The Island Scenario: The Ethics of Property & Wealth


We live in a very complex world.  We spend a great deal of our childhood trying to better understand that world.  We try to wrap our heads around the notions of a modern legal system with all of its intricacies, today’s unbelievably complex financial systems, and complex rules around the rights of people to the earth’s resources from land to water to minerals.  It’s nearly overwhelming for a layperson to understand it all.

One possible solution to mitigating that complexity: consider a simpler scenario that can shed some light on what I believe to be a bit of an ethical conundrum.  So, please bear with me.

Imagine a scenario where a few thousand humans are stranded indefinitely on an island (yes, I, too, immediately thought of a bigger version of the TV series ‘Lost‘ :-)).  These humans would arrive to the island as equals with no belongings whatsoever.  Further imagine that these now ‘islanders’ come from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems, and are of different ages.

Let’s use this scenario to understand a bit about the world in which we live, how we might have gotten here, and, most importantly, the ethical implications of the situation.

Laws & Governance

A colonial prison in the Bahamas.

A colonial prison in the Bahamas.

How would a form of governance be born?  Would the strong dominate the weak referring to themselves as kings with the right of their children to continue that dominance or would a more uniformly-distributed form of government take hold?  How would initial laws be developed given potential disagreements between the population of the island?  Would some islanders refuse to comply with that governance choosing to instead form their own set of rules?  What would they be labeled and how would they be treated?

Would the form of government be on a part-time, volunteer basis or would taxes begin to be collected to pay for a professional class of governors whose lives are spent within the newly-formed system?  Would there be many who would disagree with that notion?

Land Ownership

Real estate in the forest: a shed in Sweden (not an island :-)).

Real estate in the forest: a shed in Sweden (not an island :-)).

Would private land ownership exist or would it all be “public property”?  If it is private, how would one gain rights to land, especially the most desirable land which everybody might desire?  Would those closer to the new form of government be perceived as receiving privileges not available to those who are ‘outsiders’?  In short, how would initial land rights materialize in a world where no one can legitimately claim to have such initial right?

Natural Resources

Coconuts in Fiji.

Coconuts in Fiji.

How would all of the island’s natural resources be distributed?  Some resources, like fruits and fish, are, if managed effectively, renewable on an on-going basis; others, such as lumber from large trees and minerals from the ground, are not-so-renewable.

There are only a few areas of the island where rain water collects; how would access to the water be regulated with everyone desiring access to water for drinking, bathing, and growing crops?

Who gets the rights to these resources and to what degree can they consume them or “sell them” to the rest of the islanders?

Private Banking System

Old coins from a Roman monetary system.

Old coins from a Roman monetary system.

After some time spent trading resources, would the islanders eventually create a currency?  Would a private banking system then grow where a bank can borrow money from the ‘government’ and loan it out to them at a higher rate so as it can both pay for its employees and make a profit?

The Island Scenario Conundrum

Humans are born into the world having had no opportunity to frame it.  They essentially join an island whose laws, financial system, and property rights have already been established for them; they must now be held accountable to those laws and must be satisfied with whatever existing status quo exists in terms of a political system, “wealth”, and property that humans before them have established.  Certainly, they are encouraged to strive to work within that status quo to carve out a part of the island for themselves; however, one thing they can’t escape is that they’re inheriting thousands of years circumstances and decisions beyond their control.

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