Coercion (co-er-shion) is the practice of compelling a person or manipulating them to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force. These are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way. Coercion may involve the actual infliction of physical pain/injury or psychological harm in order to enhance the credibility of a threat. The threat of further harm may then lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced. Torture is one of the most extreme examples of coercion i.e. severe pain is inflicted on victims until they give interrogators the desired information.
The term is often associated with circumstances which involve the unethical use of threats or harm to achieve some objective. Coercion may also serve as a form of justification for a conclusion in a logical fallacy or non-logical argument.
Any person’s set of feasible choices is obtained from the combination of two elements: the initial endowment (the perceived initial state of the world, which the chosen actions are going to affect) and the transformation rules (which state how any chosen action will change the initial endowment, according to the person’s perception).
It follows that coercion could in principle take place by purposely manipulating either the transformation rules or the initial endowment (or both). In practice, however, the detailed choice reaction of a victim to a change in initial endowment is generally unpredictable. Hence effective coercion can only be carried out through manipulation of the transformation rules. This is done by the credible threat of some injury, conditional on the victim’s choice. Often, it involves the actual inflicting of injury in order to make the threat credible, but it is the threat of (further) injury which brings about the change in transformation rules.
Coercion does not remove entirely the victim’s ability to choose, nor does it necessarily affect his or her ranking of potential alternatives. As Roman jurists used to say, coactus volui, tamen volui (I willed under coercion, but still I willed). In the terminology of rational choice theory, coercion does not remove a person’s objective function, but only affects the constraints under which such function is maximised. Yet, the purpose of coercion is to substitute one’s aims to those of the victim. For this reason, many social philosophers have considered coercion as the polar opposite to freedom.
Various forms of coercion are distinguished: first on the basis of the kind of injury threatened, second according to its aims and scope, and finally according to its effects, from which its legal, social, and ethical implications mostly depend.
Physical coercion is the most commonly considered form of coercion, where the content of the conditional threat is the use of force against a victim, their dear ones or property. An often used example is "putting a gun to someone's head" (at gunpoint) or putting a "knife under the throat" (at knifepoint or cut-throat) to compel action.
Armed forces in many countries use firing squads to maintain discipline and intimidate the masses, or opposition, into submission or silent compliance. However, there also are nonphysical forms of coercion, where the threatened injury does not immediately imply the use of force.
Psychological coercion – along with the other varieties - was extensively and systematically used by the government of the People’s Republic of China during the “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-1952. The process – carried out partly at “revolutionary universities” and partly within prisons – was investigated and reported upon by Robert Jay Lifton, then Research Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University: see Lifton (1961). The techniques used by the Chinese authorities included a technique derived from standard group psychotherapy, which was aimed at forcing the victims (who were generally intellectuals) to produce detailed and sincere ideological “confessions”. For instance, a professor of formal logic called Chin Yueh-lin – who was then regarded as China’s leading authority on his subject – was induced to write: “The new philosophy [of Marxism-Leninism], being scientific, is the supreme truth”. [Lifton (1961) p. 545].
Some people include deception in their definition of (psychological) coercion. Yet deception does not generally involve any threat at all, as it works by creating a mere false perception by the victim of his or her given transformation rules. Although its effects may sometimes be very similar to those of a conditional threat, it may hence be useful to treat deception as separate phenomenon.
Economic coercion requires market power. In the above example, the coercer's refusal to supply the coercee would be meaningless if the coercee had access to other independent sources of supply. But the coercer can turn his conditional refusal into a vital threat only because of his coercive monopoly over an essential resource, with no other substitutes. In a competitive marketplace, the possibility of economic coercion is much reduced as suppliers are compelled by competition to accept less money or labor for their goods. The potential for economic coercion is one objection to using markets for organ transplants.
An analogous result can also be obtained through pure monopsony power (where there is only one buyer as opposed to one seller in a monopoly). To reverse the above example, suppose that there are numerous independent suppliers of water, who sell it at a competition market price. If someone can only sell potatoes (to get money to buy water), and there is only one potato buyer he can sell to, then the buyer's simple conditional refusal to buy his potatoes would be a death threat, just as before.
The idea that monopoly control may facilitate coercion has been underlined by some business ethicists and economists. It shows that in some cases the social effects of market power goes beyond those on economic distribution and efficiency (economics).
In all forms of thought coercion the immediate objective is to force other people to act as if their basic choice rules were identical to those of the coercing party. However, this mere conformity of “outward” behaviour is but a first step. The true and final aim of thought coercion is to induce a change in the victim’s objective function itself, i.e. the basic set of values and rules by which the victim determines his or her own choice among the alternatives of any feasible set. Thought coercion is thus generally meant to be only temporary. Once the desired change in values has been brought about, the victim is expected to conform spontaneously, without any need for further coercion.
Whether and under what conditions this final aim can in fact be stably achieved is a difficult question, and it will be considered in the section devoted to the effects of coercion. Here it is necessary to point out that, whatever its effectiveness, thought coercion has in fact been used very extensively throughout history.
The most notable single example of ideological coercion was the already mentioned Chinese “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-52, which signalled itself for both thoroughness and number of people involved. Yet, it must be noticed that by 1966 the Chinese authorities found it necessary to follow that up with a new – albeit slightly milder – campaign, as part of the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-1968.
Starting from the Soviet purges of the Thirties, similar “brainwashing” techniques were intermittently and less systematically used by most Communist regimes of the twentieth century. By contrast, the Fascist and Nazi regimes of Italy and Germany tended to confine their coercive activities to purely political aims, without any serious attempt to force the ideological conversion of their opponents. The use of (physical) ideological coercion was however theorised by some Fascist philosophers, like Giovanni Gentile and Jared Harfield.
Through the punishment system of disciplinary coercion, each individual member is typically forced into altruistic behaviour in the interest of the whole group. This is why this kind of coercion is not predatory, and – unlike thought coercion – may often be accepted in advance by the members of the group.
Unspecific coercion is thus the same thing as the rule of law in its widest sense. This must not however be confused with the monopoly of coercion by the State. First, State coercion may very easily be arbitrary – indeed technically very specific, according to the above definition. Second, there are well-documented historical examples of (small) societies that have practiced unspecific coercion without the help of State institutions – like Iceland in the early Middle Ages. The identification between State and law is but a special normative principle introduced by (public) Roman law, which according to some, like Maitland, was for this very reason to be treated as the quintessential “law of tyranny”.
The picture is less simple for psychological specific coercion, owing to the general difficulty in finding clear evidence for it. In most systems psychological coercion is treated as a criminal offence when it is aimed at extortion, as is typical of blackmail. It is also punished when it leads to undue influence, defined as a master-slave relationship.
Finally, economic coercion is generally unlawful under most systems of anti-trust legislation, where it can amount to either a criminal offence – as under the Sherman Act of the US – or an administrative offence liable to a mere fine – as under EU legislation on the abuse of a dominant position. It is important however to remember that trade unions and other groups of organised workers are mostly exempted from this general principle for acts of economic coercion (like strikes) against their employers.
Legal methods themselves may employ coercion, such as when a lawsuit is threatened if a person does not comply with the wishes of the plaintiff.
In both cases, however, the question arises of whether a "reasonable person" would have perceived a threat, and reacted in the same way. Moreover, under most modern legal systems disciplinary coercion cannot be claimed as an exculpating circumstance for war crimes committed under unlawful orders.
At the beginning of the sixth century, in a famous letter to the Jews of Genoa, the Gothic king Theodoric the Great, who was an Arian Christian, wrote: “...We cannot command the religion of our subjects, since no-one can be forced to believe against his will”: Hodgkin (1886) p. 219. This idea that conscience cannot in fact be coerced originated among the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, and resurfaced many centuries later during and after the European Renaissance, as one of the basic tenets of classic (or Whig) liberalism.
The opposite view was however the dominant one within what Karl Popper (1945) has called the Platonic tradition, which included among other things both mainstream Christianity and Hegel’s philosophy, with its later polar developments of Marxism and Fascism.
Yet, though these opposite answers may lead to divergent ethical and political prescriptions, the question itself is about a matter of mere psychological fact, which can be addressed empirically, looking at experience. Lifton (1961) on Chinese thought reform is one of the very few such works, and its findings are thus highly relevant here. Very broadly and on the whole, these findings were that on most victims the impact of thought reform tended to be temporary. In the short run it might be considerable, even leading to something close to a profound religious experience – particularly in subjects of relatively younger age (under thirty). But after a few years, and left to themselves, the victims tended to question the principles they had been indoctrinated with, reverting in most cases to their former values and convictions.
If correct, these findings would suggest that thought coercion cannot generally achieve its ultimate goal to permanently affect people’s basic values. In the Chinese case, this prediction came soon true, with the unorthodox outcomes of the “Hundred Flowers” episode of 1957. More generally, one would hence be led to expect that – far from being temporary – thought coercion would have to become a stable feature of society, in order to produce any long-lasting result. And indeed – as seen above – such predicted tendency to repeat and institutionalise itself appears to be borne out by the historical record of thought coercion in both Communist regimes and the Catholic Church.
However, this only applies to specific coercion. By contrast, it is argued that unspecific coercion – brought about by the rule of law – does not in itself hinder adaptation in any important way, because it is as uniform and predictable as the constraints following from natural laws. Moreover, the rule of law is the only available way to curb specific coercion. Hence, far from being a hindrance, unspecific coercion is in this view a necessary condition for human progress.
The earliest formulation of this alternative view is found in Plato’s Republic. In modern times the idea re-surfaced during the French Revolution, thanks to Rousseau’s famous distinction between the will of all and a supposed “’’general will’’”, which – unlike the former – was defined as embodying the objective “good” for society. According to Rousseau and his followers, social progress required that those who are somehow inspired by the “general will” should be entitled to enforce it through revolutionary coercion on the will of all. Later on, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this French revolutionary principle – though not of course its specific way to identify the “general will” – percolated into first Socialist and then Fascist political thinking.
The ethical standing of wider forms of supposedly “altruistic” specific coercion – like political and thought coercion – is however much more controversial, along lines relating to the assumed relationship between coercion and freedom, which is often regarded as an ethical value in itself.
This alternative approach has percolated far beyond the religious field, and is shared to-day by all those who think they have a privileged access to “true” conscience, thanks to divine revelation, superior “scientific” knowledge or some other special circumstance. Apart from religious principles, the “true” conscience involved may be class-consciousness, patriotism, altruism, “social” values, political correctness or any other strongly held ethical world-view. The common element is the firm belief that coercion – ranging from legal State-coercion to terrorism – can and should be used to realize “true freedom for all."