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Coercion ( or ) is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, trickery, or some other form of pressure or force. Such actions 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 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 in order to extract the desired information from the tortured party.


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).

This follows that coercion could take place by purposely manipulating either the transformation rules or the initial endowment (or bothis 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.


Looking at the content of the threat, one can distinguish between physical, psychological and economic coercion.


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.


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. Government agencies may use highly intimidating methods during investigations e.g. the threat of harsh legal penalties. 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 co-operation.

Psychological coercion – along with the other varieties - was extensively and systematically used by the government of the People’s Republic of Chinamarker 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 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.

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.


According to the Marxist school of thought, economic coercion arises when a controller of a vital resource uses his advantage to compel a person to do something he would not do if this resource were not monopolized. If someone is the owner of the only water supply, then the owner can compel the thirsty person to pay an exorbitant price for that water or have him perform enormous labor. This is also referred to as a form of exploitation. It has been argued that as the global economy has expanded greatly in scope, economic coercion has replaced other forms of coercion such as coercion involving physical or military force.

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 .

The term economic coercion is also used within economics to refer to sanctions imposed by a powerful government or group of countries against another..

Libertarians strongly disagree with the Marxist definition of economic coercion. Libertarian economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek defined coercion as "control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another (so) that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another"; and also states "Coercion occurs when one man's actions are made to serve another man's will, not for his own but for the other's purpose."


The aims of coercion can vary widely from totally "selfish" to totally altruistic ones: from attempts to gain personal wealth and power at the expense of others to efforts aimed at saving other people’s souls.


The purely selfish kinds of coercion are a form of predatory behaviour 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 many social philosophers, this sort of predatory behaviour will become the prevailing one.

Pedagogic and thought

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 phenomenon, confined to some of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

The most notable example of ideological coercion was the already mentioned Chinese “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-52, which was unique due to both thoroughness and number of people involved. Yet, it must be noted that 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 Sovietmarker 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 Italymarker and Germanymarker 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.


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 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.


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 and – 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. 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 Icelandmarker 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”.

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.

Ethical effects regarding freedom

To most people, the ethical implications of individual predatory coercion are straightforward. In recent times, some have attempted to extend a similar ethical judgement 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.

Negation of freedom

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. It hence follows that – from an ethical point of view – coercion cannot even be regarded as a lesser evil: since it cannot produce conscientious behaviour, it can never bring about the fulfilment of any ethical value.

Source of freedom

However, the basing of all ethical values on conscience has also produced a diametrically opposed view. Developing the Socratic idea that moral evil is a result of ignorance, the Stoic philosophers had argued that one’s “true” conscience – and hence virtue – could only be attained by freeing oneself from irrationality and passions, through the stern self-control that is typical of wise men. This principle was then fitted into the Christian framework of original sin and the need for “outside” redemption, to produce the idea that on many occasions external specific coercion could and should take the place of self-control in setting ordinary people free from their sinful tendencies. Almost paradoxically, personal spiritual freedom came thus to be often based on specific thought coercion by the inspired few.

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."

See also


  2. SpringerLink - Journal Article
  3. CJO - Abstract - The Hidden Hand of Economic Coercion
  4. F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). pp. 20–21,133.

Other references:
  • Anderson, Scott A. (undated), "Towards a Better Theory of Coercion, and a Use for It", The University of Chicago [648]
  • 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 [649]

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