Coercion // is the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner by use of intimidation or threats or some other form of pressure or force, and describes a set of various different similar types of forceful actions that violate the free will of an individual to induce a desired response. These actions can include, but are not limited to, extortion, blackmail, torture, and threats to induce favors. In law, coercion is codified as a duress crime. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in a way contrary to their own interests. 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 lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced.citation needed
- 1 Overview
- 2 Aims
- 3 Scope
- 4 As a criminal offense
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
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. These are so common that they are also used as metaphors for other forms of coercion.
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. Byman and Waxman (2000) define coercion as "the use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would."1 Coercion does not in many cases amount to destruction of property or life since compliance is the goal.
In psychological coercion, the threatened injury regards the victim’s relationships with other people. The most obvious example is blackmail, where the threat consists of the dissemination of damaging information. However, many other types are possible e.g. so-called "emotional blackmail", which typically involves threats of rejection from or disapproval by a peer-group, or creating feelings of guilt/obligation via a display of anger or hurt by someone whom the victim loves or respects. Another example is coercive persuasion.
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].
Government agencies may use highly intimidating methods during investigations e.g. the threat of harsh legal penalties; such coercion is typically legal. The usual incentive to cooperate is some form of plea bargain i.e. an offer to drop or reduce criminal charges against a suspect in return for full cooperation.
Some peoplewho? speak of cultural coercion when the fear of falling out with the group may force people into wearing a certain style of dress, publicly reciting a creed or a pledge of allegiance which they find ethically reprehensible or starting to smoke when they would have preferred not to etc. Within the definitional framework adopted here, all such things amount to (psychological) coercion if and only if the fear of falling out with the group is the result of purposeful threats by someone. See Peer pressure, Sociology of religion, Pledge of Allegiance.
The purely selfish kinds of coercion are a form of predatory behavior by the coercing party, whose aim is to narrow down the scope of other people’s actions so as to make them instrumental to its own personal interests. According to manywho? social philosophers, this sort of predatory behavior will become the prevailing onecitation needed. According to others it has been the prevailing one for millennia.
At the other extreme of the spectrum one finds attempts to use coercion altruistically, as a pedagogical device to improve – in some supposedly objective sense – the way other people think, with particular regard to their basic attitudes and values. Pedagogic coercion may be applied within a strictly educational context, and it is then mostly directed towards children. In this article, however, attention will focus on thought coercion, i.e. the attempt to use coercion to affect the basic values of grown-up people in general.
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.
Ideological coercion is the use of thought coercion in the attempt to modify people’s social and political philosophy. This is of course quite different from plain propaganda, or even the simple persecution of political opponents, because its objective is to force individual ideological conversions. Unlike religious coercion, it is a quite recent phenomenoncitation needed, confined to some of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.
The most notable example of ideological coercion was the Chinese “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-52, which was unique due to both thoroughness and number of people involved. Yet, 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 political purges in the Soviet Union during the Thirties, similar “brainwashing” techniques were intermittently and less systematically used by most Stalinist 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.citation needed
Somewhere in the middle between predatory and pedagogic coercion one finds the forms of coercion that are used as the main coordination tools of command systems. These are organisations that use coercion to enforce on their members patterns of division of labour aimed at reaching the organisation’s goals, which for a variety of reasons may not always be consistent with each member’s personal aims. The most typical example of a command system is a military organisation, which is typically called a government, but any large production team may easily fall into this category.
Through the punishment system of disciplinary coercion, each individual member is typically forced into altruistic behaviour in the interest of the whole group. This kind of coercion is predatory, is thought coercion, but may often be accepted in advance by the members of the group.
The scope of coercion has to do with who uses a conditional threat against whom. It is closely linked with some of the other aspects already surveyed above, and may be of paramount importance in determining coercion’s effects and implications.
Specific or personal coercion is the most commonly considered kind. It takes place when the conditional threat is decided upon by one particular individual or small group, and/or directed against some other individual or small group. All forms of predatory and thought coercion fall into this category.
Under unspecific or impersonal coercion, the conditional threats come from well-known and socially accepted general rules (rather than any individual or sub-group) and are directed against anybody in the stated conditions, according to clearly stated principles of due process. In practice, the narrowing down of individual choice may be here principally aimed at reducing the incidence of specific coercion, rather than forcing on everybody some special sub-set of positive goals. More generally, unspecific coercion may be the form taken by disciplinary coercion, and this appears to be in fact the case within the most effective command systems of the modern world. Unspecific coercion is thus the same thing as the rule of law in its widest sense.
To most peopleto whom?, the ethical implications of individual predatory coercion are straightforward. In recent times, some have attempted to extend a similar ethical judgment to non-predatory forms of coercion by individuals. Thus, for instance, the Taking Children Seriously movement has criticised pedagogic coercion by adults, including parents, on children, holding that it is possible and desirable to act with a child in such a way that all activities are consensual.
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.
The Whig-liberal tradition has led to the well-known notion of (negative) freedom as lack of specific coercion. According to this view, any form of specific coercion is then unethical in itself as an injury to freedom, quite apart from its damaging effects on social progress. Indeed, the ethical value of (negative) freedom is grounded on the idea that conscience cannot be coerced, and is thus the ultimate standard of morality.
"Coercion" is the name of a criminal offense in several US states.
- § 163.275 Coercion
- (1) A person commits the crime of coercion when the person compels or induces another person to engage in conduct from which the other person has a legal right to abstain, or to abstain from engaging in conduct in which the other person has a legal right to engage, by means of instilling in the other person a fear that, if the other person refrains from the conduct compelled or induced or engages in conduct contrary to the compulsion or inducement, the actor or another will:
- (a) Unlawfully cause physical injury to some person;
- (b) Unlawfully cause damage to property;
- (c) Engage in conduct constituting a crime;
- (d) Falsely accuse some person of a crime or cause criminal charges to be instituted against the person;
- (e) Cause or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action injurious to some persons business, except that such a threat is not deemed coercive when the act or omission compelled is for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor purports to act;
- (f) Testify falsely or provide false information or withhold testimony or information with respect to anothers legal claim or defense; or
- (g) Unlawfully use or abuse the persons position as a public servant by performing some act within or related to official duties, or by failing or refusing to perform an official duty, in such manner as to affect some person adversely.
- (2) Coercion is a Class C felony.
- Anderson, Scott A. (undated), "Towards a Better Theory of Coercion, and a Use for It", The University of Chicago 
- Hayek, Friedrich A. (1960) The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press.
- Hodgkin, Thomas (1886) (trans.) Letters of Cassiodorus, London: H. Frowde.
- Lifton, Robert J. (1961) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Penguin Books.
- Popper, Karl R. (1945) The Open Society and Its Enemies
- Rhodes, Michael R. (2000), "The Nature of Coercion", Journal of Value Inquiry, 34 (2/3)
- Rothbard, Murray N. (1982), "F. A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion", in The Ethics of Liberty, Humanities Press 
|Look up at gunpoint or at knifepoint in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Coercion entry by Scott Anderson in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Carter, Barry E. Economic Coercion, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law