about property scattered throughout Aristotle’s writings. His working concept is as follows: X has a property right in P if, and only if, X possesses P in such a way that the use of P is up to X and the alienation of P (giving P away or selling P) is up to X. It is argued that Aristotle provides clear answers to the important questions which should be answered by a theory of property rights: (1) What individuals can properly hold rights to property? (2) To what objects can they have property rights? (3) What form is taken by exercise of property rights? (4) What is the general moral justification for the thesis that individuals have property rights? (5) Under what circumstances do individuals justly acquire title to specific objects and under what circumstances do they come to possess them unjustly? (6) Under what circumstances, if any, may property rights be aIienabIe, defeasible, or quaIifiable? (7) What specific social policies are implied by property rights, i.e. in what way should property rights be protected and what constraints, if any, do individual property rights place upon the conduct of government? In his famous defense of private property against Plato’s communism, Aristotle emphasizes not only the harmful aggregate consequences of communism but also the moral importance of the individual. The Aristotelian justification for private property rights is grounded in his theory of justice, his conception of eudaimonia and moral virtue, and his thesis that man is a political animal. The Aristotelian theory of property rights must accordingly be clearly distinguished from the Lockean theory of natural property rights. For Aristotle property rights are grounded in the political rights of citizens, and they are consequently limited in certain respects. There are natural limits to just acquisition of property, property rights are subordinate to political duties, and the exercise of property rights is subject to the moral requirement that private property should be put to common use.