April 17, 2007

On Coercion

I've been away from the Lyceum for a while, but I always thought it was a worthwhile project to which to return. Thank you to everyone for sending me those complementary e-mails. They were largely what convinced me to start writing again.

Oh, and you might have noticed a change in my biography. Kathy and I got married on July 8th, 2006!

What distinguishes a free action from a coerced action? For a long time, I believed that it was that an action was coerced or at least unfree if it was what Aristotle called a non-voluntary decision, that is, a decision that was between a bad thing and a worse thing. His example is someone who needs to throw valuable cargo overboard in a storm to prevent the ship from sinking. In this context, an action should not be considered voluntary, because there is no option actually desired by the agent. What is voluntary is a choice for something one “wishes”, and a decision between two evils doesn’t give us anything we “wish”. So, an action that we make between two options that we wouldn’t want per se would be in some sense not voluntary.

This distinction is useful, but it is not enough. The problem is that it seems to exclude some examples of what we would consider free actions. Having done a lot of medical ethics recently, I noticed that most of the decisions people make in medical contexts are non-voluntary in this sense. One needs to decide between death and losing a limb, for example, or a particularly painful procedure and disability. If these actions are not considered free actions, it would not make sense to say that interfering with patients in these situations would harm their freedom. However, it seems evident that these cases are exactly the sort of cases in which the freedom of patients is most important.

If we do admit that non-voluntary actions are free, however, it would seem to make too many actions free actions. For instance, if a mugger confronts me in an alley with a gun and says, “Your money or your life”, I would be hard pressed to say that I had given my money over freely. This seems paradigmatic of a coerced, rather than a free decision. However, if non-voluntary actions are free, the only actions that would be unfree would be actions (if you can call them that) that actually result from force, such as being pushed off of a cliff. This is also an unacceptable result.

The solution is to consider coercion not in relation only to the type of action, whether voluntary, non-voluntary or involuntary, but with respect to the relationship of the person or people presenting the choice, and how that person manipulates the options. Options are manipulated in cases where the people presenting the choice are also deliberately affecting what choices are available. For instance, the mugger is also the person who is creating the options; he or she will be the one shooting me if I don’t hand over my money. In this case, my choice is manipulated, since the person presenting the choice is also the one fiddling with the possibilities.

This would be too broad if it included all manipulated choices. Someone who offers to sell me coffee is manipulating the options as well; he or she will only give me the coffee if I pay. It would even be too broad if it included all manipulated, non-voluntary choices. Someone offering to sell me a bicycle lock is manipulating my options, and my choice is between the two evils of spending money or having my bicycle stolen. Rather, a coerced choice is one where the person manipulating the choice is also adding a threat. They are adding another evil to one arm of my choice if I do not take the choice they wish me to take. The action is then coerced if three conditions are met: the choice is non-voluntary (I am choosing between two evils), the person presenting the choice is also manipulating the options, and the person manipulating the options is adding another evil (a threat) to one arm of my choices.

In the end, the destinction between a free and a coerced action is not that between a voluntary and an involuntary action. The person throwing goods overboard is acting freely while the mugging victim is coerced. Instead, coercion requires the additional condition that the person presenting the choice is manipulating the options in a particular way. Coercion is not a necessary consequence of the voluntariness of a decision per se, but of the relationship between me, the person presenting the choice, and the type of manipulation of options.

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