Sunday, December 07, 2008

Coercion isn't Compulsion

"Did Sally freely φ?" There are two possible questions here that are commonly conflated. On the one hand, we may be asking roughly whether Sally intentionally φ-ed (as opposed to acting out of some unwilled compulsion, temporary insanity, or the like) -- i.e. whether Sally truly made a choice here. This is a question about 'free will' or agency. Alternatively, one might ask a question about 'political freedom', or whether Sally was subject to any kind of coercion or constraint in the options she was choosing between: e.g. did anyone have a gun to her head?

Some philosophers (at least since A.J. Ayer) discussing free will have used the gun case as a paradigm example of 'unfree' choice, for which the coerced agent is not morally responsible. This strikes me as simply mistaken. Sally is still responsible for her choice, within the given constraints. If the bandit tells her to kick me in the shins or he'll shoot, then Sally has a choice: she can choose between kicking me in the shins or getting shot. So she kicks me. Good for her, she made the right choice. This is worth emphasizing: it's not that she wasn't responsible for the choice -- on the contrary, she retained her free will, and moreover, she exercised it correctly (given the constraints). She did exactly what she had most reason to do.

Compare this to a case where Sally falls under a compulsion to kick me in the shins (maybe she was hypnotized). Notice how different the moral implications are. Here the action is wrong -- there's no justification for kicking me in the shins -- but Sally isn't responsible for it.

The question of coercion may be relevant when we want to clarify what reasons Sally had for acting as she did, or what options she was choosing between. But that is not a question relevant to the free will debate. There we are instead concerned with the question whether it was really Sally choosing at all. And to answer that question in the negative requires compulsion, not mere coercion.


  1. Hey Richard,

    I think I agree that you'll want to say that coercion doesn't undermine freedom if you assume that freedom is necessary for moral responsibility, for the reasons you point out. On this assumption, classical Hobbesian compatibilism appears better than Ayer-style compatibilism.

    But maybe this is just a reason, instead, to break the link between freedom and moral responsibility. Sally is responsible for her choice - she's praiseworthy for kicking me - but she doesn't freely kick me. Unfree because, obviously, coercion undermines freedom, Ayer and others will say. I don't see how anything you say cuts against this view, except on the assumption that freedom is necessary for praise/blame. So I'm not sure that Ayer has much to worry about.

    Do you think it's plausible that the diagnosis of Ayer's mistake (and that of many other compatibilists) is just that they fail to distinguish between what acts an agent freely does and what options an agent freely decides upon having? I agree that failing to make this distinction would be a mistake; but it seems doubtful to me that Ayer and other compatibilists are failing to make it.

    All Ayer says in "freedom and necessity", I think, is that an agent like Sally isn't blameworthy. That's definitely true. But isn't it obvious that he should agree that Sally did what she had most reason to do and that she is to be praised for doing the right thing for the right reasons? I can't imagine anybody not saying this and see know reason yet why Ayer can't.

    I also don't think it's obvious that a theory of freedom is just a theory of intentional action, even in a loose sense of 'intentional action'. Does freedom require genuine alternatives? Even the simpleminded compatibilist Hobbes sometimes appears to assert something stronger than the view that free actions are the intentional ones (or the ones done because they were chosen or desired). In "On Liberty and Necessity", for example, he seems to require that for an act to be free, not only does it need to be intentional, but it also needs to be the case that had the agent chosen not to do the act, she wouldn't have. If that's a plausible view, then the characterization of the two conflated questions about what freely acting amounts to seems to me misleading...what about the ability to do otherwise?

  2. Hi Nathan,

    I didn't mean to insist that free action is just intentional action -- that's why I added the word "roughly" in there, I'm just giving a rough indication of the vicinity of the concept we're concerned with here. 'Non-compulsion' may be a better term to begin with.

    The important thing is that we are assessing something about the agent, i.e. whether she is eligible to be praised or blamed for her decisions, and not something about the circumstances of her choice (which is where coercion would come in).

    This is an important distinction, and one that our concepts should help us to make clear. I guess it's possible for someone to recognize this distinction and yet stipulate that they are going to use the term 'free will' to just mean (what I've called) political freedom. I mean, they can use the word 'donkey' if they want. But it's not very helpful to use words that way.

    Anyway, the substantive point is this: the important concept for action theory is the one that's tied to moral responsibility. So for these theoretical purposes, it's compulsion rather than coercion that's relevant, and we should take care to appreciate the difference.


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