Front Page Titles (by Subject) III: Consent and Coercion - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
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III: Consent and Coercion - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Consent and Coercion
Liberty, intimately related to the antinomy between consent and coercion, is frequently defined as either the condition of not being subject to external coercion or the right to act voluntarily by our own consent.
This concept of liberty and its relation to consent and coercion involves ambiguities and contested notions, as the first three summaries demonstrate. The first summary urges us to understand liberty as the “negative” right to noncoercion or nonaggression and derives all other “positive” rights from contractual consent. The following two summaries challenge this view of negative liberty as advocated in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) and argue for a “positive” liberty that would “balance” nonabsolute rights, approve of coercion, and waive the requirement of consent to secure an egalitarian redistribution of property.
The next four summaries examine various distinctions surrounding the notions of coercion, compulsion, and control. Do offers differ substantially from threats or do they also curtail liberty? How is the Skinnerian behavioral condition in A Clockwork Orange as a form of coercive control different from other forms of noncoercive control? Next, does weakness of will differ from psychological compulsion? Finally, does “using people” or treating them like objects—even though in voluntary and noncoercive transactions—involve immorality?
The last two summaries of this set bring the issues of liberty, coercion, and consent home by applying them to judge American history and the modern world respectively. Different views of human nature determine whether we practice social engineering to regulate depersonalized “behavior” or whether we establish an open society and “public space” to encourage free “human action” and diversity.
The Right Against Coercion
“Natural and Contractual Rights.” Ethics 87 (January 1977): 153–159
If there are any contractual rights (i.e., rights to the fulfillment of promises or contracts) then there exists at least one natural right: the natural right against being coerced. To avoid being coercive, all valid obligations must derive from consent, as in a voluntary contract.
The meaning of coercion invoked is: to render a person's action involuntary by constraint or deceit. Threats and offers that result in a person's doing something are distinct from this narrow meaning of coercion. Threats, in turn, differ from offers by “derivatively” coercing a person; that is, by creating the prospect that one will suffer “primary” coercion unless one performs an action.
The specific wrong of breaking contracts or promises is that of violating a natural right against inflicting coercion on a person. Furthermore, if there is the natural right protecting one against coercion, then strictly speaking there are no “positive” natural rights. “Positive” rights mean enforceable claims to have others perform certain actions. “Negative” rights, on the other hand, are claims that prevent others from performing certain coercive actions. If Virginia were to have a “positive” natural right requiring John to provide her with a minimum standard of living, then supposedly John could violate this right noncoercively by simply doing nothing (with regard to Virginia's income). This reasoning entails the inconsistency of simultaneously justifying and forbidding coercion against John.
This account of contractual rights thus denies that there are any positive natural rights or unchosen obligations. In the absence of special relationships persons have only negative obligations of noncoercion to others. Positive obligations arise only from voluntarily entering into contracts which agree upon such obligations.
Thus, contractual rights and obligations arise from the moral demand not to violate the natural right against coercion. These obligations are voluntarily chosen by the persons entering into the contract. Within this contractual, voluntary context omissions to carry out any provision are coercive. Contractual rights, however, flow from natural rights as specific exemplifications. Just as natural rights forbid coercion, so in the special case of a mutually agreed upon contract, a violation of such a contract involves coercion.
Private Property and Coercion
“Yours, Mine and Ours: Property Rights and Individual Liberty.” Ethics 87 (1977): 126–141.
Does individual liberty call for endorsing extensive private property rights or for restricting them? Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) believes that private property rights are required by the values of personal liberty or autonomy. In Lockean fashion, Nozick defends individuals in “a State of perfect Freedom to order their actions and persons as they think fit,” and argues that welfare state schemes of egalitarian, distributive justice coercively limit human liberty by abridging an individual's right to dispose of property. But, contra Nozick's position, private property may involve continuous coercive interference with the freedom of the majority. Furthermore, since the debate between “capitalist” and “socialist” notions of justice turns around the justification of private property rights, Nozick's unargued commitment to private property seems to beg many questions.
Nozick rejects many of the traditional justifications of private property such as the utilitarian, Lockean, and social contract arguments. He seems to base his case for private property on the individual's freedom to act. But property “entitlements” may actually restrict freedom and so undermine the supposed link between private property and individual liberty. A historical example of the coercive, liberty-limiting role of private property is the enclosure movement in England. Here the extension of private property rights diminished other citizens' previous rights and freedom to use large tracts of “commons” land. This reading of history recalls the famous Lockean proviso, wherein Locke limited the right to appropriate property with the proviso that there be “enough and as good left in common for others.”
Nozick, paradoxically, recognizes that the extension of private property may restrict certain liberties. His only escape seems to be trading off the loss of such liberties against the material gain for society as a whole. But why is liberty accorded primary importance in some cases and not in others? Nozick's concept of liberty in rejecting egalitarian redistribution appeals to the freedom of an owner to sell his property; the argument against private property appeals to “liberty” also, in the sense of “the freedoms to (nonexclusive) use of, and benefit from, a set of holdings.... “
Consent, Coercion, and Property
“Nozick on Rights, Liberty, and Property.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (Fall 1976): 3–25.
Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) expounds a questionable understanding of liberty, rights, autonomy, and coercion. Nozick updates the nineteenth-century classical liberal defense of the minimal state, one whose scope is restricted to protecting individual persons, property, and contracts. In this framework of individual rights, only those obligations are valid which derive from voluntary consent. Hence, Nozick rejects egalitarian redistribution laws regulating wages and inheritance that would limit both voluntary consent and control over objects that affect persons.
But a different understanding of liberty, rights, and coercion flows from a humanitarian version of egalitarianism that seeks to improve the lot of those worse off. In this view, we need to “balance” the exercise of various rights and liberties with concern for how that exercise may exert an unacceptable degree of control over other persons' lives and autonomy. For example, low wages, even if voluntarily consented to by workers, may be unjust and reflect an “unacceptable degree of power over others.”
Nozick's belief that individual liberty demands voluntary consent to any political obligation may be fallacious for the same reasons that invalidate subjective preferences as the basis of ethical judgments. We abandon solid, objective ethical standards if we treat all preferences as equally respectable regardless of their origins, content, or consequences. We do not adequately protect everyone's individual liberty simply by making consent the basis of obligation. What will count as valid liberty, coercion, or property depends on which of two interpretations we give to liberty. One interpretation, the individual consent view of liberty, leads to asserting absolute rights of individuals to control property without reckoning social consequences or the poverty of others. A more socially conscious interpretation of liberty might weigh and balance property rights with the basic needs of others to a “normal life.” Even the “Lockean Proviso” restricts the limits of property acquisition by considering the needs of other humans besides the owners.
Nozick sees liberty threatened by the restriction of the scope of voluntary individual consent (as in property exchanges). For Nozick, consent entails the right of nonaggression to preserve people's right to control their lives. But he cannot interpret this right of nonaggression in isolation from others' rights. Others may have a “natural right of noninterference” in the sense that their requirements for an autonomous normal life (i.e., the goods and money needed for decent living) must be respected by property owners. Autonomy, to be even-handed, must be universally guaranteed even if this requires coercively restricting the rights of property. Justice and liberty call for “the balancing of individual benefits and burdens.”
Threats vs. Offers
“Threats, Offers, Law, Opinion and Liberty.” American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (October 1977): 257–272.
Do either threats or offers curtail liberty? We may conclude that threats do, but offers do not.
Threats curtail an individual's liberty “by making him unable to do something which he can unconditionally now do.” Offers, on the other hand, do not similarly deprive the individual. The threat “Your money or your life” informs a person that he will not be able to retain both the prosperity and the vitality that he presently enjoys. It curtails liberty because it makes a person, by anticipation, unable to do something which he now can do, namely, possess both his money and his life. Contrariwise, an offer presents an alternative to a present enjoyment, not a forced deprivation of it.
When is an individual deprived of freedom? We might define such deprivation by one party (Peter) of another (Paul) as: “Peter making Paul irretrievably unable to do X by doing Y to Paul,” as when Peter makes Paul unable to travel to London by imprisoning him. An offer, however, does not render an individual irretrievably unable to retain his current status; consequently, an offer does not curtail liberty. Liberty, then, should not be confused with volition or ability.
Neither the absence of human volition because of brain damage nor the absence of the ability to walk because of paralysis diminish liberty, which is essentially diminished only through interpersonal causes.
The reason why threats curtail liberty is now clear. A threat, typically made to induce a recalcitrant victim to behave in a certain way, will (a) very probably be carried out and, therefore, (b) makes the person threatened (about to be) unable to keep what had been conditionally his before the threat. Threats thereby limit a person's freedom of action.
The delineation of liberty significantly excludes varieties of “positive freedom” (ability) as authentic types of liberty. Furthermore, this notion of liberty includes within the definition of coercion threats of physical compulsion as well as actual physical compulsion.
A Clockwork Orange, Freedom, and Coercion
“Behavioral Control and Freedom of Action.” Philosophical Review 87 (April 1978): 225–240.
What sort of unfreedom afflicts a person who undergoes psychological conditioning and Skinnerian behavioral control, such as the character Alex experiences in Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (1962)? This question is relevant to understanding liberty. Those who feel that coercion involves some special evil must distinguish coercive control from other forms of control (such as offers and manipulation) that do not entail “unfreedom.”
Alex, a violence-prone individual, is subjected to aversive conditioning and “reprogramming” to quell his violence. Scientists compel him to view repeated violent images that they link with nauseous discomfort to wean Alex away from violence. What makes Alex unfree in this process? Alex has no choice but to abhor violence if he wants to avoid unreasonable discomfort.
In effect, this Skinnerian conditioning confronts Alex with a threat. Just as a man held at gunpoint is coerced since his only alternative to compliance is extreme discomfort or death, so Alex is similarly coerced. Thus Alex's actions to avoid images of violence are reasonable, given an unreasonable coercive threat as the alternative. Alex is unfree not because he is literally unable to act otherwise, but because he has no real or reasonable choice.
We can distinguish Alex's case from other cases of control which leave a person fundamentally free. The aversive control of a threat involves unfreedom; any offer or “positive” control does not usurp freedom because the person has a reasonable option to do otherwise. Similarly, manipulation is not equivalent to unfreedom or coercion. In the case of manipulation, one still retains a reasonable option to do otherwise.
Weak Will vs. Compulsion
“Skepticism About Weakness of Will.” Philosophical Review 86 (1977): 316–339.
Weakness of will bedevils those who remain in bed after the alarm has rung as well as those who desire another drink that will impair their sobriety. However common these situations, scepticism about their existence (Socratism) or moral status continues. At stake is the issue of psychological compulsion or freedom.
In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates denied the possibility of weakness of will (akrasia) and of men knowingly failing to do what they believe best in a situation because of temptation. He believed that humans always most desire and hence pursue what they think to be best. In effect, ignorance (or evaluation illusion) accounted for akrasia; knowledge, by contrast, was the precondition of true virtue or vice.
The Socratic view that individuals cannot knowingly violate their better judgment is inadequate. But the popular alternative account is also weak since it fails to plausibly distinguish weakness of will from psychological compulsion. Persons with weak wills resemble those under compulsion and are literally unable to do what their “better judgment” commands. But they differ from sufferers of psychological compulsion in that they are morally blameworthy. They are to be blamed not for doing the wrong thing in a certain case, but for failing to develop certain “normal” capacities of self-control.
These issues cast light on the problematic notion of “psychological compulsion,” “better judgment,” and “revealed” or “demonstrated preference.”
Freedom and Using Others
“Using People.” Mind 87 (January 1978): 98–104.
Does a free society allow using people? Using people may go beyond coercion and occur even in the voluntary relationships of a free society.
It is argued that using people is not limited to the paradigm cases of physical compulsion and deception, which involve the notion of a person not sharing in the purpose for which he is used. One can share purposes with an individual and still use him or her. For example, in “pure bargains” one can consider other persons of merely instrumental value without caring for them beyond their utility. The partners to such a voluntary bargain may care for the goal itself without personal caring or concern for the human having the goal.
Caring is also what characterizes true, as opposed to false, friendship. We label someone a false friend (that is, one who uses us) when we discover that he shared our purposes and goals not because they were our goals, but because they solely served his ends. Just as in the case of a pure bargain, the voluntary sharing of purposes can involve using others.
What unites pure bargains, false friends, and cases of coercion or deceit is that someone intentionally causes another to satisfy a purpose while not caring enough for the other person's desires. However, not all cases of not caring (or using) are immoral; only those cases are immoral that harm a person in some way.
Equality and Social Coercion
“Freedom From Coercion.” In Freedom and Its Limitations in American Life. Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976, pp. 1–19.
Americans have consistently believed themselves the “freest people on earth.” Alexis de Tocqueville, representing the European attitude, challenged this and indicted Americans for subordinating freedom or liberty of opinion to equality and the “tyranny of the majority.” In the American tradition freedom, ever balanced by the claims of social equality, has meant opposition to the inequality of authority, coercion, and deference. The American slogan “free and equal” implies that the heart of freedom is not Emersonian nonconformity so much as political, economic, spiritual, and social equality.
The best Americans in each generation subscribe in theory to individualism and freedom of dissent, but most Americans do not consistently demonstrate this liberality in practice. They have repeatedly violated John Stuart Mill's notion of liberty as the individual's freedom from conforming to the community in the name of his own or the common good. They have repressed by law dissenting individual conduct that violated community standards of morality—no matter how private such conduct was. Liquor prohibition and statutes regulating sex and marriage (e.g., those forbidding Mormon polygamy) illustrate this ambivalent notion of freedom.
Hierarchy or “pulling one's rank” has been the unforgiveable sin among Americans committed to equality. This sense of equality has led to the distrust of power and authority as well as to the constitutional attempts to place limits on government and prevent the coercive authority of a ruling class. Americans have also been noticeably reluctant to martial authority and force. They shun naked power and authority in preference to at least the show of voluntary cooperation. Consequently, in the period since World War I, Americans have shied away from acknowledging their own world power and authority.
Americans glory in being “masterless.” But freedom from overt authority is illusory since it generates social tensions and psychological needs that call for group action. What substitute for noncoercive social order has arisen in America? It is plausible to suggest that instead of abolishing coercion, Americans have forged more subtle and impersonal chains.
Human Action vs. Behavior
“Hannah Arendt: The Ambiguities of Theory and Practice.” In Political Theory and Praxis: New Perspectives. Edited by Terence Ball. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1977, pp. 141–158.
Hannah Arendt's efforts to resurrect the concept of free human action in the modern world are laudable contributions to political philosophy. Arendt's distinction between human action and behavior reflects a radical split in ways of dealing with men. Behavior denotes predictable regularity in human activity, which is therefore suitable for analysis by social scientists. Human action, on the other hand, is essentially free. It bespeaks the unpredictable, purposeful, and autonomous realm. Indeed, human action creates a “new beginning” unanticipated by any behavioral analysis. For Arendt, behavior is the best study for social science, whereas political theory is best suited to examine human action. Political theory can thrive only in an atmosphere where human action is possible.
Arendt's critique of modernity is that it is characterized by the closing off of action. The impetus of contemporary social systems is to mold people into behavioral patterns that are more easily manipulated and measured by the tools of the social scientist. As a result, human action as political praxis is weakened—together with political theory itself.
The solution to the waning of human action is to recognize the value of a “public space”; that is, human action can flourish only in an environment where diversity and plurality are supported and where men are equal and distinct. Wherever a public space arises, speech is the predominant mode of activity. Since action occurs between free and equal men, persuasion must be employed rather than manipulation, domination, or coercion.
Arendt's notion of the relation between theory and practice is also significant. The theorist is one who seeks meaning in human action. He is also one who revivifies the past by showing its vital connection to the present. Since human action is, by its very nature, free and open-ended, the actors themselves often cannot discern its full meaning. The meaning of action is often found only retrospectively. Yet since free action is rare in the modern world, the theorist is reduced to one who simply reconstructs the past as a reminder to the present. In Aristotle's understanding the theoretical life is self-justified. But until the necessary and liberating public space is created, the theorist must content himself with focusing on the past.