Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Non-moralized account of Coercion and Rational Persuasion

I have been thinking about coercion lately. You might even say that I have been coerced into thinking about coercion by the assignments that I have been given in class. Or you might not. That's a bit of why I'm writing this post.

To begin with, I will be referencing Denis Arnold's conception as of his paper with Bowie "Sweatshops and Respect for Persons" in 2003. He plans to update the conception that he uses in this paper, but it is pretty close to his current view, so I think it's legitimate to discuss it. Some of you will be at least a little familiar with the paper from our class with Jeff a few semesters back at BG. In any case, I'll give a little refresher on the concept of non-moralized coercion and the idea of the "coercive will" that Arnold uses. Then I'll argue that coercion is much more wide-spread than even the non-moralized version of coercion may be prepared to admit. It might not make any difference that this is the case, but it will be helpful to finally stomp out the remnants of the "coercion = bad" framework.

A non-moralized conception of coercion is what it implies. Coercion exists (when a coercive will exists) but the fact that an action is coercive does not imply that the action is morally "bad" or "wrong." If the action is to be bad or wrong it is necessary that there be something additional in the equation which adds the bad and the wrong. This conception is much better than the older (and maybe more common) idea that coercion is wrong because there are plenty of times we would say that someone was coerced and it was good that this happened.

Consider the case of a police officer who wrestles down a man who is beating his wife in public and arrests him. This is fundamentally different than the paradigm case of coercion in which an armed individual gives you the choice between your $$ and your life. In both cases the choice has not been left up to the agent. The criminal goes to jail and the victim of the robber hands over the wallet. One is a justified use of coercion and the other is not.

Additionally there are two sorts of coercion at work here. In the first case the criminal is overwhelmed by the cop and forced into handcuffs and taken to the clink. This is brute physical coercion. There is no question that this is coercion, but the question of moral good is left open until one fills in the appropriate blanks with other good- or bad-making qualities. In the second case the robber has used psychological coercion on the agent. He has not held the agent down on the ground and taken the wallet. Instead he has given the person a choice between his $$ and his life. I'll assume that he's not offering Chuck Norris this choice, and that the agent is steamrolled into handing over the wallet. His coercion was of the will or the mind and not of the flesh. This is the fundamental difference.

What makes psychological coercion distinct from rational persuasion (in Arnold's view) is that a coercive will is involved (page 229). This has two parts. The first is that "the coercer must have a desire about the will of his or her victim which can only be fulfilled through the will of another person." The second is that "the coercer must have an effective desire to compel his or her victim to act in a manner that makes efficacious the coercer's other regarding desire."

This sort of coercion is juxtaposed with rational persuasion. Usually, it is seen as better to rationally persuade someone than to employ psychological coercion. (I think that this is also the case in Arnold's view, but it's unexpressed.) The non-moralized view of coercion does not leave room for this juxtaposition.

What is the difference between a desire to persuade another to your point of view and a desire to compel another to act (think, in my example) in a manner that makes efficacious the coercer's other regarding desire? What is a desire to persuade other than a desire that your actions or thoughts mirror my own or that they mirror some act or thought that I want you to have?

One answer is that in one case I set out a particular penalty (shooting you for your wallet) which will come about should you not acquiesce to my demand. This is the answer that Arnold gave me in the context of employer/employee relations.

In this context it is coercive (says Arnold) if I say to a worker: "If you don't meet your quota then I'll fire you." It is not coercion if I say to a worker: "Come on. If you don't meet your quota then I will be behind in my production quota and if it continues I will have to let you go."

I don't see a difference here. The second way of dealing with the worker's inadequate production is nicer, but it says the same thing, i.e. "If you don't meet the quota I will fire you."

So, here's the conclusion: If you are intent on persuading someone to your point of view you are coercing them via rational persuasion. It has the interesting consequence that every time I engage in persuasion, say a philosophical discussion*, I am in possession of a coercive will and I have an intent to coerce. This doesn't say anything negative about philosophical argument in general. I am aiming at good ends when I coerce you. After all, if you do not side with me you are in danger of irrationality, inconsistency, or worse.

What do you think about that, folks?

*Also, not all philosophical discussion is like this. Sometimes we aren't defending our deeply held beliefs or convictions or even positions that we are confident about. We are just hashing it out and shaking the concept to see what falls out. I doubt that there is much coercion involved there.


  1. I might need a little clarification. What does your claim of equivalency amount to? We're agreeing for the sake of argument that they're both morally neutral. I take it you're making the claim that they are both forms of rational persuasion, but do you think they bear no other relevant differences?

    I can't tell from your "firing" example whether the speaker is sincere, but let's suppose he is. To test your hypothesis let's describe your examples thusly: In the first case the firing is not predetermined but depends on the will of the boss. He is deliberately setting up a penalty. In the second case circumstances are such that the will of the boss is irrelevant (or a minimal factor - maybe this is what you want to quibble with). So in the second case we take the boss to be sincerely asserting that it's not up to him - you'll have to be fired.

    Fleshed out a bit the cases do seem different. The penalty in the second case is a mere matter of fact while in the first case it seems like fairly robust coercion. In order to hold that they are both equally coercive I think you have to believe that the first boss' desires and subsequent actions are "not up to him," making them also just a mere matter of fact.

    This would seem like a tough bullet to bite. As long as we think that the first boss is choosing the penalty while the second boss is not, I'd be hesitant to lump them together.

  2. I don't want to say that the boss' actions aren't up to him. The point is that in both cases the boss is making the "threat" and setting the consequences.

    As Denis Arnold tells it the difference in the two cases is something like "in one case the boss asks nicely and in the other he commands the worker to shape up or ship out."

    The equivalence claim amounts to the claim that IF they share a relevant difference it has nothing to do with "persuasion" or "coercion" as such since it is a distinction without a difference. If there is a difference it must be in some other facet of the case. Maybe the boss just isn't being "nice enough" or some such. As I said, I can't tell what the distinction is.

  3. Do you think "positive" coercion is a possibility? I ran with this idea a while back when I wrote a paper on coercion for Moriarty.

    The idea is this: There may be offers that are so good that you "can't" pass them up (or it would be highly irrational, or dumb, for you to give them up).

    Suppose I offer you a billion dollars on the condition that you jump on one foot once. Suppose I meet the two conditions (I'm having nothing but coercive thoughts, I'm intending nothing but coercion, and so on).

    In coercion talk, there is usually an asymmetry: P is "coerced" using certain (bad) means into doing something that is not (at the time) all-in choiceworthy, from P's point of view. But why can't P be coerced to do something otherwise not all-in choiceworthy through certain means which are good from P's point of view?

    You seem to be running with somewhat similar intuitions. So you tell me.