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What Is Coercion?

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Philosophical Questions About Coercion
Coercion is a key concept to depict human relationships, to denounce abuses and episodes of violence. Yet, when is it that an agent is coerced by another? That is, what are the conditions on the coercion-relationship that make it possible to take place? What need the coercer do in an episode of coercion? And, who is to say that there was an episode of coercion?

In the contemporary literature on the theme, we find two main conceptions of coercing relationships, respectively labeled the pressure approach and the enforcement approach.

The Pressure Approach to Coercion
The pressure approach to coercion was first proposed by Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick in 1969. According to Nozick, in every instance of coercion an agent puts pressure on another by means of some threat. More precisely, A coerces B when the following four conditions are all satisfied: (i) A aims to keep B from choosing to do p; (ii) A communicates a (credible) claim to B; (iii) The claim indicates that if A does p, then A will act in such a way that B’s doing p is (to B) less desirable than B’s not doing p; (iv) B does not do p (at least partly because of A’ claim).

The Enforcement Approach to Coercion
For Nozick, coercion can be said to take place only when the coercer has communicated her intentions to the coercee. To some, this seems to strong a requirement, as there seems to be cases in which coercion takes place without any prior communication. A recent and promising attempt to come up with an alternative model of coercion is the one of political philosopher and ethicist Scott Anderson. In a 2010 paper ("The Enforcement Approach to Coercion," Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 5: 1–31), Anderson claims that the enforcement approach "regards coercion as a kind of activity by a powerful agent who creates and then utilizes a significant disparity in power over another in order to constrain or alter the latter’s possibility for action." Roughly, for Anderson A coerces B when the following two conditions are met: (i) There is a power differential between A and B; (ii) Such power differential may be used to put pressure on B.

(iii) The key point in Anderson’s proposal is that no pressure needs to actually be exercised in order for coercion to take place.

The Dialectic of Coercion
Coercing relationships are often hard to pin down. Take a routine situation such as a father who cooks some vegetables for dinner to his daughter, knowing that it’s not what the daughter prefers but that’s what’s best for her. Suppose that the daughter refuses to eat the meal. Who is coercing whom? Using Anderson’s framework, we may indeed ask, who is putting pressure on whom, the father or the daughter? Probably, of course, the father and the daughter are pressuring each other.

Patterns of coercion such as the one between a father and his daughter recur also in the public sphere, as when a government puts pressure on a group of dissidents, that in turn may have some instruments to try and put pressure back on the government (by, say, calling the attention of the international press).

What those examples show is that coercing relationships have a typical dialectic structure: one agent puts pressure on another, and the latter in turn will devise strategies to put pressure on the former. We do find such a chain of coercing behaviors in a wide variety of cases, including fasting, hunger strikes, and non-violent protests to .

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