Featured Philosop-her: Nicole Hassoun

I am happy to welcome Nicole Hassoun as the next featured political philosop-her. Nicole Hassoun is an associate professor in philosophy at Binghamton University. From 2006-2012 she was an assistant professor in philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, affiliated with Carnegie Mellon’s Program on International Relations and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Bioethics and Health Law. In 2009-2010 she held a postdoctoral position at Stanford University and visited at the United Nation’s World Institute for Development Economics Research. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Center for Poverty Research in Austria and the Center for Advanced Studies in Frankfurt. Her book Globalization and Global Justice: Shrinking Distance, Expanding Obligations was recently published with Cambridge University Press.

Her post follows.


In her recent post on my book (and lovely comments at the MANCEPT author meets critics’ session) Professor Krishnamurthy’s worries about the conception of coercion I endorse and suggests a potential counter example. Her comments suggest to me that I should have been clearer exactly how the argument proceeds in the section of my book on coercion. Krishnamurthy says that I hold that “if X consents to rule R being imposed on her by Y but X has no other options available to her but to abide by R, X’s consent is coerced by Y.” It is true that I think something like this claim is often assumed by those who think that conditionality is coercive, but I was not trying to suggest this as the definitively correct account of coercion. So let me take a few steps back to retrace the argument in the section of my book on coercion.

The section of my book on coercion starts by trying to delimit the landscape of plausible theories. I say an institution is coercive when individuals or groups violating its rules are likely to face sanctions for the violation where a sanction is a punishment or penalty. “Coercion usually creates the conditions under which the coerced have no good alternative except to do what their coercer wants them to do. This is usually explained by the fact that the coerced are threatened by sanctions” (50). Coercion may or may not undermine autonomy and can include the use of brute force. People can be coerced into doing what they would otherwise freely do. I note that, on some accounts of coercion, offers as well as threats can be coercive and there are different baselines relative to which something counts as a threat (51). Threats may have to violate rights or may just have to make people worse off than they can otherwise (reasonably) expect to be.

That said, I do not offer an account of coercion in the book. The main point of the section on coercion in the book is not to argue that conditionality is coercive but to argue that there are many coercive international institutions in a way that liberals who endorse a wide variety of accounts of coercion might accept. (I do have a paper on conditionality here). I cannot offer a controversial conception of coercion in the book and conclude (as I try to do) that most liberals should agree that there are many coercive international institutions. Rather, I try to proceed systematically through the landscape of plausible theories and explain why I think they would all support this conclusion. I argue that whether one accepts an account of coercion on which coercion must be directly exercised against agents by international institutions or can be indirectly exercised by states, whether one accepts an account of coercion on which there can be coercive offers or only threats, whether one accepts an account of coercion on which coercion must violate rights or just make one worse off than one would otherwise be, and whether one accepts a conception of rights on which there are positive (or just negative) rights, there is reason to think many international institutions are coercive.

The example of conditionality is supposed to appeal to those who accept certain rights-based accounts of coercion, if we grant that people and countries have rights to IMF and WB loans on much more concessionary terms than they are offered. The thought is that, then, they are coerced into accepting the conditions on these loans. In effect – they are threatened with not getting the money they have a right to (on much better terms) unless they agree to the terms these institutions specify. I point out that some would object that only states are coercing people into enforcing the conditions on the loans (e.g. implementing austerity measures). However, I suggest that if states have no good option but to accept and abide by the conditions on the loans, international institutions may bear some responsibility for the fact that states are coercing their people. I also point out that the case for thinking people are coerced by institutions like the IMF and WB in examples like these is stronger insofar as these institutions have contributed to the fact that countries have no good option but to accept, and abide by, the conditions on the loans.

To object to the claim that someone is coerced when they lack good options but to consent, Krishnamurthy gives her purported counter example of someone who lacks sufficient food but has the autonomy necessary to agree to the only offer in town – Mother Teresa’s offer to give him food if he will become a Christian. As I will explain below, I think the crucial question for my audience is whether or not the person is subject to coercive rules in the example. I think people can be coerced even if they are autonomous, but this is not essential for my argument. That is, the important question for me is not whether the IMF and WB succeed in coercing people, but whether they subject people to coercive rules. I tend to think that both the person in Krishnamurthy’s example and those in the IMF/WB case are subject to coercive rules even if they are not successfully coerced and I expect Krishnamurthy accepts this point and thinks that the person in her example is subject to coercive rule. If this is so, I think my arguments show that Mother Theresa must ensure that the person can secure (and generally maintain) sufficient autonomy for it to be legitimate to coerce him. If Professor Krishnamurthy disagrees then she must reject one of the premises in my argument – either showing that one of the liberal theories of legitimacy to which I appeal is not committed  to this conclusion or rejecting liberalism. That said, I might agree with her view of this case if Mother Theresa’s conditions do not constitute coercive rule. So, on one way of looking at her case, it poses the question of whether individual relationships must be free in the way that I suggest the relationship between coercive institutional rulers and individuals must be free. I need to think about this further.

In a subsequent post, Krishnamurthy suggests we should endorse a different motivation-based conception of coercion. On her account, one’s consent or choice is coerced by someone iff one would not (“at least in part”) have made that choice but for the person’s action. In trying to make the case that there are many coercive international institutions – I do not consider whether motivation matters. I expect that if one thinks it matters, one could still accept the conclusion that there are many coercive international institutions — one will just find different examples of international coercion convincing. But I do not think the idea that motivation matters for deciding whether people are subject to coercive rules is plausible. Otherwise one may have to agree that whether or not a man subjects you to coercive rule by sticking a gun in your mouth and demanding your money depends on whether or not you want to give it to him for other reasons. Now I can see the truth in the story of the Buddhist monk who tells his persecutor that he does not have a problem even when suspended by his shoelaces over a gaping abyss because it is the persecutor who has to decide whether or not to drop him. Still, the fact that you happen to like your government’s rules and follow them of your own free will does not seem to me to make you one wit less subject to their coercive force. How do we account for this? I think we must attend carefully to the distinction between an account of coercion and coercive institutions (something Krishnamurthy’s comments helpfully suggest I should have been clearer about in the book). A success condition may be necessary for a plausible account of coercion but it should not be part of an account of what makes institutions coercive. I think we should be asking whether the IMF and WB subject states to coercive rules, not whether states are coerced by these institutions, in trying to decide whether or not the IMF and WB are legitimate.

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