Consent and Coercion

12 Oct 2012

In the Morality of Freedom, Joe Raz 1 argues that linguistic analysis is somehow lacking as a tool for examining concepts in political philosophy. Take freedom for example. He offers us the following cases:

Hunger forces a person to take a job he does not like. He had no choice and his choice was not a free one. His action of taking the job was free and he did it out of his free will but he was not really free to do anything else.

A gunman forces a person to hand over his money by threatening his life. He had no choice and his choice was not a free one. Nor would we say he acted out of his free will or freely when handing over the money. He was not really free to do anything else.

A person sells his car below market price in order to leave the country and of and stay with his ailing father. He was forced to do so. He had no other choice and he was not free to do anything else. But his choice was a free one, and he acted freely and out of his own free will.

A person stays indoors because he was misled into believing that there are poisonous fumes outside. The deceived person was not forced to stay indoors and he had a choice. But he did not act out of his free will and it was not his free choice.

Raz claims both 1 & 2 are morally alike for him and most philosophers. 3 is not relevant to political freedoms whereas 4 is highly relevant. Thus, linguistic analysis is unsuitable for the task at hand because there doesn’t seem to be any relevant linguistic differences between the cases.

But Raz has missed something very important here. All four cases involve a person with a choice they would rather not make. In all four cases, the person had alternatives but chose the least worst option for them. 1 could have chosen to starve or steal; 2 could have fought back and risked death; 3 could have called his father and dealt with the guilt; and have tested the air or ignored the liar.

But all four are not morally equivalent. 2 & 4 involve wrongs to the subject while 1 & 3 are simply unfortunate. 1 & 2 are most definitely not morally equivalent as Raz claims. What’s the difference?

An often overlooked distinction between coercion and consent in unfortunate situations is whether or not the person imposing the undesirable choices has an independent moral right to do so 2. The key difference between 1 & 2 is that the gunman has no independent moral right to threaten the subject. The same in 4 where the liar has no independent moral right to lie.

This poses a dilemma for consent based justifications of the state. Government’s want justification for the coercion of those who disagree with it. Break our laws & you go to jail. But imposing the costs of non-consent - arrest, jail, deportation etc - are not independently moral rights of the state because those costs are exactly what the state is trying to justify in the first place. It’s circular.

Or to put it another way. If the state imposes costs of non-consent, then I can never consent to the state’s authority over me (even if I want to) until those costs of non-consent can be independently justified. So much for consent theories of authority :(

  1. Raz, J., 1986, The Morality of Freedom, Claridon Press, Oxford 

  2. Bennet, J., 1979, ‘A Note on Locke’s Theory of Tacit Consent’, The Philosophical Review, Volume 88, pp 224-234