Hume on Property

Hobbes denies that there are any natural property rights. That is, he holds that property rights require political authority. Locke holds that there are natural property rights prior to the state. Hume agrees with Hobbes that property rights are human creations and he agrees with Locke that they can exist without political authority.

Hume’s chief theoretical innovation is his theory of conventions (see ¶10). The example of the rowboat is his primary illustration of this theory. He tries to show that the situation of people who lack property rights is structurally similar to that of the two people who want to get across the river and that the system of property rights will be sustained by the same incentives that lead each person to row the boat.

Hume vs. Hobbes

There are many points where Hume can be seen as updating Hobbes. For instance, Hobes’s harsh language about human selfishness is replaced with observations about the love that people have for their families. However, the truly fundamental difference between the two comes in their descriptions of the state of nature.


Hobbes thinks that situation faced by people in the state of nature is most accurately described as what is called a prisoner’s dilemma. The name comes from a case used to illustrate it. A prosecutor offers two suspects a deal. “If you give me enough evidence to convict the other guy, he will get an eight year sentence and you will go free. If neither of you give me any evidence, I will be able to convict both of you on a lesser charge that carries a two year sentence. But if both of you give me enough evidence to convict each other, you will each get five year sentences.” (The payoffs are row / column).

Prisoner’s dilemma
Talk Stay quiet
Talk -5 / -5 -0 / -8
Stay quiet -8 / -0 -2 / -2

When people are in a prisoner’s dilemma, there is only one stable solution: the northwest (upper left) one. This reflects the fact that they have a dominant strategy, namely, a choice that is better no matter what the other one does. In this case, the dominant strategy is to talk. Since both are better off talking than staying quiet, no matter what the other one does, they will wind up in the northwest box even though they would obviously be better off in the southeast box.

You can see this pattern in Hobbes’s analysis of anticipatory violence. People in the state of nature have to ask themselves whether to attack one another. When they ask that question, according to Hobbes, this is what they will see. (As before, the payoffs are row / column).

Hobbes on anticipatory violence in the state of nature
Anticipate Wait
Anticipate 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Wait 4th / 1st 2nd / 2nd

If this is the structure of life in the state of nature each person’s best option is to attack and that explains why the state of nature is a state of war.

People in the state of nature also have to decide whether to take the material goods that others have. According to Hobbes, their options can be described in exactly the same way as before. Here, “take” means “take what another person has” while “leave” means “leave what the other person has alone.” Again, the first number is the value for the row player and the second number is the value for the column player.

Hobbes on property in the state of nature
Take Leave
Take 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Leave 4th / 1st 2nd / 2nd

Hobbes thinks this means that no one will have secure possession of material goods in the state of nature. Even if there were property rights, they would not be respected. (He also combines this factual claim with a moral premise about the right of nature to argue that there are no property rights in the state of nature: see the notes for our discussion of the right to all things.)

Hobbes believes that people in a situation like this need the state to change the incentives they face and lock them into the southeast (lower right) box: waiting to use violence against others and leaving others’ goods alone. Suppose the state will punish theft. Then the payoffs will look like this.

Hobbes on property in the state
Take Leave
Take 3rd / 3rd 3rd / 2nd
Leave 2nd / 3rd 1st / 1st

Your incentives change if the state will punish you for taking someone else’s goods. It is best for both sides to leave one another’s things alone, second best to lose your things, and worst to take someone else’s things and suffer punishment. In this way, the state locks people in to the southeast box, by making the alternatives less attractive.


Hume has a different analysis of the situation. He thinks that interactions in the state of nature are structured like this.

Hume on property in the state of nature
Take Leave
Take 2nd / 2nd 2nd / 3rd
Leave 3rd / 2nd 1st / 1st

People in the state of nature, as Hume sees it, do not have a dominant strategy. Rather, what it makes sense for one person to do depends on what others do. There is no sense in respecting property rights if others do not do the same; so the northwest box is one possible outcome. But Hume, unlike Hobbes, thinks that the southeast box could be a stable outcome too, even without external coercion. Once people generally respect property rights, each individual will be better off respecting property rights also. So no one has any incentive to leave the southeast box. That is why it is a stable outcome. He calls the coordinated behavior that puts the players in the southeast box a convention. In this case, the convention is to leave one another’s possessions alone.

Hume thinks that conventions arise in these conditions.

  1. People’s interests are best served by coordinating their behavior.
  2. What makes sense for each of them to do depends on what the others do.
  3. Successful coordination will be self-sustaining because everyone’s interests will best be served by continuing to coordinate with the others.

Why does Hume believe that property rights are conventions? He thinks the solution to the problem posed by the “instability” of possessions (3.2.2, ¶7) is as obvious as the solution to the problem faced by two people who need to cooperate in order to row a boat across a river (3.2.2, ¶10).

Hume’s rowboat
Sit Row
Sit 2nd / 2nd 2nd / 3rd
Row 3rd / 2nd 1st / 1st

The guys who want to get to the other side of the river do not need the state to force them to row. They can form a convention of rowing and, once each one is doing their part in the convention, neither will have an incentive to stop.

Similarly, the obvious solution to the problem of maintaining the stability of material goods in the state of nature is to agree to rules establishing property rights. Once those rules are established, Hume thinks, no one will have any incentive to stop respecting them.

Who is right?

How do we decide which analysis of the situation people face in the state of nature is more accurate than the other?

Hume has a lot going for him. First, property rights really are just about as obvious as rowing the boat. Second, we know that human beings existed in communities for thousands of years without the state. They must have had some way of getting along.

Of course, as Kamyab reminded us, our ancestors in non-state societies also killed one another at a pretty astonishing rate. Maybe they had both property rights and a lot of murder. As Locke noted, you get a lot of excess violence when people have to enforce the rules on their own (Second Treatise, ch. 9).

On the other hand, I think Hobbes could say that property is not exactly like the rowboat. With the rowboat, if one person stops rowing, the boat stops (or goes in circles if the other person is a very dedicated rower). Since each person in the boat most wants to get to the other side, not rowing is self-defeating: they don’t get what they want. But with property, if I take your stuff, I do get what I want: your stuff! The convention of property rights has to collapse immediately for the two cases to be the same.

We talked about some cases where this would not happen.


Jack noted that some people might not need the cooperation of others. Bullies can take things from others without being vulnerable to others in turn: they take your lunch money and keep it. Bullies face a situation like this. (The bully is the row player; the left column is blank because the column player, by hypothesis is incapable of taking things from the bully.)

Bullies and property
Take Leave
Take -- 1st / 2nd
Leave -- 2nd / 1st

Obviously, there are no conventions with bullies. Does that pose a problem? It depends on whether there are bullies or not, that is, people who do not need the cooperation of others.

Extreme scarcity

Audrey noted that extreme scarcity, where the available resources will not support everyone, would pose a challenge for Hume. Suppose, for instance, that there is not eough food and water for every member of the group to survive. In cases like that, there is no cooperative solution as whoever leaves the resource in someone else’s hands dies and so does not reap the benefits of the convention of property rights down the road.

Be careful with the term “scarcity.” Hume counts moderate scarcity as a necessary condition for the development of property rights. We only need the convention of property rights if goods are scarce. If we could just replace anything that other people take with minimal effort, there would be no need to have property rights (see 3.2.2, ¶7 and ¶14–17).

Slavery and killing

Will noted that Hobbes’s case of anticipatory violence might not fit Hume’s scheme either. A successful pre-emptive attack eliminates the other person, making the need for cooperation unnecessary. I said “might” because I don’t know if there could be a convention to solve this problem or not.

I wish Hume had tried to address that problem. When he was setting up his theory, he said that “the external advantages of our body … may be ravished from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them.” That is why he chose to focus solely on “possessions” that “may be transferred without suffering any loss or alteration” (3.2.2, ¶7).

But Hume was just wrong (I almost never say that). You can “ravish” the external advantages of a person’s body. That is what slavery is. And that is what Hobbes says you have to do in order to stay alive in the state of nature. You have to kill the other guy before he kills you and killing the other guy requires doing something pretty drastic to his body.

Public goods

Finally, there is a point that Hume himself acknowledged. Once societies reach a certain size, the connection between individual behavior and the continuation of the convention breaks down. In a large society, the rules governing property continue whether you are a thief or not. If they are going to break down, your respecting the rules will not prop them up. The more normal situation is that individual violations do not cause the rules to collapse: there is a theft happening right now, for instance, but our society’s conventions of property rights will chug along.

In these cases, the benefits of the convention of property rights are a public good (also known as a collective good; the terms are interchangeable). Public goods must be produced by some portion of a group but those who do nothing to produce the public goods cannot be excluded from enjoying them. Given the individual incentives involved, the provision of public goods poses a familiar problem. Here “cooperate” means do what is needed to produce the public good and “defect” means not doing what is needed. The row player is an individual, the column player is the group. Because the difference that an individual’s cooperation makes to the production of a public good is usually unnoticeable, I will only include payoffs for the individual (row) player.

Public goods
No public good Public good is produced
Defect 3rd 1st
Cooperate 4th 2nd

If the members of the group cooperate to produce the public good, the individual is better off defecting. After all, individuals get the public good whether they cooperate or not. If the members of the group do not cooperate to produce the public good, the individual is also better off defecting. There is no point in making a sacrifice for the sake of a non-existent public good. But, of course, there is no “group,” there are just lots of individuals. The obvious conclusion is that public goods will not be produced in the way that conventions arise, namely, by coordination among self-interested individuals.

So when the benefits of conventional rules become too “remote,” Hume thinks the state has to step in to do the thing Hobbes said it has to do: lock us in to the southeast box (see 3.2.7).

Hume vs. Locke

Locke believes that natural property rights are based on natural law and that natural law is discovered by reason. When Hume says that reason cannot be the source of the rules of property, he is attacking Locke.

Unfortunately, getting into Hume’s reasons for rejecting natural law would take us too far off course. But two points are clear enough.

First, Hume did not think it was necessary. His moral philosophy is dedicated to showing that morality can be explained as the product of human psychology and artificial conventions. If his explanation succeeds, there is no need to make assumptions about natural law, what God wants, or what rules can or cannot be discovered by reasoning about them.

Second, and more importantly, Hume thinks that there is no point to the rules of justice unless others are obeying them as well. This strongly suggests, without necessarily proving, that the rules of justice are conventional. Roughly, the only rules that do any good are the ones that everyone is obeying. The individual exercise of reason does not tell you what the rules of justice and property are. Only the conventional practices that other people are following tell you that.

Again, that does not prove that Locke is wrong. It could be that the exercise of individual reason and social convention arrive at the same solution; it could even be that reason leads the members of society to a particular solution, like the labor theory of property. But it does suggest that reason is superfluous. If conventions do all the work that is necessary, why think that reason plays any role?

Key concepts

  1. Why self-interest sustains conventions
  2. The rowboat example
  3. The difference between conventions and prisoner’s dilemmas

Update: the Prisoner’s Dilemma on a game show

This is a wild strategy for beating the Prisoner’s Dilemma from the British game show Golden Balls. (My kind of game show!)

Here is the choice the players face. (The payoffs are row / column).

Golden Balls
Steal Split
Steal none / none all / none
Split none / all half / half

Strictly speaking, this is unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma because there is no dominant strategy here. A dominant strategy is one that is rational to follow no matter what the other player does. In this case, it is better to Steal if the other player chooses Split. But if the other player chooses Steal, you will be indifferent between Stealing and Splitting yourself rather than having a rational preference for Stealing. That said, if the other player did choose to Steal, I bet you would prefer to Steal yourself rather than letting the other player get away with all the money. Just a guess.

After you watch it, listen to an interview with the participants. There is an interesting twist.


Hume, David. (1740) 1995. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Complete Works and Correspondence of David Hume. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

Locke, John. (1680) 1995. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Philosophical Works and Selected Correspondence of John Locke. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.