Column on No Excuse for Coercion

No Excuse for Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

I am always baffled and now and then really angered when people defend using coercion against other people. (Some will say I must be biased since I come from several early years of tyranny and since one of my parents was an out and out brute. How could I be objective then, about the merits of coercive force?)

For my money coercive force is not only when someone threatens to beat up or kill another unless that other does as told. I start much earlier, when someone presumes to have the authority to entice or nudge his or her fellow human beings to do as told (hoped for)! I don’t see that the importance of the project that’s to be served by such coercive force has anything to do with it–people aren’t supposed to be other people’s tools, unwilling devices for the sake of achieving even the most magnificent objectives. Certainly no one is made a morally better individual by way of being beaten or threatened to be beaten into being such, to do what is morally right. How could they, since moral goodness, if it amounts to anything intelligible at all, must involve the agent’s free choice. Without the chance to choose to do the right or wrong thing any kind of worthwhile conduct amounts at most to good behavior, like what we want from dogs or horses.

But never mind the complications–nearly everything in human life can be made to appear utterly complicated, so that people can be intimidated into thinking they have no way to tell right from wrong about it. Sophistry is a very potent motivation for withdrawing from the moral game, as some philosophers would put it. Make it all appear to be incomprehensible to us, a matter of the facts and laws of highly specialized science, at best, or beyond the pale altogether and only to be intuited by leaders. As the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed, only technologists of human behavior can be entrusted with the authority to make us all do what is desirable to do. Since, of course, there are umpteen schools of psychologists who are candidates for this role, using force to decide in the end who shall be our technologists is immediately unavoidable. So power will decide!

What really gets to me is how casually these advocates of nudging, manipulating, incentivizing, and so forth think past the idea that they are proposing using force on other people, not all of whom will protest but many others who would not comply other than from fear for their lives and liberties and that of their loved ones. How they can just get past the policies for how to treat people that their ideas imply? They have to do some serious evading, since one cannot easily imagine that they would advocate such coercive policies concerning themselves or those they respect and love. And would they happily embrace the idea of, say, rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, assault, torture, etc., since all these are but variations of coercive conduct toward other people in support of some kind of desired objective? How can their defense of coercive policies against other human beings–be they filthy rich, unfairly tall, racists, and anyone who does anything morally wrong that doesn’t qualify as violating anyone’s right to life and liberty–be sustained when they must know that when human beings are involved, what is due them is civilized persuasion, not coercion. So integrity, clearly, is not a strong virtue for such folks. Yes, I think some serious evasion is afoot here, people really failing to live up to principles that aren’t mysterious but plainly enough the foundation of civilized human interaction. To be civilized is to deploy not coercive force in how one acts toward others but rational persuasion, often indeed patient and prolonged rational persuasion.

Some will say, “Well all this preference of coercion is simply the natural hunger for power in human nature,” but that surely can’t be right since millions have no such hunger at all, quite the contrary. What millions and millions have yearned for and are yearning for is peaceful, civilized interaction with others but with a fraction–albeit influential faction–choosing the shortcut of coercive force.

Yes, there are cases that make it difficult to tell the difference between such untoward, barbaric ways of acting and the civilized ways but that is one reason we have minds, namely, to work on figuring out the distinction and to act and shape policies and institutions accordingly. It is no excuse for continuing with coercion against one’s fellows that now and then coercion isn’t easy to differentiate from peaceful interaction and that perhaps once in a billion it seems justified. Most human endeavors pose such difficulties, borderline cases as philosophers have dubbed them, yet they manage with building skyscrapers, massive dams, MRI and Cat Scan devices–you name them and people have handled them all despite the occasional difficulties and even quandaries.

So, no, there is no excuse for coercive treatment of one’s fellows, not in 99.99% of the cases where such treatment is deployed. Let no sophistry distract anyone from that.

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