First, some quick clarifications.
I deprived the tribe of a moral vocabulary to lubricate the storytelling. I do not claim the tribe as described are without morality. Indeed as an advocate of Retributive Ethics I think that pretty much all of morality is already implicit in the principle, "No bullying".
This is a story about the origins of some kinds of property, not morality. Readers of these posts will recognize it as a dramatic staging of the Retributive Theory of Property. But you do not have to be a Retributivist to think that hurting others is, except in exceptional circumstances, a morally bad thing. And if you agree with that then you should agree that in following The Rule our natives are doing the right thing.
The Rule, as the natives understand it does not ban all violence and I assume we agree that the exceptions it allows are also morally correct. For example, The Rule allows violence to stop bullying and I take it that we agree that it is morally permissible to use violence in defense of ourselves or others.
Another circumstance in which The Rule permits violence is the one in which one person gives another permission to do him harm and I expect all readers to agree that in this circumstance too violence is morally permissible. When one football player tackles another he is doing violence that would get him arrested outside the arena but-- provided the violence is within the agreed to rules-- we don't think his actions on the field are morally wrong. We think it is permissible for the players to knock each other around because they have given each other permission to do so. No one denies this, so I won't bother arguing for it here but will note that this aspect of our moral authority over ourselves-- our power to permit violence against ourselves-- has been mostly overlooked by philosophers, though it is central to Retributive Ethics.
If you agree to this much then it seems to me that you must agree that the permissions the tribe grants Wilt at the end of the story are moral permissions and that his rights vis a vis the plot of land are moral rights.
We think The Rule is morally correct. But notice I neither assert nor deny that the natives themselves regard The Rule as a moral rule—whatever that might mean. I suppose that some might protest that this is a defect in the story. To follow a rule like The Rule mustn't the natives already be convinced that is morally correct by some higher moral standard? Mustn't they think, say, that it maximizes general utility?
No. That is a confusion about rules and rule following. For my purposes we can regard The Rule simply as a convention in David Lewis's sense. That is, it is a perhaps arbitrary, but self-perpetuating, solution to an ongoing co-ordination problem. That problem is how to maximize chances of survival confronted with a hostile environment and surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors. To make sense of the natives' preference for The Rule neither we nor the natives need to think that it is the only equilibrium solution there could, or ought, to be.
I denied my natives words for "right" or "wrong", but that does not keep them from behaving morally. I also denied them words for "promise" or "contract" or "obligation". Do the natives make promises?
Well note that Wilt does not promise, even tacitly, to fight the next Bear that comes around. Neither does the community promise to reward future bear fighters as they have Wilt. And interestingly neither Bob nor anyone else promises not to forcefully resist if at some point in the future Wilt has to evict them from his land.
Still, some readers Wilt protest, Bob's giving permission to the others to use force against him if he trespasses on Wilt's land functions, in the story, very much like a promise not to go on Wilt's land.
I happily concede the point. It confirms the Retributive Theory of Promising: the view that to make a promise just is to give someone a conditional permission to do you harm.
Now to the morals.
MORAL 1: Hobbes was wrong.
Hobbes and many after him held that in an absence of government and laws -- in a "state of nature"-- there could be no property. At the beginning of our story our natives are in that state. They lack a government and the enforcement of their only rule is voluntary. In Hobbes' terms their situation is like that of sovereign nations interbellum: a time of truce in a war of all against all. And yet, pace Hobbes et. al., our natives have property and even an economy.
Hobbes is only a first in a long tradition of confusing the existence of property rights with their successful enforcement. It is not a confusion that is often made about other rights. Thus we think that even absent government and laws, people have a right to self-defense. We think everyone has that right even if he or she is too weak to defend him or herself; even when no one will come to their defense. They have that right even if they cannot enforce it.
Property rights, like the right to self-defense, are moral permissions ("privileges" in Hohfeld's terms). To have the right to self- defense is to have the moral permission to forcefully interfere with attackers. To own some land is to have the moral permission to forcefully interfere with trespassers. At bottom, having that moral permission is all there is to ownership: It is not morally permissible to kick people off your land because it is your property; it is your property because it is morally permissible for you to kick people off it.
But "may" does not imply "can". You can have property rights even though you cannot enforce them and even if social arrangements make no provision for defending you against their violation. In our story a native's rights against bullying are enforced by the spontaneous vigilantism of the other tribesmen. That does not give them rights they would not otherwise have but it helps us see more clearly what those rights amount to.
We can see that our tribesmen have property rights even at the very beginning of our story because they have the right to self-defense. The right of self-defense is an ownership right: it is a moral permission to forcefully interfere with others if they should try to trespass against our bodies. And because our bodies are objects in the world, our ownership in them emanates to other things: however much I might admire the shirt on your back or the apple in your hand, if I cannot lay hold of them without doing violence to you, then your right to self-defense makes it permissible for you to forcefully prevent me from acquiring them.
Thus in the state of nature you own what you physically possess. This may not seem much, but our fable illustrates how it might be enough, in principle, to sustain an economic order: a market red in tooth and claw.
MORAL 2: Locke was wrong
In our story Wilt acquires a new kind of property. He comes to own something not in his immediate possession. Things that once belonged to no one-- a vacant plot of land and its contents-- have become his.
How this might come about is a long standing philosophical problem with few plausible answers.
There is the "first use" or "first occupancy" theory : the idea that the first person to discover a thing therefore owns it. This theory is often credited to the wonderfully named Samuel von Pufendorf. Alas, Pufendorf seems to have had no arguments for this arbitrary principle . Why not second use, or third? (In any case, I've always found it hard to believe that Pufendorf really was the very first person to discover this idea. Perhaps he was just the first to shout "Dibs!".)
John Locke's theory was that we begin by owning our own bodies and then by "mixing our labor" with other things -- clearing land, planting crops and so forth -- we somehow mix our self-ownership into these other things. This isn't much of a theory; it isn't even a good metaphor for a theory. As Robert Nozick observed:
...why isn't mixing what I own with what I don't own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don't? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules... mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?
But then Nozick himself has no better story to tell. He concedes that any theory of property needs to explain "first acquisition" somehow, and suggests, very tentatively, that it might have something to do with laboring to increase the value of things. For some reason Nozick declined to call this "the surplus value" theory of ownership though the name would have been apt.
Yet Wilt -- our Wilt-- was not the first to discover his land. Nor did he mix his labor with it. Neither upon it did he spin nor did he toil. We could have told our story so that he had never set foot on it before acquiring it. I conclude therefore that discovering first, mixing your labor with or improving things is no more essential to their first acquisition than is killing bears.
It is true that Wilt could be said to have earned his land by doing something the community valued and that all those who gathered round the campfire hoped that by rewarding him they would be increasing the general welfare. But this speaks to their motives for granting him the land, not to the substance of the grant itself. It might turn out that their hopes are misplaced-- that Wilt grows so fat and placid on his little plot of land that he becomes useless during the next ursine attack. Even so, whether or not his possession promotes the general happiness, the land will remain his so long as it is morally permissible for him to kick the other tribesmen off it and it will be permissible for him to do so because they gave him that permission; even if they come to regret it.