Some thoughts on coercion and the moral requirement not to coerce others

[The following is loosely inspired by a compare-and-contrast re-reading of Scanlon’s material on coercion in his Moral Dimensions (p. 74, 78, 108-111) and Michael Huemer’s initial discussion of coercion – in his stipulative sense that simply means exercising or threatening to exercise physical violence or control over another person – in his The Problem of Political Authority (pp. 9-10).]

 1.  One might coerce someone by doing things that impact or interfere with their exercise of their agency in a ways that are never permissible.  One might also coerce someone by doing things that impact or interfere with their exercise of their agency in ways that are permissible if the patient consents – but they have not consented (and in the right circumstances like having full information and with the conditions of consent or non-consent not themselves being coercive).  Both sorts of coercion presuppose antecedent moral requirements, moral requirements not to do specific things that negatively impact the ability of others to exercise their agency.  So the requirement not to coerce would seem to be a generalization over particular ways of interfering with the agency of others that are of these two types (absolutely forbidden, forbidden unless the patient consents).

2.  So it would appear that the requirement not to coerce others is something like a generalization over basic elements, not itself a basic element.  What is basic – in the scheme of coercion-related moral requirements – is that we are required not to do various particular things that impact the ability of others to exercise their agency.  (Of course, we are also morally required not to do other sorts of things that negatively impact the well-being or dignity of others, either unconditionally or unless they consent.)  It is these things (things like torturing people, killing people, etc.) that involve purely descriptive elements to which the basic deontic normative (moral) features attach.  In terms of prescriptions or rules:  these are the basic rules, while the requirement not to coerce is a general characterization of (certain of) these basic rules.

3.  The requirement not to coerce explains (or provides explanatory information about) the more specific requirements not to do specific sorts of things that interfere with the agency of others – but not in a fundamental way.  What it does, as a generalization, is capture information about patterns of basic requirements.  It does not explain how we may, and may not, impact the agency of others (and in what circumstances).  For example, it does not explain why some ways of interfering with the agency of others are always forbidden while others are forbidden only if people do not consent to them (under the right conditions) – say due to the more-specific action-types being ways of realizing the general action-type of coercion.  (The sort of explanation that we seek here is, I think, much more complicated.  Perhaps it will concern it being of intrinsic significance to us to instantiate certain action-types concerning respecting and not harming others in particular ways and our tendencies to instantiate these action-types – if adherence is enforced well enough for adequate compliance – being indispensable for producing most of the further, more prosaic things of intrinsic significance to us.)

4.  Coercion, then, is not a descriptively-individuated act-type to which the basic being-morally-forbidden feature attaches (it is not a basic moral requirement).  Rather, it is a normatively-individuated descriptive feature.  And the moral requirement not to coerce others does not provide a fundamental explanation of why, and the conditions under which, we are morally required not to do each of the various particular things that negatively impact others exercising their agency.  So the requirement not to coerce others, though not uninformative, should not play any fundamental explanatory or justificatory role in our normative ethics (or normative politics).

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on coercion and the moral requirement not to coerce others

  1. Pingback: 9/11 + 15: Ten Lessons | Policy of Truth

  2. I found this very insightful and interesting. It almost belongs in our “Rethinking Rights” series, because it’s on essentially the same topic.

    I definitely agree that the prohibition on coercion (whatever form it takes) presupposes antecedent moral requirements. So that’s an agreement with (1) and (2). In Objectivist language (which I would still endorse), the antecedent moral requirement is the need to exercise one’s rational agency and preserve one’s life through trade, understood as voluntary, consenting, mutually beneficial exchange. If trade (on that understanding, or some specific moral conception) is required for flourishing, but initiated coercion subverts trade, then initiated coercion will be wrong, but its wrongness will piggy-back on the wrongness of subverting someone’s flourishing via the subversion of the trader relation. It won’t be a free-standing requirement (even though it’s often treated that way in the Objectivist literature: cf. Peikoff’s discussion in OPAR, pp. 310-24).

    To address (2): a person’s flourishing belongs to that person, so that in subverting it, you are unjustly taking from them something that was antecedently theirs. So “coercion” is going to require not just an account of flourishing and of mutual exchange, but an account of what belongs to the agent as a matter of moral right or justice. Once that’s in place, the agent will have the moral right to exercise her agency on or via what belongs to her, and interferences with that agency so conceived will count as coercion. That’s very abstract and thin, but that’s the general idea, and I think it coheres with what you’ve said here, including (3) and (4).

    As it happens, the person who first made the point you’re making (and I’m making) was David Kelley in his 1984 paper, “Life, Liberty, and Property.” I think it’s the best thing he ever wrote in political philosophy. (In fact, I think what he later wrote was inconsistent with it.) Kelley was arguing against libertarian deontologists (Eric Mack, Hillel Steiner, Robert Nozick) who treated the ban on force as a free-standing deontic requirement without acknowledging the points you’re making here. Kelley’s critique of them is very much in the spirit of your post.

    The one thing I’d say is that it confuses the issue to use the word “deontic” (paragraph 2) as an all-purpose synonym for “normative” or “rigorously required” or “obligatory” or whatever. “Deontic” contrasts with “teleological” or “consequentialist.” When philosophers use the word “deontic” to stand in for “stringent requirement,” they (falsely) give the impression that qua teleological, there are no stringent requirements.

    But you can get stringent requirements even out of purely instrumental imperatives. Try this one on for size: “If you want to retain the value of your car, don’t leave the sunroof open for two months in a place where it rains.” It’s as stringent as any “deontic” requirement you’d care to name. Indeed, you can throw some “never evers” in there if you like. I kind of wish I had (a few months back), because if I had, I’d have a car that retained its Kelly Blue Book value when what I have is a scrap of metal on wheels with fungus-laden upholstery.

    I stress the point because the claims you’re making arise most naturally in the context of arguments between teleological rights theorists and deontologists. Your claims are relatively congenial to (easily accommodated by) a teleologist and problematic for (less easily accommodated by) a deontologist (or tend to be, given how deontologists argue, especially libertarian deontologists). But it gets confusing when teleologists start talking about the “deontic” force of moral requirements.


  3. Thanks, Irfan. That is helpful feedback. I was not aware that Kelley’s piece made essentially the same sort of point that I am making – I should take a look at his article again. There are some interesting issues, and interesting points of agreement/disagreement between us regarding what moral requirements and what moral requirements are basic (and why) – and regarding the deontology/teleology dispute and how to think about formally deontic motivations and reasons – but I’ll hold off on expressing my thoughts here until they are clearer.


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