Kant maintains that while claims to property are morally possible in a state of nature, such claims are merely “provisional”; they become “conclusive” only in a civil condition involving political institutions. Kant’s commentators find this thesis puzzling, since it seems to assert a natural right to property alongside a commitment to property’s conventionality. We resolve this apparent contradiction. Provisional right is not a special kind of right. Instead, it marks the imperfection of an action (that of acquiring ordinary rights) where public authorization is lacking. Provisional right thereby functions as a methodological device in a sequential elucidation of the moral basis of public law. To develop this reading, we first explain Kant’s two-step account of property rights—his division between ‘having’ and ‘acquiring’. Then we explain what is involved in a sequential exposition of right more generally.

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