Scott A. Anderson


This essay differentiates two approaches to understanding the concept of coercion, and argues for the relative merits of the one currently out of fashion. The approach currently dominant in the philosophical literature treats threats as essential to coercion, and understands coercion in terms of the way threats alter the costs and benefits of an agent’s actions; I call this the “pressure” approach. It has largely superseded the “enforcement approach,” which focuses on the powers and actions of the coercer rather than the perspective of the coercee. The enforcement approach identifies coercion with certain uses of the kinds of powers that agents need to accumulate and wield in order to be able to make significant, credible threats. Though there is considerable overlap extensionally in the instances of coercion recognized by the two approaches, the enforcement approach encompasses some uses of power to coerce that do not involve threats (in particular some direct uses of physical force). It also circumscribes which threats should be counted as coercive, though notably it provides a picture of coercion that is non-moralized in its essentials. While there may be specific purposes for which a pressure account is to be preferred, I argue that the enforcement approach better describes how coercion works, and elucidates factors that are often tacitly assumed by pressure accounts. It also is more useful for explaining the social and political significance of coercion, and why coercion is thought to have the implications commonly associated with it. In particular, I argue that it helps us understand why uses of coercion are in general a matter of ethical significance, why state authority depends on commanding a monopoly on the right to use coercion, and why being coerced may reasonably provide one a defense against being held responsible for actions one is coerced into taking.