Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to act by employing threat of force. Often, it involves the use of actual force in order to make the threat credible, but it is the threat of (further) force which brings about the cooperation of the person being coerced. The term usually has a pejorative connotation, implying that such threat or force is unethical.
Broader definitions of coercion are sometimes used, especially by libertarians and objectivist philosophy. A common one is the act of preventing a person from having the willful use of her body or property by employing physical force, the threat of such, or fraud. Libertarians and Objectivists consider any action in the absence of coercion to be voluntary.
It is important to be precise about the nature of coercion - it involves using the threat of force to compel a person to choose an action they would otherwise not have chosen. Coercion does not remove a person's ability to choose, it changes the nature and range of the options available by changing the consequences of acting. Scott A. Anderson of the University of Chicago, argued that,
"It is essential to coercion that one party successfully alters or affects another party’s choice of actions by communicating to the other a credible, conditional threat – by which is meant an announced conditional intention to degrade the latter’s prospects for acting."
An oft-used example of coercion is "putting a gun to someone's head" to compel action. Even in this situation, the person being coerced still has and must make use of free will. Even if it is known that the choice is between death and some alternative (e.g. handing over a wallet), this is still a choice, albeit Hobson's choice - one which will (almost) always be preferable to the other. In real world situations, there is sometimes the possibility of rejecting the coercion, by calling the coercer's bluff or by fighting back. (Although the probability of a successful outcome from these choices may be low, they are still choices.)
As Michael Rhodes puts it, "A perceived-threat-avoidance-behavior is a necessary condition for coercion. In the absence of a perceived threat which motivates an agent’s choice to perform or not to perform an action, the action cannot be coerced." The perception element is important - the perceived threat may be quite different from the actual threat (a loaded gun vs an unloaded one), or a threat may be perceived where there is none. In such cases coercion may be unintentional; usually "coercion" is used to mean intentional coercion only.
Coercion may be used as a legal or moral defence for acts committed under use or threat of force. However, the question arises of whether a "reasonable person" would have perceived a threat, and reacted in the same way. In attempting to justify, for example, arson, a threat of torture to one's family is treated differently from the threat of a pinprick.
State and coercion
The state generally has a monopoly of the legal use of force; coercion by others is generally illegal (excepting mild forms which may be subject to a de minimis exemption), and the subject of much of criminal law. This criminal law is ultimately backed up by the state's own powers, through the police, judiciary and prison system.
Because coercion is considered by many to be unethical, there is a debate whether governments should engage in employing threat of force to compel behavior of individuals. In any case, both states and individual state representatives may misuse their monopoly of the legal use of force. In such instances the distinction between "legal" and "legitimate" (proportional/appropriate/ethical) use of force becomes more important.
Some people speak of cultural coercion, where community opprobrium, the "threat of scandal," substitutes for physical violence. In this sense of "coercion", the fear of falling out with the group may coerce people into wearing a certain style of dress, publicly reciting a creed or a pledge of allegiance they find morally reprehensible, starting to smoke when they'd rather not, etc. See Peer pressure, Sociology of religion, Pledge of Allegiance.
Some people include deception in their definition of coercion. This is incorrect; coercion fundamentally involves the threat of force. Deception may be considered a type of exploitation (eg exploitation of someone's lack of knowledge or experience).
The Taking Children Seriously movement has attempted to extend the concept of coercion to include the relationships between adults, especially parents, and children. It holds that its possible and desirable to act in a such a way with a child that all activities are consensual.
- Anderson, Scott A. (undated), "Towards a Better Theory of Coercion, and a Use for It", The University of Chicago 
- Rhodes, Michael R. (2000), "The Nature of Coercion", 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 
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13