On Rights of Inheritance and Bequest

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What attitude would a just state take to the inheritance of property? Would confiscatory taxes on the estate of the deceased be morally acceptable, or would they represent some kind of wrong? While there is a good amount of political philosophical scholarship that considers the desirability of inheritance tax, there appears to be little that has considered it from the perspective of rights theory, asking what kind of thing a right to bequeath or to inherit would be, and whether those putative rights are defeasible. I argue here that putative inheritance rights are best made sense of as interest-rights. However, while agents may have interests in bequest and inheritance, it is also plausible that the community as a whole has interests that would be served by a confiscatory inheritance tax; and if inheritors’ and testators’ interests are strong enough to generate a prima facie right, it is also plausible that the community would have a competing prima facie right. Importantly, there is reason to think that the community’s interests trump the testator’s and the inheritor’s; if there are thoroughgoing rights in respect of inheritance, it is not at all clear that a highly confiscatory tax would violate them.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-142
JournalJournal of Ethics
Issue number2
Early online date24 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2019


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