An internally consistent moral framework for life, the universe, and everything¹
All rights are property rights. This statement may seem counterintuitive for those whom the "right to life" or some other such construct holds significant meaning, but allow me to make my argument and see if you don't agree with my conclusions.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states (essentially) that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form. The reason I bring this up is because it pretty well defines the parameters of the universe. There are matter and energy (which are, as it turns out, fundamentally the same thing) and that is it. It stands to reason, therefore, that any moral framework must be based in this reality. Rather than basing a moral code on an interpretation of what a theoretical deity might demand, we should be endeavoring to find a framework consistent with peaceful coexistence which can be universally applied to all people and all situations.
While the committed nihilist may reject the need for any moral code and hold that all actions are equally valid regardless of impact, most people desire a moral standard which can be applied both to how they interact with others and to how others interact with them. This is where property rights come into play. It is generally accepted that people own their own brains (if not their own bodies.) All but the most dedicated tyrants will agree that people should be allowed to think what they wish.
Even if there are some who argue that certain thoughts are unacceptable, there would still be no reason to deny that the molecules making up the brain are the property of the person in whom the brain resides. While there are several arguments for this position, the most logical is simply that no one else could have a higher or more legitimate claim. Another is that because possessing a brain is a prerequisite to life, it becomes clear that to deny a person's exclusive dominion over their own brain is to deny them their life. In other words, ownership is necessary for human existence.
The only real purpose of this exercise is to establish that human beings can own molecules. Ownership is more than mere possession, it is "fee simple title," if you will. If possession were the only requirement for ownership, than I would be within my right to take somebody's brain out of their head and claim it as my own because I now possessed it. Unless you wish to argue that murder is equally as acceptable an action as smiling, you must acknowledge that people own their own brains and therefore can have exclusive dominion over molecules.
Are we in agreement so far?
Property ownership is simply the term used to describe molecules that are owned by an individual (or individuals) rather than unowned (in a "state of nature.") All molecules can be regarded as existing in one of three categories: those owned by you, those owned by someone other than you, and those which are not owned by anyone.
We have already established that human beings can own molecules and do own molecules as a prerequisite to being alive. The next question is what molecules (other than those making up the brain) can and does an individual own? The most obvious next step is the body as a whole. Now these molecules may not all be quite as essential as the brain, as some parts of the body may be removed without impinging on its ability to remain alive. Indeed some of the molecules which make up the body (skin cells, for example) are routinely and automatically disposed of without conscious thought or effort.
The fact remains, however, that the ownership of a body should be considered that of itself unless there is someone else with a higher or more legitimate claim (a logical impossibility.) Unless you want to argue that I may cut off your hand and make a candy dish out of it just because I want to, you are implicitly agreeing that you own your body and have an exclusive claim to it.
The next step is to determine how molecules that are not part of the body come to be owned. This is where the argument becomes a bit less self-evident, but keep in mind that we have already established that human beings can own molecules. It is also a given fact that molecules other than those which are a part of the body are absolutely necessary for human existence. You must consume molecules from outside your body in order to remain alive. If our goal, as previously stated, is to find a framework consistent with peaceful coexistence, we must determine how an individual can come to own the molecules necessary to maintain his existence without engaging in battle in order to determine and maintain ownership.
This is where the homesteading principle comes into play. Remember earlier when we talked about the three categories of molecules? There are those owned by you (condition 1), those owned by someone other than you (condition 2), and those which are not owned by anyone (condition 3). We pretty much understand now that each individual owns the molecules that make up their brain and body, but what about the rest of them? An ownership claim to one's own body does not impinge on anyone else's equivalent claim to their own body, but an ownership claim to an apple could be contentious. If we're both hungry and both see the apple at the same time, we may both assert a claim to it. How can this be resolved?
In order to answer this question, we must consider the nature of the apple. It is a nondurable rival good. It is nondurable in the sense that it will be consumed and thereby "used up" and it is a rival good because if I eat it, you cannot. My use prevents your equivalent use. A nondurable rival good cannot be shared. (Yes, we could each eat half the apple, but in that case we are merely talking about two nondurable rival goods which are known as half an apple.) Because of the nature of an apple, it is necessary to determine who owns it before it is consumed.
Outside of a scenario prefaced on magic, of course, an apple does not just appear in front of us. It must grow on a tree and either be picked from the tree or (if it has already fallen) picked up off the ground. Assuming that the apple tree and the land on which it sits is unowned (condition 3), all that is required to "homestead" the apple is to pick it from the tree or pick it up off the ground. By adding your labor to unowned molecules, you engaged in initial appropriation and transformed them from condition 3 to condition 1. As the new owner of the apple, you now have several options—you may consume it, save it, or transfer it. Assuming you picked several apples, you may choose to eat one now, save two for later, and trade one to me for a pear (which I acquired ownership to in similar fashion.)
If you are a wise man, you may realize that relaying on finding apple trees is not a viable strategy for staying nourished, and you may decide to stay near this apple tree so that you have a consistent supply. There's only one problem. After you traded an apple with me, I now know about your apple tree, and I too want to use it as my permanent food source. What to do?
Fortunately for you, you found the tree first and carved your name into it. Not only that, you started building a shelter next to the tree. You are homesteading the area around the apple tree thereby converting it from unowned property to owned property. I may want to own it as well, but I can't because it's already owned—by you. It's not like I have no options, though. I can go off in search of another apple tree and emulate your success or I can make a deal. I can offer to pick apples from your tree for you in exchange for half of them. I benefit because I get apples from your tree and you benefit because I pick all the apples leaving you time to work on completing your shelter.
It at this point in my argument that the communists and socialists begin to grumble about "wage slavery" and other such nonsense. This is ludicrous of course because my choice to work for apples rather than to seek out and homestead my own apple tree is entirely voluntary. If I opt not to take the risk of looking for a suitable homestead and instead to take the more comfortable option of a known quantity of labor with a guaranteed apple supply, that's entirely my choice.
From here, the system of property attainment is fairly straightforward. Initial appropriation is through homesteading and labor mixing. Once property is owned (condition 1), it may be used, saved, or transferred according to the owner's wishes. The methods of transfer include sale, trade, gifting, inheritance, and other voluntary means.
All transfers of property must be voluntary in order to be legitimate. By legitimate I mean that the transfer includes both the physical molecules as well as the right of ownership. If the transfer is involuntary, the right of ownership does not accompany the molecules (even if they are physically transferred.) Ownership is not subject to transfer by an outside party; only by voluntary consent can a transfer of ownership be legitimate and binding.
The difference between illegitimate theft and a legitimate transfer of property is consent.
Within this framework of property rights it becomes clear that all legitimate crimes (actions which harm others) are actions which damage (or vandalize) the molecules belonging to an individual other than the actor or which involve the unwanted relocation of said molecules. Murder, rape, mutilation, battery, poisoning, and all other physical (what are sometimes called violent) crimes are actions which damage owned molecules. Kidnapping and theft are examples of the unwanted relocation of owned molecules. Trespassing is more of a category of crimes than a specific action and can include both the damage of molecules and their unwanted relocation. Trespassing and theft can also include the consumption of a nondurable good in a way which renders its molecules unusable.
The actions of killing me and stealing one of my apples are crimes for the exact same reason—they are a violation of my property rights. Said another way, you are messing with my molecules. The theory of libertarianism has been summarized as "don't hurt people and don't take their stuff," and while this definition is fairly accurate, it creates a distinction that doesn't really exist. People and their stuff aren't two separate entities. Claiming they are is simply an excuse to justify theft as acceptable as a way to preserve life, but such a claim ignores the fact that one's stuff is every bit as necessary to one's existence as is their body.
You would gladly trade a toe for an apple after a couple of weeks without food and for good reason. Many people live long and happy lives with a missing toe, but going without food for long enough will kill you. You are not just your brain and body; you are the sum total of all the molecules you own, be they part of your amygdala or part of your vacation villa in the South of France. Any attempt to deprive you of your molecules is an attack on your very existence and should be rebuffed with whatever effort is required.
There is no need for humanity to engage in conflict and war. There are plenty of molecules to go around and they can be rearranged in an infinite number of ways which will increase their value. There is no "fixed pie" of wealth to be distributed, and anyone who is willing to be an entrepreneur and take on risk can convert low-value molecule combinations into high-value molecule combinations. There is no limit to what humanity can achieve.
All that is required for peace and prosperity is respect for property rights. You have your molecules and I have mine. By combing our intellect, our energy, and our molecules, we all have the potential to achieve wealth beyond our wildest imaginations. If we need molecules that we don't already own, we can trade for them using the molecules that we do own. If they're not worth enough, we must rearrange them until they are worth more.
Those who would substitute theft for effort are the most significant obstacle to peace. There is no justification for damaging or relocating molecules that are not yours. This is the essence of morality. Those who respect property rights are moral and those who don't respect property rights are immoral. Those who refrain from damaging or relocating molecules that are not theirs are good people and those who damage or relocate the molecules of others (and refuse to make restitution) are bad people.
Life isn't really all that complicated. Don't mess with other people's molecules and you're good. World peace: Achieved!
1. In the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a supercomputer named "Deep Thought" is asked for "the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything." It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was.