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Philosophical discussion of coercion has focused on three distinct concerns. (1) What is coercion? (2) Is coercion ever morally or politically justified? (3) Is a person morally responsible for an action done because of coercion?

  1. With respect to the first question, a person is coerced when he acts contrary to his preferences or will because of a threat administered by another agent. A clear example of this is the bank robber putting his gun against a teller’s head and screaming: “The money or your life!”
  2. Interest in the second question arises particularly in the context of political philosophy and legal theory, especially given legitimized state uses of coercion in forcing compliance to the law. The orthodox view on this question is that state coercion is justified insofar as it promotes (roughly) overall well being. Whether private uses of coercion are ever morally justified is a controversial matter.
  3. With respect to the third question, coercion is widely thought to limit a person’s freedom without depriving her of free agency. Determining moral responsibility requires careful attention to the context of the act, and, in particular, such factors as the severity of the threat and consequences of the coerced action.


Historical overview

In Nicomachean Ethics III, Aristotle explores the conditions under which it is appropriate to hold a moral agent blameworthy or praiseworthy for particular actions. He argues that praise and blame are withheld from involuntary actions, that is, actions committed under force or as a result of ignorance (1110a-1111b4). On the grounds of a discussion of excuses and mitigating conditions, Aristotle formulates a general account of moral responsibility for action. A moral agent is an appropriate candidate for praise or blame if and only if his action was voluntarily done. A voluntary action is one which has its origin within the doer, and is done knowingly (1110a-1111b4).

The interest of Aristotle’s account for the current discussion is in his understanding of the force condition on moral responsibility. Aristotle provides two types of examples illustrating this condition. The first type includes a case in which a man is carried off by the wind; the second where is carried off by a band of (for example) robbers. These are cases in which the agent has no choice at all and would today be classified as cases of compulsion. Essentially, compulsion leaves the agent no choice; he is dragged off by physical force.

Aristotle illustrates the "force" condition on responsibility with two further examples:

But with regard to the things that are done from fear of greater evils or for some noble object (such as if a tyrant were to order one to do something base, having ones parents and children in his power, and if one did the action they were to be saved, but otherwise would be put to death), it may be debated as to whether such actions are involuntary or voluntary (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III).

Aristotle’s verdict is that these actions—for example, doing something base to save one’s children—are both voluntary and involuntary. In one respect, the person chooses to perform the action; but in another, he would not have done so had he not thought that the lives of his family members were in danger. Therefore, although action was voluntary, considered at the moment, it was not, in the abstract, voluntary.

Such cases involve coercion. Acts done out of coercion are in the strict sense voluntary since a person ultimately has it in his power to choose to do or refrain from acting.Is a person morally responsible for an action done out of coercion? Aristotle’s answer is this: It depends (though he does argue that certain actions such as matricide are never excusable no matter what the threat). There are no hard and fast rules for determining responsibility; it depends on the context.

Saint Thomas Aquinas also discusses coercion in the context of a discussion of moral responsibility. He understands coercion in terms of necessity, where a person is forced to act in a way such that he cannot do otherwise. Aquinas here seems to understand coercion in terms of compulsion—coercion is linked with a lack of choice and violence. Aquinas does recognize a distinction between compelled actions and those committed as a result of a threat. According to Aquinas, people are not morally responsible for acts of compulsion although one is responsible for actions done in the face of some sever threat. This is because the latter does not strictly render the action involuntary—and so the person maintained the power of choice.

Aquinas argues that the state’s is justified in its use of coercion and compulsion in the form of violent force and fear. This is because it must aim to control the vicious and irrational in order to preserve a state of harmony for non-offenders. However, he maintains that the use of power and force is, in general, the right of the state and not of private groups or individuals. One significant exception is the case of "imperfect coercive power" in which the head of the household–usually the father—is justified in delivering punishments that do not inflict irreparable harm. Aquinas therefore advocates the use of coercion/compulsion in the form of patriarchy in both state and private sphere.

Later thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, in basic agreement with Aquinas, argued that coercion plays a central, justified and necessary part in the functioning of the state. Hobbes holds (again in agreement with Aquinas) that acts performed under threat are strictly voluntary so that one is fully responsible for them. This implies, for example, that contracts signed because of fear are legitimate; the use of bargaining power is a rational way of effecting contracts so long as it does not conflict with the rule of law.

Hobbes’ countryman, John Locke, argued that although state use of coercion is necessary, this depends on the state’s control itself reflecting the consent of the people. There is in his view, therefore, a fine line between law and tyranny. A tyrant’s use of coercion is unjustified; the state’s use of coercion is justified only insofar as it protects the majority rather than terrorizes them.

Immanuel Kant emphasizes the use of state coercion in securing the rights and freedoms of the people. He argues that people are inclined to obey the law for two reasons: Firstly an ethical or rational motivation: One has a duty to obey the law so as to preserve an orderly society; secondly, a judicial motivation, which applies to those who do not have respect for the law but follow it to avoid punishment. Although Kant acknowledges that coercion impinges upon freedom, he maintains that when used in a proper manner by the state it also secures freedom. Impinging on the freedom of a few is justified to secure freedom for the majority.

John Stuart Mill (On Liberty) represents to some extent a departure from the concerns of his predecessors by focusing on unjustified forms of coercion. His central understanding of coercion appears closely tied to the notion of interference. State coercion/compulsion is justified in so far as it is used to protect the general population. However, the state (or anyone else for that matter) should not be allowed to force (rational) people to do what may in fact be in their own best interests. This would constitute an unacceptable interference and infringement on individual liberty. In this respect, Mill is an opponent of strong forms of paternalism.

Mill discussion of coercion also includes the power of public opinion in forcing adherence to the law, such as, for example and that the stigma attached to law breaking and its punishments. For example, the threat of ruined reputation may itself be a coercive influence in its own right. Furthermore, and again in contrast with his predecessors, Mill recognizes that civil institutions are just as capable of coercion as the state. He observes that the "despotism of custom" has a strong hold over people in that they are frequently coerced to act in a certain way (against their inclinations) due to civil, social (and often religious) conventions and rules. His examples include the position of a wife in the family, who had at the time (nineteenth century Britain) very limited rights. Mill also presents the phenomenon of child labor as an example of coerciveness. Mill therefore shows the extent to which coercion occurs in ways other than by direct state interference.

The nature of coercion

While the notion of coercion has played a significant role in the history of legal and political philosophy—especially with reference to the state’s use of coercion in forcing compliance with its laws—sustained analysis of the concept itself is a relatively recent occurrence. It is only in twentieth century philosophy and legal theory, probably as a result of an increasing focus on human rights, that it has received significant scholarly attention.

Coercion and compulsion

To begin, it is worthwhile recalling the distinction between coercion and compulsion. Compulsion works through direct force—recall Aristotle’s example of the man carried off by a band of robbers In contrast with compulsion, which deprives an agent of a choice, coercion does not. Coercion works through threat of some harm or negative consequence. Consider: “Your money or your life!” Acts done from compulsion are (almost) always excused, whereas, while actions done under coercion are often excused, they are certainly not always.

Although there is a sharp distinction between compulsion and coercion above the two are often closely associated. Torture is a clear example: Coercion (threats) is used to (for example) extract information; these threats are then backed up by physical inducements such as truth serum. The state too uses both coercion and force (to maintain law). The threat of state punishment (for example, prison) is used to induce compliance. However, state punishment may also involve compulsion as for example when someone’s property is forcibly confiscated.

Nozick’s analysis of coercion

So much then for the distinction between coercion and compulsion; what about the nature of coercion itself? In significant measure the current state of understanding of coercion is due to Robert Nozick’s landmark work Coercion and the writings it inspired. Nozick’s analysis has been enormously influential—accepted in large measure by almost all significant contributors to the debate. It accommodates the most commonly consider examples of coercion such as the "money or your life" scenario and instances of "psychological coercion," in which the threatened injury concerns the victim’s relationships with other people. (The most obvious example is blackmail, where the threat consists of the dissemination of damaging information.)

Nozick analyses coercion as follows: Person P coerces Q into not doing (refraining from doing) act A if and only if: (1). P (the coercer) threatens to bring about some consequence if Q (the coercee) does A; Q understands this threat; (2) Action A, as a result of the threatened consequence, is made substantially less eligible as a course of conduct for Q than A ‘’without’’ this threatened consequence; (3) P’s threat is credible; (4) Q does not do A; (5). At least part of Q's reason for not doing A is to avoid the consequence that P has threatened to bring about (adapted from Ryan, 1980: 483, Nozick, 1969: 441-445).

Thee central features of this analysis are the following: firstly coercion uses of threats rather than physical force; secondly, coercion’s taking place is dependent on whether the coercer’s threat is credible to the coercee (even if the coercer is bluffing, the crucial factor is whether the coercee believes the threat to be credible); thirdly, the coercee has to accept the proposal in order for coercion to take place; if he does not accept the proposal, then coercion, strictly, has not occurred. In this way, Nozick builds in a success condition into his analysis.

Each of these features may be questioned. On the first point, can coercion proceed by means of offers rather than threats? (Threats and offers are both proposals.) Consider the following example:

If a man is drowning in a lake and another man offers to help him only if he gives him all his money, then the drowning man’s situation is indeed not worse off, as one would presume that he would rather have his life than his money, and the offer of the second man has actually increased the drowning man’s options. Another example of the same sort would be that of the millionaire who offers to pay for the life saving operation of a poor woman’s child only if the woman agrees to be his mistress. (Feinberg 1986)

Is this an example of a coercive offer? According to Joel Feinberg the answer is "yes": There is no relevant difference between the above scenario and typical cases of coercion. Both use superior power and may be assimilated to the “your money or your life” type case. So coercion may proceed by means of offers or threats; therefore, Nozick’s analysis must be supplemented.

David Zimmerman argues that these are examples of exploitation, rather than of coercion. Although the man in the above example and the millionaire take advantage of their respective situations they are opportunistic and not coercive. According to Zimmerman, in order for these to be coercive actions, they would have had to manufacture the situations (for example, paying someone to throw the man in the lake); only then will these cases qualify as coercive offers.

The problem of setting a baseline

One further feature of Nozick’s treatment of coercion, not directly encapsulated in the above analysis is the notion of a baseline (Nozick, 1969: 447). Nozick introduces this concept in order to capture the sense in which the coerced individual becomes worse off than he would have been. In most cases it is relatively clear to see how this works. For example, in the “your money or your life” case, the threat has made the person’s normal course of events worse than they should have been—she hands over her money. If one essential condition for a threat to be characterized as coercive is that it needs to make the coercee’s situation worse one needs a way to specify the sense in which the victim would become worse off. One way of doing this would be to establish whether the coerced action deviates from reasonable expectations on a normal course of events.

However, as Nozick himself realized, the phrase "normal course of events" is not unproblematic. Consider, for example, a case in which a slave owner, who regularly beats his slave, offers to refrain from beating him if he agrees to do X. Given that being beaten is part of the "normal course of events" the offer will not count as coercive because the slave will be better off as a result of the offer. But this seems wrong: For surely there is a sense in which the slave is being coerced. One possible response to this problem is to claim, along with Alan Wertheimer, that regular unjustified beatings are not "normal" because they already involve the violations of rights. Essentially Wertheimer moralizes the concept of coercion itself by employing the notion of rights in his formulation of a baseline.

The legitimacy of coercion

While the previous section discussed the nature of coercion itself, this section considers two central ethical questions surrounding the concept of coercion.

The political justification of coercion

Intuitively, coercion would seem to involve a moral wrong. This is so, at least in the most commonly considered cases such as “your money or your life” or blackmail. However, this answer is incompatible with the apparent legitimacy of regulated forms of state coercion, which continue to be firmly entrenched in almost every nation. Governments use coercion in order to maintain law and order; the penal system is a system of threats and inducements. But if state coercion is justified, then coercion cannot always be wrong.

One reason why acts of coercion may seem wrong is that they limit somebody’s freedom. However, as evidenced by the penal system, state coercion limits particular freedoms in order to enhance overall freedom. For example, insofar as the state endorses capital punishment, citizens are faced with a supreme threat should they perform certain unwanted actions. However, the fact that they are deterred from (coerced into not) doing these, secures the freedom of other citizens to walk their streets in safety. As Kant noted, coercion impinges upon freedom, but when used in a proper manner by the state also secures freedom; therefore the impingement on the freedom of a few is justified to secure greater freedom. Indeed, it is sometimes said (see Lamond 2000) that state has the right to coerce because, in a certain sense, people give over their freedom to the state (or even school, or church) to be protected.

Libertarians such as Nozick and John Stuart Mill argue state interference with personal liberty should be as minimal as possible; state intervention should be a purely protective measure. According to Mill, state coercion is justified only insofar as it conforms to the "harm principle," that is, is justified only when it prevents harm; similarly, the use of force is justified if it punishes those that cause harm.

Libertarianism is opposed to paternalism in the following way. For a libertarian, coercion is justified only if it prevents harm to others; however, one is free to do as one likes with one’s own' health, life, liberty, property, and possessions. Therefore, outlawing gambling or prostitution illegal, would be, on the libertarian view, an unjustified use of state coercion—it would be using penal threats to coerce people into refraining from “victimless crimes,” that is, acts that harm no one other than the agent of the act. However, this view is by no means restricted to Libertarians. Even non-Libertarian thinkers accept that the use of coercion by the state is justified only as a protective measure. For example, Alan Wertheimer argues that coercion is justified in so far as it protects individual rights; in all other cases coercion involves merely violating somebody’s rights.

Coercion in the private sphere

Nozick and Mill hold that although state use of coercion is in principle justified, private uses of coercion are not. But this seems somewhat counter-intuitive. Imagine, for example, that a man arrives home to find an intruder about to rape his wife; recoiling in horror, the man threatens to shoot the burglar unless he aborts his plans; and the burglar complies. This would seem to entail, at least on Nozick’s analysis, has been coerced into leaving the house and foregoing his opportunity for rape (Ryan, 1980: 483). However, surely this is a case in which the private use of coercion is justified.

The moral to draw from these types of cases may be the intentions of the coercer are relevant to the morality of coercer. Coercion is justified (or even required) to the extent that it furthers certain justifiable aims such as self-protection, or the protection of loved ones. These aims may include forms of non-violent protest (such as sit-ins where one refuses to move unless certain demands are met, or Mohatma Ghandi’s hunger strike), instances of "tough love," where a parent coerces a drug-addicted child into rehabilitation by some sort of threat (such as losing his inheritance). (This may be better described as blackmail or manipulation rather than coercion.) Alternatively, Grant Lamond argues that coercion requires that the coercer make a proposal deliberately disadvantaging the coercee. Therefore while state coercion will still qualify as justified coercion (as it could be argued that for the thief it is disadvantageous for them not to steal), the example of tough love used above would not be considered coercive because the coercer’s intention was in fact to advantage the coercee.

Coercion and moral responsibility

On Aristotle’s theory of moral responsibility there is no hard and fast rule for determining whether a person who has acted from coercion is blameworthy. It is important to notice that since coerced acts are always strictly voluntary, they are never automatically disqualified from responsibility. Responsibility depends on facts about the situation such as the gravity of the threat and the nature of the coerced act. For example, Aristotle holds it absurd that one could be coerced into killing one’s mother.

Most contemporary philosophers would agree with Aristotle: Coercion excuses at least some of the time. However, they have sought a specification of the conditions under which it does so. According to Harry Frankfurt, “a coercive threat arouses in its victim a desire—that is, to avoid the penalty—so powerful that it will move him to perform the required action whether he wants to perform it or considers that it would be reasonable for him to do so” (1988: p. 78). Most philosophers reject Frankfurt’s analysis—at least as specifying a necessary condition for coercion—on the grounds that there are less extreme cases in which a person’s will is hardly over-ridden, and yet she can be said to have been coerced. In other words, Frankfurt’s analysis picks out certain extreme cases, but fails to accommodate others.

Frankfurt’s view attempts to locate the conditions of moral responsibility for coercion in structural features of the coercee’s will. In particular, a person is coerced insofar as his will is overridden by a powerful desire arising from the coercive threat. However, many other theorists have insisted that this is incomplete: Features of the environment in which the agent acts are crucial in determining responsibility. One of the most important aspects in attributing blame is whether the act or acts committed bring about harm to others; and if this could reasonably have been avoided by the coercee. Moreover, the strength of the threat, as well as severity of the consequences of non-compliance, in relation to the result (harm) of the demanded action must be weighed. For example, one may be excused for (for example) stealing a car under the threat of being killed, but not if one were merely threatened with a slap on the wrist. It is generally agreed that a person is not responsible for an action insofar he or she is unaware of negative consequences of committing the coerced act. Though the laws of most countries accept coercion as an excusing condition, the individual circumstances in each case are needed to determine culpability.

See also


  • Carr, Craig L. 1988. “Coercion and Freedom.” In American Philosophical Quarterly 25: 59-67.
  • Edmundson, William. 1995. “Is Law Coercive?” In Legal Theory 1: 81-111.
  • Feinberg, Joel. 1986. Harm to Self. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Feinberg, Joel. 2001. "Coercion." In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.
  • Fowler, Mark. 1982. “Coercion and Practical Reason.” In Social Theory and Practice. 8: 329-355.
  • Frankfurt, Harry. 1988. “Coercion and Moral Responsibility.” In The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521333245.
  • Hayek, Friedrich A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. University of Chicago Press.
  • Lamond, Grant. 2000. “The Coerciveness of Law.” In Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 20: 39-62.
  • McCloskey, H. J. 1980. “Coercion: Its Nature and Significance.” In Southern Journal of Philosophy 18: 335-352.
  • Lifton, Robert J. 1961. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Penguin Books.
  • Mill, John Stuart. 1909-14 [1859]. On Liberty. Edited by Charles W. Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier & Son.
  • Nozick, Robert. 1969. “Coercion.” in Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel. Edited by Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes, and Morton White. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Popper, Karl R. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies.
  • Rhodes, Michael R. 2000. "The Nature of Coercion." In Journal of Value Inquiry 34 (2/3).
  • Rothbard, Murray N. 1982. "F. A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion." In The Ethics of Liberty. Humanities Press.
  • Ryan, Cheyney C. 1980. “The Normative Concept of Coercion.” In Mind 89: 481-498.
  • Warner, Stuart. D. 1989. "Review of Coercion" by Alan Wertheimer. In Ethics 99 (3): 642-644.
  • Wertheimer, Alan. 1987. Coercion. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691077598.
  • Zimmerman, David. 1981. “Coercive Wage Offers.” In Philosophy and Public Affairs 10: 121-145.

External links

All links retrieved June 3, 2013.

  • Scott Anderson. Coercion, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • John Stanton. The Limits of Law, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

General philosophy sources


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