STARTING IN THE 1960S, THE CONCEPT of coercion has received sustained attention from philosophers, resulting in a panoply of attempts to explain its nature and significance. Despite the apparent diversity in these efforts, the vast majority of them follow in a line of thinking laid out most influentially by Robert Nozick in 1969 which, roughly speaking, identifies coercion with the way one agent can put pressure on the will of another by means of threats. (1) This way of approaching the topic--I will call it the "pressure" approach--has come to seem wholly obvious to many subsequent writers, though it differs markedly from an earlier understanding of the nature of coercion that it largely supplanted. This earlier approach to coercion--which I will call 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 possibilities for action. This power differential may be used to put pressure on the coercee's will, but additionally it might work by simply interdicting or disabling agents, or disrupting various possibilities for action more systematically. Such systematic disruption can be achieved by incarceration or capital punishment, as well as via longstanding threats that alter broad patterns of activity, and not just specific actions. This approach sees differential power relations as essential to coercion so, on this approach, some ways in which agents put pressure on other agents that do not arise from significant power differentials will not register as coercion.
Choosing between the two approaches may depend on what questions one is trying to answer, and how the concept of coercion figures in them. Coercion is frequently thought to figure into determining a state's legitimacy and authority; it is also thought to be morally problematic, and so to be wrongful if not specially justified. Concern with coercion also arises due to its tendency to restrain human freedom and to curtail responsibility. Much of the recent work on coercion has been tailored to one or another of these issues, with a predominance of interest in the question of how coercion affects responsibility for actions taken under coercion. Whatever success has been achieved in tackling this question, it is now apparent that the pressure approach to coercion has encountered significant difficulty in explaining the social and political significance that has long been attributed to coercion. (2) Hence, part of the interest in elaborating and defending the enforcement approach, I will argue, is that it is more helpful than the pressure approach for assessing the social and political significance of coercion: whether or not one agent puts pressure on another's choice of actions, the use of the kind of power tracked by the enforcement approach is a matter of considerable social significance, and something that helps explain both the state's authority as well as its proper limits.
If the enforcement approach did just this much, it would then increase the range of theoretical treatments of the concept in a way that is useful for social and political philosophy. It would also bolster the view, held by theorists such as Alan Wertheimer and Mitchell Berman, that claims about coercion should be considered as applying only within a specific context, and that "the single unified conception of coercion that theorists seek ... is of little, if any, normative significance." (3) However that may be, I will argue that the enforcement approach is fundamental relative to the pressure approach in that its analysis of coercion accounts for the plausibility and usefulness of the pressure approach: insofar as the pressure approach is able to identify instances of coercion correctly, it is because it tacitly assumes that coercion works in the way the enforcement approach depicts explicitly. The commonsense view that coercion works by putting pressure on an agent's will thus spotlights an epiphenomenal aspect of coercion, rather than its most important explanatory aspects. In failing to attend to these factors explicitly, the pressure approach is liable to miscategorize cases, or else to leave the work of the account to potentially contentious normative judgments that would themselves require a separate, sustained defense. So even for purposes such as assessing the morality of coercion and its effects on agent responsibility, there is value in applying the analysis of the enforcement approach to such questions. For these reasons the enforcement approach deserves to be more clearly understood and more widely applied than it has been of late.
Two Approaches to Coercion
Instead of positing two competing "concepts" of coercion, I will describe instead two distinct approaches to the subject of coercion, which lead to different ways of understanding what "coercion" means. (4) Four questions will bring out their distinctive aspects:
(1) What need the coercer do in an episode of coercion?
(2) What are the conditions on the relationship between coercer and coercee that make it possible for one to coerce the other?
(3) How is the coercee's situation affected by the coercer's activities?
(4) How are instances of coercion individuated, ontologically?
Coercion as Pressure on the Will
Coercion is commonly and intuitively associated with the mundane phenomenon of feeling pressure to do something that one does not want to do. Theorists have recently portrayed coercion principally as a way in which one agent puts psychological pressure on another to act or not act in some particular way by means of threats that alter the costs and benefits of acting. They then typically develop tests to determine which sorts or degrees of pressure will count as coercive and what follows from such a judgment. (5) Such accounts also typically proceed by surveying a range of cases that seem intuitively to involve coerced actions, and abstracting from them common features. The following sorts of proposals are routinely, if not universally, judged to be coercive in this literature: a drug dealer's threat to withhold a regular customer's supply unless he beats up another person (6); a threat to destroy someone's beloved car unless he commits a murder (7); a dry cleaner's threat to refuse to return a customer's laundry unless she pays an unjust $10 premium (8); a blackmailer's threat to reveal one's infidelity unless one pays a substantial sum (9); and a millionaire's offer to pay for surgery for a gravely ill child if only the child's mother agrees to become the millionaire's mistress. (10) While these accounts differ in their classification of cases, the tendency of this approach is to expand the concept to capture many different ways an agent can pressure the will of another coercively.
With respect to the four questions above, the pressure approach sees coercion as follows:
(1) The coercer's role: The coercer communicates implicitly or explicitly a conditional proposal, typically involving a threat, against another, accompanied by some demand regarding the latter's future actions. (11) While some accounts require more, such as particular intentions that may go beyond what is communicated, the coercer's role is by and large communicative.
(2) Conditions on the relationship of coercer to coercee: Coercion is possible because the coercer's threat is psychologically potent for the coercee. In particular, the coercee regards the coercer's threat as credible, and regards the outcome portended as sufficiently undesirable that action to avoid the outcome is warranted. The coercee's subjective appreciation of the situation is determinative of the coercer's effect on the coercee.
(3) Impact on the coercee's situation: The costs and benefits of actions open to the coercee are negatively altered by the coercer's threat, compared to how the payoff structure stood before the threat was made, making some actions less desirable as choices.
(4) The ontology of coercion: Instances of coercion are taken to coincide with the actions of a coercee that have been altered by the coercer in the direction intended by the coercer. "Coercion" is thus a "success" term: if the recipient of a proposal intended to coerce does not subsequently alter her behavior from the course it was on prior to receiving the proposal, then the recipient was not coerced by it, and no coercion took place. (Or, to encompass the possibility of attempted but unsuccessful coercion, they may say that the would-be coercer acted coercively; what remains constant, however, is that coercion is identified in terms of particular acts that the coercee does or does not take under threat.) (12)
This description of the pressure approach can be found operating in almost all recent philosophical writing on coercion, though such accounts do vary, and these claims are often tacit in them, perhaps because they seem so obvious. (13) Taking these features for granted, most recent philosophical effort has concentrated on analyzing what makes a proposal a threat rather than an offer. (14) Since both propose to create an alteration in the costs and benefits of acting, a question arises as to how to define a baseline against which to judge the proposal as improving or worsening an agent's prospects for action. Debates over the role of moral judgment in theories of coercion often get started here, in setting the baseline. The baseline question arises, however, because the proposals here are conceived in terms of their effects on the costs and benefits as perceived by the coercee, rather than in more concrete terms related to what exactly is being threatened, or how one agent comes to be in a position to threaten another. These latter considerations receive nearly no attention from theories taking the pressure approach to coercion even though, as I will argue, they are crucially important to it.