The First Human Competence with Private Property

June 30, 2015

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Aquinas argues that two human competences justify private property. The first is care and commerce.

This is a continuation of my commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s  views of private property in Article 2, Question 66 of Summa Theologiæ.  ST II-II, 66, 2 [ST 2a2æ 66, 2]. The posts in sequence are: 1)  Article 1 Text and Commentary 2) Article 2 Text and Prologue 3) Objection 1 to Private Property 4) On relationship of Natural Law and Human Law 5) Objection 2 to Private Property 6) Objection 3 to Private Property 7) Aquinas’s Views of Private Property 8) The First Human Competence: Care and Commerce (this post) 9) The Three Reasons Private Property is Necessary  10) The Second Human Competence 11) Reply to Objection 1: All Things in Common  12) Reply to Objection 2: Analogy of the Theater 12) Reply to Objection 3: Over consumption is robbery


The First Competence: Care and Commerce

Aquinas is appealing in his first point to the natural ability of humans to care for things and engage in commerce, This seems to be what he means by “the power to procure and dispense” things (potestas procurandi et dispensandi). “Power” refers to a faculty or capability that resides in something and all sorts of things are said to have “powers.” The Blackfriars translation renders this as “the title to care for and distribute the earth’s resources.”  I will summarize this competence by referring to it as “care and commerce.”

So it seems to be that Aquinas is saying that humans not only have a natural capability to engage in care and commerce but are in some sense fashioned for this purpose. A rock or animal does not have this power or inherent capability or title. While Aquinas doesn’t say so explicitly here, one can conclude that he thinks the capability is related to human reason. Still, Aquinas does not conclude that it is natural to engage in care and commerce but only that it is lawful or licit to do so, though his language borders on suggesting it is natural in some sense.[1]This may explain why some interpreters think Aquinas said that private property is natural. See, for example, Richard Schlatter, Private Property: The History of An Idea. New Brunswick, New Jersey: … Continue reading Thus even though humans have this natural power or capability, Aquinas sees care and commerce as a reasonable extension to natural law, not as part of natural law itself.

As Aquinas unpacks his thinking about this first competence, he will say that the competence is not just a power or capability but that it is also necessary in some sense for the flourishing of human life. We shall examine his three reasons in a moment. Before doing so, however, we should be careful not to assume that Aquinas thinks this first competence is authorized by Scripture in Genesis 1.26-28. Recall that in our discussion of Article 1, we saw that Aquinas understood the “dominion” which God gave humans to be the power to experience and command creatures, but not to use. In Paradise, there was no need for cultivation, care and commerce, since the first parents could just pick their fill from the trees. Thus, the human competence for “care and commerce, ” though perhaps authorized at creation by dominion, was not needed until after the fall when humans had to labor for their food.[2]see my discussion of this point in my comments on article 1

It is also interesting to note too that Aquinas here in his discussion of the first competence talks about a power [or title] (potestas) of humans to care for and dispense goods, whereas in Article 1 he was careful to say that humans have “no power” (non haber potestatem) when explaining the meaning of dominion (see Article 1 objection 3). Aquinas’s point, we recall, was to distinguish God’s power to change the nature of a thing from human dominion, which was power to have experiential knowledge of and command creatures. Here he seems to be acknowledging that humans do have a sort of power over external things, at least in the ability for care and commerce. This does not contradict what he said about dominion in article 1, but it curious if not suggestive to see that there he says humans lack power and here he says that they have power.

To return to the main line of argument here, Aquinas’s claim that human competence in care and commerce of material things makes private property legitimate raises an interesting question: Is Aquinas saying that the outcome of any human competence is a lawful extension to the natural law? We may assume that Aquinas would say “no,” since we have the ability to engage in vice and sin, which also arise from our human competences. In this, we differ from animals, which are not thought by Aquinas to be rational creatures and therefore cannot sin. They live according to their natures. The human creature, however, is in some sense peculiar because we have natural capabilities and competences that should not be used. Indeed, discernment and reason have to be brought to bear on what should be done, not only on what we are naturally capable of doing. Thus competence by itself does not mean something is by definition an authorized extension of nature.

This is one way of explaining why Aquinas goes on to list other reasons why care and commerce are necessary to human life and flourishing. Since law is understood to be about the general good ( ST I-II, 90, 2), the benefits of care and commerce to social life shows how private property meets its requirement to be law. In listing his three reasons for the necessity of care and commerce, Aquinas draws heavily on Aristotle’s Politics II.

We now turn to the three reasons private property is necessary, in Aquinas’s view.


1This may explain why some interpreters think Aquinas said that private property is natural. See, for example, Richard Schlatter, Private Property: The History of An Idea. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1951, 54
2see my discussion of this point in my comments on article 1