On Compromise and Coercion

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III. On Coercion

The word "coercion" comes from the Latin coercere, meaning "to surrender," and even more suggestively from two older Latin words, arca ("box" or "coffin") and arcere ("to shut in"). English words derived from arca cluster about the pole of restraint in human affairs. Either the restraint is exercised in the interest of security, as when a person takes refuge in an ark, places relics in an arca, experiences arctation, or protects arcane knowledge; or the restraint is exercised directly by an outside agent, as when a person coarcted or submits to coarctation.26 To coerce is to narrow the space of free movement and action, lessening one's self-sovereignty and self-mastery. It is the opposite of exercising autonomy and acting in a voluntary fashion. Coercion undermines voluntariness because the doer is unable to freely reflect on choices and preferences. She is left with no options but the one (or few) the coercer chooses for her.27 Voluntary thinking and action are essential for developing one's autonomy and, in this common usage, autonomy and coercion are defined by each other's absence: one is autonomous if one is not coerced, and to the extent that one is coerced, one is not autonomous.28

Coercion is widely held to be a matter of significance in human life, and with good reason. It gives one agent the ability to directly alter or impede the conduct of another. Coercion involves the employment of some form of power which sways a person to do something she would not otherwise do. When this happens the agent could not be held culpable for the act she performed.29


Note in this context that while coercion is a form of power not all exercises of power are exercises of coercion.30

Coercion sometimes is the only viable means available by which one can affect the behavior of other agents as it impacts on one’s vital interests, such as one’s bodily security, possession of property, or ability to move about in the world. Correspondingly, it is a means that others can use to change one’s own activities for their particular ends, and in so doing undermine these very same interests.

There is a presumption against coercion. Other things being equal, a noncoercive rule, policy or action is preferable to a coercive one.31 In other words, generally speaking people shrink from coercion and would like to lead their lives free of any coercion.

Slide- coercion is not necessarily malevolent

But coercion is not necessarily malevolent. I disagree with Wolff who holds that coercion is intrinsically evil, that it is by definition degrading, stripping people from their personhood.32 Here Wolff falls into the familiar liberal fallacy that conceives all people as rational and autonomous beings who are capable to decide for themselves and to carry out their life-plans as they desire. This is not the case. There are some instances in which we must resort to coercion. For instance, coercion can be resorted to as a mechanism of self-defence. Consider the following: Jones is holding you prisoner, and has promised that at noon he will kill you. As Jones approaches you with gun in hand, you succeed in grabbing his accomplice and threaten to stab him with your pocket knife if Jones does not drop his weapon. In effect, you have coerced him into dropping the gun and into not killing you.33 Given the circumstances, the act was not intrinsically evil.

Slide - Coercion to protect weaker individuals

Coercion can also be used to protect weaker individuals from stronger ones. Parents use coercion to train young children how to live, and to protect them from themselves, from others as well as from their hazardous surroundings. Parents who do not resort to various means - coercion included when deem necessary for the best interest of their children - to stay away from electrical wires and running cars would be considered careless if not criminal. Of course, the identity of the coercer is relevant for us to make a judgment about the legitimacy of the coercing act. An act of a parent over his child might be considered legitimate and as enhancing the best interests of the child. The same act, conducted by the state over the child, even if proclaimed to be done for his own good, might be considered as illegitimate and unjustifiable. On the whole, we would like to keep the integrity of the family and to safeguard its privacy against the intrusion of the state. There should be very compelling reasons to persuade us to forego the privacy of the family and allow the state room to interfere. For good or ill, the brute usefulness of acts of coercion makes it an unavoidable part of human life, yet one that we must manage carefully if we are to do so well. It is exactly this usefulness that makes the conduct of the state a grave concern for those living within its reach, and justifies being wary of any very powerful agent.34


When we speak of coercion it is essential that one party successfully alters or affects another party’s choice of actions by either a constraining action (locking someone in a room) or 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. The perceived threat, which need not be physical, is often more important than the actual threat. When a person does something because of threats, the will of another is predominant, whereas when she does something because of offers this is not so. That is to say, offers and threats contradict one another. There cannot be coercive offers.35

Slide – academic coercion

Let me further explicate the issue by discussing threats and academic coercion. A few days after my arrival to the American school of law mentioned above I received a phone call from the senior administrator in charge of the curricula, saying that Dr. Jack Kevorkian wishes to communicate with me via his assistant regarding the content of my bioethics seminar. Kevorkian, who was jailed after his conviction for the murder of Thomas Youk,36 was concerned about the way he be presented in my seminar. He said he did not have a very positive experience with ethics professors in the past and wanted to learn about my views on euthanasia. I included a chapter of his book37 in the seminar's syllabus, the law school prepared some twenty copies of the seminar readings, and now Kevorkian asked to speak to me as a precondition for the inclusion of the chapter in the text book. I was puzzled. The issue was of granting permission to use his material only to those who endorse Kevorkian's views. He did not want people who object to his conduct to teach him. I told the administrator that I have nothing to discuss with Kevorkian, that I believe in academic freedom, and that I am going to teach his own writing, not a secondary source commenting on his book, so he should be content and even pleased.38 The administrator accepted my point and said she will convey this to Kevorkian's assistant.

I thought the issue was behind me but some days later the administrator called me again, saying that Kevorkian is not content with my answer, and that he threatens to take his chapter out of the text book, something that the law school obviously did not want to do because of the extra costs it involved. She pleaded me to speak with Kevorkian's assistant and was no longer impressed with my mantra regarding academic freedom.39 This weighty consideration had lost its charm. Due to economic reasons I was coerced to speak with Kevorkian's assistant and to explain my position on end-of-life issues, something I resented considerably, thinking that I need not explain anything as a precondition for including a certain reading on a seminar syllabus. For my part, I would have preferred to take out the chapter from the text book but, as said, this had financial consequences that the law school strongly resented. I was put in a situation where I had to cooperate against my will, and to accept a dictate that negated my academic freedom and my professional principles. Just imagine that all authors whose writings are included in syllabuses would contact teachers, asking them to explain their views on their writings and prevent teaching their material whenever they disapprove of the critique voiced against their views.
Slide - Internalized and Designated Coercion

Moving from an individual case to a group case, inter and intra-cultural relationships pose further problems and dilemmas. When a given sub-culture in society denies some freedoms and rights to a certain group living in that same culture, we may feel that some form of coercion is being exercised.40 For example, if a religious sect denies rights and liberties to its female members, that sect may continue doing so because it is assumed that all members of that group internalized the system of beliefs that legitimizes the exclusion of rights from women as part of the socialization process of the group. It is further assumed that all members of that group conform to and abide by the particular conception of the good that guides and directs members of the said group. They are subjected to a system of manipulation that is working against the basic interests of the group inside the community not to be harmed and to enjoy equal respect. The discriminated members of the community do not feel that they are being coerced to follow a certain conception. Outsiders may claim that a whole-encompassing system of manipulation, rationalization and legitimization is being utilized to make women accept their denial of rights. But on most cases this view may only be the view of outsiders, not of the persons concerned. If at all, one may argue that women of that sect are experiencing a form of coercion that could be called internalized coercion.

Slide - designated coercion

Difficulties arise when some women in the said cultural or religious group fail to internalize fully the system of norms that discriminates against them. Upon realizing that they are being denied fundamental rights, they might wish – for instance - to opt out of their community. If they are allowed to opt out, no question arises. If not allowed, then a case may arise for state interference to overrule this individualistic, designated coercion that aims to deny them freedom to leave their community. Then threats of physical harm, perhaps of significant economic loss that would leave the girl in question in dependent situation, are used. I call this form of coercion - designated coercion. Unlike the internalized coercion it is not concerned with machinery aiming to convince the entire cultural group of an irrefutable truth; instead it is designed to exert pressure on uncertain, “confused” individuals so as to bring them back to their community. Rawls does not elaborate on this form of coercion.

Slide - female genital mutilation

Thus, for instance, there are Muslim communities in which female genital mutilation is being practiced and most of the girls in these communities grow to believe that this practice is essential for their integration as women in their communities. Because this cultural norm is backed by the elder women who lead by example, most girls do not object to the practice and accept it as is, as part of their growing up. They are not aware of the system of manipulation and the coercion is internalized into their way of life and conception of the good. However, when girls object to the practice and wish to protect their womanhood, then designated coercion is employed to safeguard the norms of the community and to “educate” the “stray weeds.”41 This form of coercion is unjustified and the state is warranted to interfere and to rescue the helpless girls who wish to retain their femininity and sexuality and have the power and the will to fight against their superiors and tradition. It is one of the roles of the liberal state to stand by weak third parties who seek defence and help to safeguard their basic human rights.

Slide - Hofer v. Hofer

Another case at point is a Canadian case, Hofer v. Hofer, which dealt with the powers of the Hutterite Church over its members.42 The Hutterites live in large agricultural communities called colonies, within which there is no private property. Members of the Hofer family, life-long members of a Hutterite colony were expelled for apostasy. They demanded their share of the colony’s assets, which they had helped create with their years of labor. When the colony refused, the two ex-members sued in court. They objected to the fact that they had “no right at any time in their life to leave the Colony where they are living unless they abandon literally everything... even the clothes they are wearing."43 The Hutterites defended this practice on the grounds that freedom of religion protects a congregation’s ability to live in accordance with its religious doctrine, even if this limits individual freedom.

The Canadian Supreme Court in a six to one decision accepted this Hutterite claim. The majority opinion (Cartwright C.J.C., Martland, Judson, Ritchie, Hall, and Spence JJ.) did not regard this as a case in which the Court can be asked to relieve against a forfeiture, for by the terms of the articles signed by the Hutterite members, the appellant never had any individual ownership of any of the assets of the Colony. Cartwright C.J.C. added that the “principle of freedom of religion is not violated by an individual who agrees that if he abandons membership in a specified church he shall give up any claim to certain assets.”44

I, on the other hand, together with Will Kymlicka think that Justice Pigeon was right in his dissent. Pigeon argued that the usual liberal notion of freedom of religion includes the right of each individual to change his religion at will. Hence churches cannot make rules having the effect of depriving their members of this fundamental freedom. The proper scope of religious authority is therefore limited to what is consistent with freedom of religion as properly understood, that is freedom for the individual not only to adopt a religion but also to abandon it at will. Pigeon thought that it was “as nearly impossible as can be” for people in a Hutterite to reject irreligious teachings, due to high cost of changing their religion, and so were effectively deprived of freedom of religion.45

Slide – Hofer v. Hofer - cont.

Justice Pigeon conveys the appropriate liberal presumption according to which people have a basic interest in their capacity to form and revise their conception of the good. Hence, the power of religious communities over their own members must be such that individuals can freely and effectively exercise that capacity.46 If we accept this view, then we must interpret freedom of religion in terms of an individual’s capacity to form and revise her religious beliefs.47

Slide - IV. Conclusion

Coercion yields one winner, at least for the short term. Compromise, on the other hand, if conducted in the genuine sense of the word, yields two winners. Coercion lasts as long as the powerful maintain power over the opponent who – if she feels the coercion is unjustified and negates her best interest - will be looking for the right opportunity to regain autonomy. Compromise lasts as long as the parties communicate and maintain trust and good will between them. They need not feel that they sacrificed part of their autonomy.


Democracies are advised to enhance and promote civic education which includes discussions on the merits of tolerance, based on respect for others, and of compromise, based on mutual genuine concessions between different groups of society. At the same time, awareness regarding the "catch of democracy" is required, emphasizing that tolerance might not be the solution when faced with intolerant people who deny respect for others. Then, it might be the case that coercion will be required, suppressing intolerant conduct.


Democracies should also come to the help of designated individuals whose basic liberties are infringed by the exercise of coercive methods employed by intolerant and illiberal elements among the community in which they live. The constant challenge for all democracies is to secure basic human rights for all, the powerful as well as the powerless, for those who are able to take care of themselves and for those who are struggling to maintain their independence and autonomy.

Slide - Thank you

1 . Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, s.v. “compromise.”

2 . James A. Schellenberg, Conflict Resolution (Albany, NY.: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 195.

3. Paul A. Sabatier and Hank C. Jenkins-Smith (eds.), Policy Change and Learning (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1993), chaps. 2, 3.

4 . Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1996), p. 79.

5 . Stephen Darwall ("Two Kinds of Respect", Ethics, Vol. 88 [1977]: 36-49) distinguished between recognition respect and appraisal respect: the former being respect we ought to have to all human beings, while the latter means having a positive attitude toward a person above and beyond mere respect for her as a person. Here I am using the term "respect" as to mean recognition respect.

6 . Richard Bellamy, Liberalism and Pluralism (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp 103-104.

7 . In his comments on this study, Robert Post writes that "in America, pro-lifers are typically also death penalty advocates", thus the term "pro-life" may not be the adequate term to describe those activists. They do, however, object to abortion and believe in the sanctity of life of what they conceive as unborn children.

8 . Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973).

9 . Cf. Simon C.A. Bulea May, "Principled Compromise and the Abortion Controversy", Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 33, Issue 4 (September 2005): 317-348.

10 . http://www.bbc.co.uk/crime/caseclosed/tedbundy1.shtml
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