Responding to Hassoun on Coercion

In my earlier posts, I challenged Hassoun’s arguments regarding the coerciveness of loan conditionality and then I developed my own positive account  regarding this matter.  In her response, Hassoun attempts to give reasons showing that (1) focusing on “coercive rules” rather than “coercion” is sufficient to make her case for the coerciveness of something like international loan conditionality and (2) that my new account of the coerciveness of international loan conditionality faces its own problems.  I would like to try out some responses to both of these concerns.

First, Hassoun writes, “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.”

I am not sure that I do accept this point.  Reconsider the example Hassoun has in mind.

Conversion 2 (C2):

S has always wanted to become a Catholic.  S decides to carry out this plan and walks over to Mother Teresa’s mission.  S is also starving and desperate for food.  Mother Teresa, says, “I will give you food, if you convert to Catholicism.”  S consents to the conversion.

Hassoun’s thought is that while S may not be “successfully coerced,”  he is “subject to coercive rules.”  Whether this is the case will depend on what exactly it means to be subject to coercive rules.  I am tempted to say that

S is subject to a set of coercive rules just in case that S is coerced by a set of rules. 

On my view, there is no relevant distinction between “successful coercion” and “being subject to coercive rule.”  Any difference between the two is merely terminological and not substantive.  On my view, S is not successfully coerced by Mother Theresa and S is not subject to Mother Teresa’s coercive rules.  S is acting according to her own rules – i.e., S’s rule: convert to Catholicism at first opportunity – and not those of another agent.

Second, Hassoun gives two counterexamples to my proposed motivation-based account of coercion.  Hassoun suggests that, according to my account, (1) “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”;  (2) “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.”

The first example is meant as a kind of reductio.  Hassoun is suggesting that it would be absurd to hold, as my account of coercion requires, that you are not subject to coercion (or coercive rule in Hassoun’s lingo) if giving over your money is one of your aims or ends.  In response, I wonder if it really is so absurd?  Part of the seeming absurdity, I think, flows from the contentiousness of the example.  If we take a less contentious example (borrowed from Jappa Pallaikathyil’s comment on an earlier post), then the plausibility of my conclusions becomes more apparent.  “Suppose I am destitute, on the brink of starvation, etc. and someone offers me my dream job with a very high salary.”  In this case, as Pallaakathayil notes, it would be weird to say that I am coerced into accepting the offer.  I am accepting the offer because of the aims that I have.  This is what motivates me to act as I do, not the dire circumstances I find myself in.  Similarly, if I really did have the aim of giving over my money to you and that aim continued to motivate me to act despite the the dire circumstances that I find myself in (that is, with a gun to my head), then I think it would be similarly weird to say that I was coerced into giving you my money.  In this case, I would be acting on my own aims and commitments.  (For more thoughts on this issue see the comment section on this earlier post.)

This, however, is not to say that there is nothing wrong with what is being done to you, when someone holds a gun to your head (or hangs you from your toes), even if it is consistent with your aims or ends.  My point is simply that you are not being coerced.  A different sort of wrongdoing may occur, but the nature of this wrongdoing is less clear.  For example, the person with the gun may be attempting to coerce you by aiming a gun in your mouth (imagine they did not know that giving up your money was one of your aims).  (In the second case, regarding the government’s rules, something similar may be happening, though I am admittedly less sure here.)  There does seem to be something wrong with attempted coercion.  However, the reasons explaining the wrongness of attempted coercion are different in kind than those explaining the wrongness of successful coercion.  As I suggested earlier, successful coercion is wrong because it interferes with an individual’s autonomy.  Attempted coercion, however, does not interfere with an individual’s autonomy.   And, at least, at this point, I am not entirely clear on why attempted coercion is wrong.

Ultimately, I think, what Hassoun is interested in is attempted coercion and how the global institutional order (including loan conditionality) is an example of attempted coercion.  For her arguments to be successful, she needs to give a story as to why attempted coercion is wrong (and why it stands in need of justification in the same way that successful coercion does).  For my part, I am interested in thinking about successful coercion and why loan conditionality is best understood as an example of this phenomenon.  I am interested in successful coercion largely because, unlike in the case of attempted coercion, the nature of the wrongess is clear.  Furthermore, to the extent that loan conditionality is coercive, the nature of the wrongdoing is also clear: it interferes with individual’s autonomy.

6 responses

  1. I think that your positive account of coercion cannot be applied to the case of loans for the simple reason that, as I pointed out earlier, the IMF and the WB do not monopolize lending. So international lending is not analogous to the case of Mother Teresa. I also have some issues with the account itself. Suppose I am desperate to get a job, and the only person who can hire me offers me the job, the condition being that I use a blue shirt to work in her company. Suppose I hate blue shirts. Am I being coerced into using blue shirts? Maybe in a sense I am, but there does not seem to be anything wrong with this kind of imposition, and in fact it is totally normal for companies to ask for these kinds of things. Now suppose I am offered a job the condition being that I abandon all my ideological ideals and become a member of the libertarian party. Am I being forced here? Maybe I am, but the difference with the former case is that there does seem to be something wrong with the demand. What is wrong is that a previous duty is being unfulfilled, namely the duty not to interfere with someone’s ideological beliefs. Or perhaps what is being unfulfilled is the inconditional duty to help someone who desperately needs help. So it looks like in order for you account to make sense, you need to make those duties explicit. Now, back to the international lending case, the IMF and the WB do not seem to have any postive duty to alleviate poverty of borrowing countries (that is, a duty that applies to them specifically), and they are not violating any duty by demanding conditions in return for loans. To demand conditions and to demand conversion to catholicisms are very different things, for in the former case there is not any violation of any duty, while in the latter there is (the right to decide on our own religious convictions).

  2. Thank you, Cristian for your thoughts.

    First, it seems you have misunderstood my account of coercion. On my account, coercion does not hinge on whether there are other options available or not. In fact, as I argued earlier, this is what makes my account of coercion unique (see my earlier post on my positive account). So, the fact that the IMF and World Bank are not monopolistic lenders has no impact on my arguments.

    Second, whether the blue shirt case counts as coercive on my account will really depend on the details. I take it that the boss’s offer takes the following form: I will hire you, only if you wear a blue shirt everyday. Let’s consider briefly two different descriptions of this offer and what my account would say about them.

    #1: Imagine that the job in question is a position as a philosophy professor and that I have plans to become a philosophy professor. In this case, my acceptance of the Boss’s offer is genuine and is not coerced by the Boss. As I suggested earlier, we need to take into consideration what motivates me to act. I have certain plans and aims – doing philosophy, being an academic, etc. – and in accepting this offer I am acting on or motivated by these plans and aims. This is true even if I don’t like wearing blue shirts. The thought is that I can accept wearing a blue shirt as part of my aim/plan of being a philosophy professor.

    #2: Imagine that the job in question is a position as a philosophy professor and that I do not have plans to become a philosophy professor. Imagine that I am starving and that I accept the offer so that I can satisfy my desire not to starve. In this case, I would argue that I am being coerced into accepting the job and into wearing a blue shirt. In this case, what motivates me to act is not a plan to become a philosophy professor but rather my desire not to starve. As I suggested earlier, my desire not to starve is certainly a rational one and as such is an expression of my rationality. It is not, however, an expression of my autonomy. As Hassoun suggests autonomy is not only the ability to reason (or to be rational) but it also involves the capacity to form and to carry out significant plans. Not starving is not a significant plan. As such, the desire not to starve is not an expression of my autonomy. For these reasons, in this case, I do not genuinely consent to the Boss’s offer. To the extent that, I also decide to become a philosophy professor and to wear blue shirts only because of the offer made by the Boss (without the offer, I would not have chosen to do either of these things), it follows, on my account, that my acceptance of the job and wearing blue shirts is coerced by the Boss. Under this description, the case would parallel the Mother Teresa case.

    This is really all just a restatement of what I argued earlier, but I think it is very relevant here. So, on my account, the details really matter. At this point, your original case of the blue shirt is under described so it is not clear that coercion is occurring on my account. Note also that positive duties play no explanatory role in whether an act counts as coercive or not on my account.

    Thanks for the good question!

  3. Thanks for your clarification. I now have a clearer idea of your account. I have a quick question, if that is OK. Is the coercer WRONGING the coercee in the case where I have no plans of becoming an academic? Or is he just forcing me to accept the job, but no injustice exists?

  4. Yes, bring on the questions! And many thanks for them! Like others, I think that coercion is presumptively wrong. However, it can be justified under some circumstances. I don’t as of yet have a fully developed account of when coercion is justified. There are some obvious candidates such as (justified) paternalism. There are likely others. So, in each case of coercion, we will have to think about whether the coercion can be justified. In the professor/blue shirt case, I am not sure that a case can be made to justify the coercion. If no such case can be made, then it is wrong on my view (though not necessarily unjust, since not all wrongs are instances of injustice). As I am sure you know, Michael Blake, for example, argues that coercion can be justified if it cannot be reasonably rejected (Scanlon style). He then suggests that, in the political case, state coercion cannot be reasonably rejected if the difference principle (DP) is satisfied. If the DP isn’t satisfied, then the coercion that is imposed would be wrong and, he would also say, unjust. I am very sympathetic to this account of what justifies coercion in the political case. Thanks for the good discussion!

  5. Ok, sorry to insist on this point, but I think it is important to understand the nature of coercion. In the example we are considering, I offer you a job as an assistant professor, I ask you to wear a blue shirt, and you have other options. You claim that in that specific case I am wronging you. I am confused here. How am I wronging you?? What is wrong with offering you such a job?

  6. Cristian, it really matters which case we are talking about. If being a professor is one my aims (description #1), then no you are not coercing me and no you are not doing anything wrong to me. Again, the fact that there are options or not plays no role in determinations of coercion on my view. Also, there is nothing inherently wrong with making such an offer on my view. Something wrong only happens if I accept the offer and it is not one of my aims (i.e., description #2). Thanks!

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