Featured Philosop-her: Sarah Goff

I am very happy to welcome Sarah Goff as the next featured philosop-her.  She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Government Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. From 2012-2013, she was a research fellow with “Justitia Amplificata: Rethinking Justice – Applied and Global,” based at Goethe University Frankfurt. She received her Ph.D. in 2012 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Her research interests include global justice, ethics in markets, responsibility in non-ideal circumstances, and gender equality. She is currently writing a book on fair trade.

Her post follows.


The Components of a Coercive Act

In my post, I would like to pick up a thread of Nicole’s and Meena’s arguments about coercion, starting with an effort to understand the motivations of a coerced person. Why does a coerced person comply with her coercer’s request? I think if the coerced person is rational, she chooses to perform the requested action only when it is in her interest to do so.† This implies that there is a sub-part of a coercive action that makes the coerced person better off.

In general:

Sub-action 1) Agent A is responsible for harming Agent B††

Sub-action 2) A makes an unfavorable offer to B

If B takes up A’s offer, then A has coerced B

Let’s take up the classic example of a mugger’s threat, “Your money or your life.” The mugger has announced that his presence poses a risk to his victim’s wellbeing (sub-action 1). The mugger offers that he will leave the victim alone if she gives up her money in exchange (sub-action 2). The victim agrees to this exchange because her money is less valuable to her than the mugger’s agreement to leave her alone. Let’s assume that the victim would like to keep her money.††† It is only in the victim’s interest to give up her money (sub-action 2) because she experiences harm from the mugger’s presence (sub-action 1).

Taken on its own, sub-action 2 is an offer for B to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange with A (albeit on unfavorable terms for B). So why is A’s offer coercive? Sub-action 2 is coercive because it is a necessary component of the mugger’s broader plan to motivate his victim to give up her money. Given the mugger’s plan, it makes sense to evaluate sub-action 2 in virtue of its role in a compound action that is coercive in its aims.

My main interest in this topic is to identify where coercion exists in the global context. It is often argued that particular aspects of global political life are coercive towards poor people and poor states. These criticisms include programs and policies that offer to transfer resources to poor people and poor states, in exchange for their agreement to perform certain actions. We might wish to characterize these offers as “coercive,” because the actors’ agreement seems forced by the circumstances of their poverty. Can we properly characterize these offers as “coercive” as we did with the mugger case? I think it frequently will be difficult to do so. Often we will do better to evaluate sub-action 1 and sub-action 2 separately. To see why, consider this description of institutional harms (sub-action 1*) and one-off interactions (sub-action 2*) in the global context:

Sub-action 1*: Poor people and poor states have valid complaints that the global order is harmful.†† Responsibility for the problematic features of the global order can be properly attributed to the cumulative actions of many individuals, states, international institutions, and transnational actors.

Sub-action 2*: A rich country offers to give resources to a poor country in exchange for the poor country’s agreement to adopt certain policies (via a conditional aid program).

Let’s say the poor country agrees to the terms of the conditional aid program, and the poor country adopts the requested policies in exchange for the rich country’s resources. We can assume that the poor country’s reason for accepting the rich country’s offer has a lot to do with the difficulties it experiences due to the global order. Has coercion occurred? If so, where has it occurred?

Before we can say that sub-action 2* is part of a broader coercive action, we need to know that a couple of things are true. First, it needs to be true that the rich country in question is responsible for the particular features of the global order that pose difficulties for the poor country. But it is very difficult to attribute responsibility for global problems to particular individual agents, as Judith Lichtenberg noted in her post.†††† Perhaps this particular rich country is responsible for supporting features of the global order that have problematic effects for other poor countries, not for the particular poor country in its conditional aid program. Second, it would need to be true that the rich country undertook sub-action 1* in order to motivate the poor country to adopt the requested policies. But it doesn’t seem that conditional aid programs have nearly this much importance to rich countries.

So how would I characterize conditional aid programs? I think the idea of “exploitation” is useful here. In my view, some conditional aid programs have terms that are unfavorable to recipients. Recipients have to give up a great deal of policy discretion and other things they care about, in exchange for a donor’s resources. I think these unfavorable terms can be exploitive when the recipient’s reasons for accepting the terms have to do with its unmet claims for some other actors to perform their duties. These other duty-bearers, who might be rich individuals, rich states, transnational actors, or international institutions, are failing in their duties to poor people/poor states in any number of different respects. For instance, these various actors might have duties in virtue of their responsibilities for migration policy, trade policy, aid and humanitarian assistance policies, and so on.

I can’t fully articulate my view of exploitation here, although I would be happy to discuss it in the comments. In this post, my primary aim has been to propose necessary conditions for viewing an offer as part of a broader coercive action. A first condition is that the agents have to be the same in sub-actions 1 and 2. A second condition is that sub-actions 1 and 2 need to have a common overarching aim. In the global context, often these conditions will not hold because the relevant actors are different agents whose plans are uncoordinated. It seems possible that these conditions might hold in some of specific cases of loans that Nicole and Meena were discussing, even if they don’t hold in other kinds of global interactions. I haven’t thought enough yet about loan cases.

†Here, I presume that coerced persons correctly perceive their own interests.

††I use “harm” as a placeholder. We might also say “violation of entitlements.”

†††In agreement with Meena’s earlier post, I believe the victim has not been successfully coerced if she actually wanted to give up her money.

††††If we believe responsibility for global poverty properly resides in groups, I am unsure whether it is possible to characterize a rich country’s conditional aid program as coercive.

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