AskDefine | Define coercion

Dictionary Definition



1 the act of compelling by force of authority
2 using force to cause something; "though pressed into rugby under compulsion I began to enjoy the game"; "they didn`t have to use coercion" [syn: compulsion]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In the context of "not countable": Actual or threatened force for the purpose of compelling action by another person; the act of coercing.
  2. In the context of "law|not countable": Use of physical or moral force to compel a person to do something, or to abstain from doing something, thereby depriving that person of the exercise of free will.
  3. A specific instance of coercing.
  4. In the context of "computing|countable": Conversion of a value of one data type to a value of another data type.

Related terms



  • Webster 1913

Extensive Definition

Coercion is the practice of compelling a person to behave in an involuntary way (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force. Coercion may typically involve the actual infliction of physical or psychological harm in order to enhance the credibility of a threat. The threat of further harm may then lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced.
The term is often associated with circumstances which involve the unethical use of threats or harm to achieve some objective. Coercion may also serve as a form of justification for a conclusion in a logical fallacy or non-logical argument.
Coercion may also refer to more subtle means of influence such as sweet talking, begging, charming, and seduction.


Any person’s set of feasible choices is obtained from the combination of two elements: the initial endowment (the perceived initial state of the world, which the chosen actions are going to affect) and the transformation rules (which state how any chosen action will change the initial endowment, according to the person’s perception).
It follows that coercion could in principle take place by purposely manipulating either the transformation rules or the initial endowment (or both). In practice, however, the detailed choice reaction of a victim to a change in initial endowment is generally unpredictable. Hence effective coercion can only be carried out through manipulation of the transformation rules. This is done by the credible threat of some injury, conditional on the victim’s choice. Often, it involves the actual inflicting of injury in order to make the threat credible, but it is the threat of (further) injury which brings about the change in transformation rules.
Coercion does not remove entirely the victim’s ability to choose, nor does it necessarily affect his or her ranking of potential alternatives. As Roman jurists used to say, coactus volui, tamen volui (I willed under coercion, but still I willed). In the terminology of rational choice theory, coercion does not remove a person’s objective function, but only affects the constraints under which such function is maximised. Yet, the purpose of coercion is to substitute one’s aims to those of the victim. For this reason, many social philosophers have considered coercion as the polar opposite to freedom.
Various forms of coercion are distinguished: first on the basis of the kind of injury threatened, second according to its aims and scope, and finally according to its effects, from which its legal, social, and ethical implications mostly depend.


Looking at the content of the threat, one can distinguish between physical, psychological and economic coercion.

Physical coercion

Physical coercion is the most commonly considered form, where the content of the conditional threat is the use of force against the person, the dear ones or the property of the victim, An oft-used example is "putting a gun to someone's head" (at gunpoint) or a "knife under the throat" (at knifepoint or cut-throat) to compel action. Armed forces in many countries use firing squads to maintain discipline and intimidate the masses or opposition into submission or silent compliance.
However, there also are non-physical forms of coercion, where the threatened injury does not immediately imply the use of force.

Psychological coercion

In psychological coercion, the threatened injury regards the victim’s relationships with other people. The most obvious example is blackmail, where the threat consists of the dissemination of damaging information. But many other cases are possible, including purposeful threats of rejection from or disapproval by a peers group, or even mere anger or displeasure by a loved one. Another instance is coercive persuasion. Government agencies may use highly intimidating methods during investigations e.g. the threat of harsh legal penalties. The usual incentive to cooperate is some form of plea bargain i.e. an offer to drop or reduce criminal charges against a suspect in return for full co-operation.
Psychological coercion – along with the other varieties - was extensively and systematically used by the government of the People’s Republic of China during the “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-1952. The process – carried out partly at “revolutionary universities” and partly within prisons – was investigated and reported upon by Robert Jay Lifton, then Research Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University: see Lifton (1961). The techniques used by the Chinese authorities included a technique derived from standard group psychotherapy, which was aimed at forcing the victims (who were generally intellectuals) to produce detailed and sincere ideological “confessions”. For instance, a professor of formal logic called Chin Yueh-lin – who was then regarded as China’s leading authority on his subject – was induced to write: “The new philosophy [of Marxism-Leninism], being scientific, is the supreme truth”. [Lifton (1961) p. 545].


Some people speak of cultural coercion when the fear of falling out with the group may force people into wearing a certain style of dress, publicly reciting a creed or a pledge of allegiance they find ethically reprehensible, starting to smoke when they'd rather not, etc. Within the definitional framework adopted here, all such things amount to (psychological) coercion if and only if the fear of falling out with the group is the result of purposeful threats by someone. See Peer pressure, Sociology of religion, Pledge of Allegiance.
Some people include deception in their definition of (psychological) coercion. Yet deception does not generally involve any threat at all, as it works by creating a mere false perception by the victim of his or her given transformation rules. Although its effects may sometimes be very similar to those of a conditional threat, it may hence be useful to treat deception as separate phenomenon.

Economic coercion

Economic coercion is when a controller of a vital resource uses his advantage to compel a person to do something he would not do if this resource were not monopolized. If someone is the owner of the only water supply, then the owner can compel the thirsty person to pay an exhorbitant price for that water or have him perform enormous labor. This is also referred to as a form of exploitation. It has been argued that as the global economy has expanded greatly in scope, economic coercion has replaced other forms of coercion such as coercion involving physical or military force.
Economic coercion requires market power. In the above example, the coercer's refusal to supply the coercee would be meaningless if the coercee had access to other independent sources of supply. But the coercer can turn his conditional refusal into a vital threat only because of his coercive monopoly over an essential resource, with no other substitutes. In a competitive marketplace, the possibility of economic coercion is much reduced as suppliers are compelled by competition to accept less money or labor for their goods. The potential for economic coercion is one objection to using markets for organ transplants.
An analogous result can also be obtained through pure monopsony power (where there is only one buyer as opposed to one seller in a monopoly). To reverse the above example, suppose that there are numerous independent suppliers of water, who sell it at a competition market price. If someone can only sell potatoes (to get money to buy water), and there is only one potato buyer he can sell to, then the buyer's simple conditional refusal to buy his potatoes would be a death threat, just as before.
The idea that monopoly control may facilitate coercion has been underlined by some business ethicists and economists. It shows that in some cases the social effects of market power goes beyond those on economic distribution and efficiency (economics).
The term economic coersion is also used within economics to refer to sanctions imposed by a powerful government or group of countries against another..


The aims of coercion can vary widely from totally "selfish" to totally altruistic ones: from attempts to gain personal wealth and power at the expense of others to efforts aimed at saving other people’s souls.

Predatory coercion

The purely selfish kinds of coercion are a form of predatory behaviour by the coercing party, whose aim is to narrow down the scope of other people’s actions so as to make them instrumental to its own personal interests. According to many social philosophers, this sort of predatory behaviour would become the prevailing one under

Pedagogic and thought coercion

At the other extreme of the spectrum one finds attempts to use coercion altruistically, as a pedagogical device to improve – in some supposedly objective sense – the way other people think, with particular regard to their basic attitudes and values. Pedagogic coercion may be applied within a strictly educational context, and it is then mostly directed towards children. In this article, however, attention will focus on thought coercion, i.e. the attempt to use coercion to affect the basic values of grown-up people in general.
In all forms of thought coercion the immediate objective is to force other people to act as if their basic choice rules were identical to those of the coercing party. However, this mere conformity of “outward” behaviour is but a first step. The true and final aim of thought coercion is to induce a change in the victim’s objective function itself, i.e. the basic set of values and rules by which the victim determines his or her own choice among the alternatives of any feasible set. Thought coercion is thus generally meant to be only temporary. Once the desired change in values has been brought about, the victim is expected to conform spontaneously, without any need for further coercion.
Whether and under what conditions this final aim can in fact be stably achieved is a difficult question, and it will be considered in the section devoted to the effects of coercion. Here it is necessary to point out that, whatever its effectiveness, thought coercion has in fact been used very extensively throughout history.

Religious coercion

The most ancient, extensive and durable kind of thought coercion has concerned religion. Religious coercion is a subset of predatory coercion, in which the selfish entity is a supernatural one. The threat typically manifests as a promise by the entity to respond to incorrect behavior with damnation--eternal discomfort. This coercion has taken the form of religious discrimination and persecution, including forced conversions, and on many occasions it has led to religious wars.

Ideological coercion

Ideological coercion is the use of thought coercion in the attempt to modify people’s social and political philosophy. This is of course quite different from plain propaganda, or even the simple persecution of political opponents, because its objective is to force individual ideological conversions. Unlike religious coercion, it is a quite recent phenomenon, confined to some of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.
The most notable single example of ideological coercion was the already mentioned Chinese “Thought Reform” campaign of 1951-52, which signalled itself for both thoroughness and number of people involved. Yet, it must be noticed that by 1966 the Chinese authorities found it necessary to follow that up with a new – albeit slightly milder – campaign, as part of the Maoist “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-1968.
Starting from the Soviet purges of the Thirties, similar “brainwashing” techniques were intermittently and less systematically used by most Communist regimes of the twentieth century. By contrast, the Fascist and Nazi regimes of Italy and Germany tended to confine their coercive activities to purely political aims, without any serious attempt to force the ideological conversion of their opponents. The use of (physical) ideological coercion was however theorised by some Fascist philosophers, like Giovanni Gentile and Jared Harfield.

Disciplinary coercion

Somewhere in the middle between predatory and pedagogic coercion one finds the forms of coercion that are used as the main coordination tools of command systems. These are organisations that use coercion to enforce on their members patterns of division of labour aimed at reaching the organisation’s goals, which for a variety of reasons may not always be consistent with each member’s personal aims. The most typical example of a command system is a military organisation, but any large production team may easily fall into this category.
Through the punishment system of disciplinary coercion, each individual member is typically forced into altruistic behaviour in the interest of the whole group. This is why this kind of coercion is not predatory, and – unlike thought coercion – may often be accepted in advance by the members of the group.


The scope of coercion has to do with who uses a conditional threat against whom. It is closely linked with some of the other aspects already surveyed above, and may be of paramount importance in determining coercion’s effects and implications.

Specific coercion

Specific or personal coercion is the most commonly considered kind. It takes place when the conditional threat is decided upon by one particular individual or small group, and/or directed against some other individual or small group. All forms of predatory and thought coercion fall into this category.

Unspecific coercion

Under unspecific or impersonal coercion the conditional threats come from well-known and socially accepted general rules – rather than any individual or sub-group – and are directed against anybody in the stated conditions, according to clearly stated principles of due process. In practice, the narrowing down of individual choice may be here principally aimed at reducing the incidence of specific coercion, rather than forcing on everybody some special sub-set of positive goals. More generally, unspecific coercion may be the form taken by disciplinary coercion, and this appears to be in fact the case within the most effective command systems of the modern world.
Unspecific coercion is thus the same thing as the rule of law in its widest sense. This must not however be confused with the monopoly of coercion by the State. First, State coercion may very easily be arbitrary – indeed technically very specific, according to the above definition. Second, there are well-documented historical examples of (small) societies that have practiced unspecific coercion without the help of State institutions – like Iceland in the early Middle Ages. The identification between State and law is but a special normative principle introduced by (public) Roman law, which according to some, like Maitland, was for this very reason to be treated as the quintessential “law of tyranny”.


The effects of coercion may differ substantially according to its type and scope. Here they will be considered from the legal, psychological, social and ethical points of view.

Legal effects

In most legal systems, the use of physical specific coercion by private individuals is a criminal offence in all cases not involving self defence or similar situations.
The picture is less simple for psychological specific coercion, owing to the general difficulty in finding clear evidence for it. In most systems psychological coercion is treated as a criminal offence when it is aimed at extortion, as is typical of blackmail. It is also punished when it leads to undue influence, defined as a master-slave relationship.
Finally, economic coercion is generally unlawful under most systems of anti-trust legislation, where it can amount to either a criminal offence – as under the Sherman Act of the US – or an administrative offence liable to a mere fine – as under EU legislation on the abuse of a dominant position. It is important however to remember that trade unions and other groups of organised workers are mostly exempted from this general principle for acts of economic coercion (like strikes) against their employers.
Legal methods themselves may employ coercion, such as when a lawsuit is threatened if a person does not comply with the wishes of the plaintiff.

Exculpation and nullity

Specific coercion may be used as a legal defence in criminal cases for acts committed under threat of injury. Similarly, one may claim the legal nullity of a contract signed under duress.
In both cases, however, the question arises of whether a "reasonable person" would have perceived a threat, and reacted in the same way. Moreover, under most modern legal systems disciplinary coercion cannot be claimed as an exculpating circumstance for war crimes committed under unlawful orders.

Psychological effects: the effectiveness of thought coercion

As already stated, thought coercion – either religious or ideological – is defined by its ultimate end to alter the fundamental values and beliefs of its victims. To ask whether this can in fact be done is to put a fundamental and age-old question: can conscience be coerced?
At the beginning of the sixth century, in a famous letter to the Jews of Genoa, the Gothic king Theodoric the Great, who was an Arian Christian, wrote: “...We cannot command the religion of our subjects, since no-one can be forced to believe against his will”: Hodgkin (1886) p. 219. This idea that conscience cannot in fact be coerced originated among the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, and resurfaced many centuries later during and after the European Renaissance, as one of the basic tenets of classic (or Whig) liberalism.
The opposite view was however the dominant one within what Karl Popper (1945) has called the Platonic tradition, which included among other things both mainstream Christianity and Hegel’s philosophy, with its later polar developments of Marxism and Fascism.
Yet, though these opposite answers may lead to divergent ethical and political prescriptions, the question itself is about a matter of mere psychological fact, which can be addressed empirically, looking at experience. Lifton (1961) on Chinese thought reform is one of the very few such works, and its findings are thus highly relevant here. Very broadly and on the whole, these findings were that on most victims the impact of thought reform tended to be temporary. In the short run it might be considerable, even leading to something close to a profound religious experience – particularly in subjects of relatively younger age (under thirty). But after a few years, and left to themselves, the victims tended to question the principles they had been indoctrinated with, reverting in most cases to their former values and convictions.
If correct, these findings would suggest that thought coercion cannot generally achieve its ultimate goal to permanently affect people’s basic values. In the Chinese case, this prediction came soon true, with the unorthodox outcomes of the “Hundred Flowers” episode of 1957. More generally, one would hence be led to expect that – far from being temporary – thought coercion would have to become a stable feature of society, in order to produce any long-lasting result. And indeed – as seen above – such predicted tendency to repeat and institutionalise itself appears to be borne out by the historical record of thought coercion in both Communist regimes and the Catholic Church.

Social effects: coercion and progress

Whig-liberal tradition

According to the Whig-liberal tradition, due to the Scottish moral philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, widespread specific coercion has the general effect of limiting society’s ability to find new and better ways of doing things: see e.g. Hayek (1960). This follows from the view of social culture as the outcome of an evolutionary process of adaptation and selection through trial and error. Since specific coercion restricts the range of potential choices to the whims of only a few individuals, it narrows down society’s chances to experiment and select new solutions, and hence its ability to adapt. Thus, it is predicted that in the long run the most successful societies would mainly be those where the incidence of specific coercion was less.
However, this only applies to specific coercion. By contrast, it is argued that unspecific coercion – brought about by the rule of law – does not in itself hinder adaptation in any important way, because it is as uniform and predictable as the constraints following from natural laws. Moreover, the rule of law is the only available way to curb specific coercion. Hence, far from being a hindrance, unspecific coercion is in this view a necessary condition for human progress.

Platonic tradition

Needless to say, those who believe they already know what is best for society, and thus feel no need to rely on any evolutionary process, do not share the Whig-liberal negative view of the social effects of specific coercion. They often opt instead for a so-called social engineering approach, whereby a command system steered by a few competent individuals – and buttressed up by quite specific coercion – is assumed to be the most “rational” way to ensure social progress.
The earliest formulation of this alternative view is found in Plato’s Republic. In modern times the idea re-surfaced during the French Revolution, thanks to Rousseau’s famous distinction between the will of all and a supposed “’’general will’’”, which – unlike the former – was defined as embodying the objective “good” for society. According to Rousseau and his followers, social progress required that those who are somehow inspired by the “general will” should be entitled to enforce it through revolutionary coercion on the will of all. Later on, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this French revolutionary principle – though not of course its specific way to identify the “general will” – percolated into first Socialist and then Fascist political thinking.

Ethical effects: coercion and freedom

To most people, the ethical implications of individual predatory coercion are straightforward. In recent times, some have attempted to extend a similar ethical judgement to non-predatory forms of coercion by individuals. Thus, for instance, the Taking Children Seriously movement has criticised pedagogic coercion by adults, including parents, on children, holding that it is possible and desirable to act with a child in such a way that all activities are consensual.
The ethical standing of wider forms of supposedly “altruistic” specific coercion – like political and thought coercion – is however much more controversial, along lines relating to the assumed relationship between coercion and freedom, which is often regarded as an ethical value in itself.

Coercion as the negation of freedom

The Whig-liberal tradition has led to the well-known notion of (negative) freedom as lack of specific coercion. According to this view, any form of specific coercion is then unethical in itself as an injury to freedom, quite apart from its damaging effects on social progress. Indeed, the ethical value of (negative) freedom is grounded on the idea that conscience cannot be coerced, and is thus the ultimate standard of morality. It hence follows that – from an ethical point of view – coercion cannot even be regarded as a lesser evil: since it cannot produce conscientious behaviour, it can never bring about the fulfilment of any ethical value.

Coercion as a source of freedom

However, the basing of all ethical values on conscience has also produced a diametrically opposed view. Developing the Socratic idea that moral evil is a result of ignorance, the Stoic philosophers had argued that one’s “true” conscience – and hence virtue – could only be attained by freeing oneself from irrationality and passions, through the stern self-control that is typical of wise men. This principle was then fitted into the Christian framework of original sin and the need for “outside” redemption, to produce the idea that on many occasions external specific coercion could and should take the place of self-control in setting ordinary people free from their sinful tendencies. Almost paradoxically, personal spiritual freedom came thus to be often based on specific thought coercion by the inspired few,
This alternative approach has percolated far beyond the religious field, and is shared to-day by all those who think they have a privileged access to “true” conscience, thanks to divine revelation, superior “scientific” knowledge or some other special circumstance. Apart from religious principles, the “true” conscience involved may be class-consciousness, patriotism, altruism, “social” values, political correctness or any other strongly held ethical world-view. The common element is the firm belief that coercion – ranging from legal State-coercion to terrorism – can and should be used to realize “true freedom for all."

Examples of coercion in media

  • In the first season of 24, Jack Bauer was coerced into assisting a political assassination, by threat of harm to his wife and daughter.
  • In the third season of NCIS Ziva David joins the team she was specially trained in assassination, espionge and coercion by the Mossad


Other references:
  • Anderson, Scott A. (undated), "Towards a Better Theory of Coercion, and a Use for It", The University of Chicago
  • Hayek, Friedrich A. (1960) The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press.
  • Hodgkin, Thomas (1886) (trans.) Letters of Cassiodorus, London: H. Frowde.
  • Lifton, Robert J. (1961) Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Penguin Books.
  • Popper, Karl R. (1945) The Open Society and Its Enemies
  • Rhodes, Michael R. (2000), "The Nature of Coercion", Journal of Value Inquiry, 34 (2/3)
  • Rothbard, Murray N. (1982), "F. A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion", in The Ethics of Liberty, Humanities Press

External links

coercion in Danish: Tvang
coercion in German: Nötigung
coercion in Spanish: Coerción
coercion in French: Coercition
coercion in Japanese: 強制
coercion in Portuguese: Coerção
coercion in Russian: Насилие
coercion in Finnish: Pakkovalta
coercion in Turkish: Baskı

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

argumentum baculinum, compulsion, constraint, duress, high pressure, intimidation, menace, menacing, pressure, strong-arm tactics, the big stick, the bludgeon, the club, the jackboot, the mailed fist, the strong arm, the sword, threat, threatening, violence
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