Morality and Coercion

I have been working on a series of posts about morality for a while now. In some previous posts I talked about the following:

  1. The human perception of morality is not rationally justifiable and can’t be justified without an appeal to some supernatural Something-Like-God.
  2. That any attempt to explain objective morality will always end up being a religion, for religions are what you get when you assume morality to be objective and then come up with an explanation of how that can be.

In one of my older posts I mentioned in passing that morality is (almost) always non-personal and is perceived as applying to everyone. In fact, it so strongly applies to everyone that it even applies to people long dead.

The perception that morality applies to everyone has a side effect that I didn’t mention at the time. It’s that morality and coercion are deeply intertwined. In fact, the moral idea of deserts seems to be the link between morality and coercion.

What is coercion? It’s sometimes an ill-defined concept. Clearly use of violence or threat of violence qualifies as coercion in our minds – though sometimes we perceive such coercion as moral, such as locking up criminals. And since laws and governments are based on threat of violence, all laws are by definition coercion after a fashion – if perhaps a legal and acceptable variety. But the reason we see that sort of coercion as “correct” is precisely because we perceive laws as moral and law-breaking as immoral.

I have wondered about Dan Cathy, who recently made statements against gay marriage and soon found that Joe Moreno, in the local government, was going to use the threat of government power to not let him open a store in Chicago unless Cathy retracted his statement. Since this was coming from a government, was that then a violence based form of coercion? Whether it was or not, I’m sure it was done because Moreno honestly believed it was justified by the demands of morality. Moreno honestly believed morality empowered him to use such coercion because Cathy “deserved it” so to speak. [1]

In fact, we tend to think of any sort of attempt to influence us that was unwanted as “coercive” don’t we? We feel that way even if there is not the slightest hint of violence or threat of violence.

If the Bloggernacle drops a blog from their feed because they disliked the content of a post, the person cries out “coercion!” If the Church asks a practicing-but-not-believing member to stop publishing anti-Mormon material, the cry of “coercion” is not far behind. If you get “Bloggernacled” (dog piled in comments) as a way of socially controlling what is “acceptable to say” on the Bloggernacle, you probably feel like coercion has been used against you. If you try to talk about the pros and cons of gay marriage and you get labeled as a homophobe you feel rather “coerced.” And if the Church withholds a Temple Recommend because you didn’t pay your Tithing, the charge of “mandatory Tithing” and “coercion” will so follow.

Those last examples show that we see “coercion” as immoral, yet we specifically feel coercion is okay if it was “deserved” due to a moral infraction.

This “impulse” to see coercion as simultaneously “immoral” and also “demanded by morality” (i.e. deserts) is so strong within us, that if we do use coercion on someone — of any kind, violent or non-violent — we are forced to rationalize that it was for a moral reason (i.e. they deserved it), thereby reframing the coercion as having been demanded by morality.

Further, as I pointed out in this post morality is specifically only things we feel apply to everyone. A “personal morality” is an aberration to how we think of morality. Morality is what applies to other people, or in other words it’s a social requirement, not (generally) a personal one. (By this I mean it governs interpersonal conduct, not conduct unrelated to interpersonal conduct. Or at least that is almost always true, with occasional exceptions.)

It is therefore possible to define morality as that which we feel we can coerce each other over.

Now this is where the idea of morality being a delusion (or constructed) starts to become uncomfortable. Sure, we can probably find ways to advance moral relativism as an alternative to objective morality. And some moral relativists even argue that there might be some benefits to doing so in some cases, as with this post here about animal rights. By rephrasing morality as talk about harm or help, we even might gain insights into situations where we are clearly just being circular in our moral judgments.

But none of that helps us with the fact that morality is explicitly linked to coercion. How can we adjudicate between correct and incorrect forms of coercion if there is no objective morality?

And let’s face it, all ideologies moralize their position. That is to say, all ideologies that we as humans fight over — whether religion, philosophy, or politics — are all specifically moral ideologies.

Which means that anyone we disagree with on a moral issue will always believe they are the moral ones — the ones justified by using coercion — and it’s the “other guys” that deserve the coercion.

Of course we should always try to work out our moral differences by talking them out and finding appropriate compromises – though to be honest, such compromises often abound and we refuse to consider them.

But what if we can find no compromise? There is no reason, really, (outside of a pure non-rational faith that is) to believe that compromises will always exist. So what if we know all the same facts, agree on everything, but just don’t agree on what is moral and what is not?

How do we then adjudicate between the two equally subjective and equally delusional moral worldviews?

If morality really is subjective and a delusion, then it seems obvious that the only possible way to adjudicate between two equally subjective (and delusional) moral views is through might makes right.

Or in other words through coercion.

And that thought bothers me deeply.


[1] The issue of civil rights was also under consideration — you can’t refuse to serve a person because of their sexual orientation. However, that never seems to have actually been a consideration in Moreno’s decision. What really seems to have been at stake was both Cathy making a public statement against gay marriage and also giving money to charities that opposed gay marriage.

12 thoughts on “Morality and Coercion

  1. Bruce, one possible way to arrive at the “least immoral” position is to have the least amount of coercion possible. You and I both agree that a society without any coercion at all is impossible and will never happen. But it does not necessarily follow that a society with very little coercion at all is impossible. To use my well-worn example of 1890s America, there was almost no coercion taking place in that society. People were basically left alone unless they harmed other people. (Btw, I don’t accept that it is coercion to put somebody in jail if they are physically hurting other people — it is a protective measure needed to keep society functioning). There are obvious exceptions — Mormons in Utah were coerced by the federal government into abandoning polygamy around that time, to name one example — but the vast majority of Americans could do what they wanted, go where they wanted and live how they wanted without anybody telling them what to do, taking their property, forcing them into the army, etc. Can we agree that such a society is the most moral one we can imagine because it has the least amount of coercion (approaching zero but not at zero)?

    To name another example, the life of the average Nephite in Zarahemla under King Benjamin was pretty darned free. The king didn’t take your property, you could go where you wanted and do what you wanted. You didn’t have to join a specific religion if you didn’t want to — you just couldn’t oppress those who did join the dominant religion.

    It seems the model — just leaving people alone but offering them help if they need it — has happened in history and is still theoretically possible.

  2. It’s an interesting point of view, but as you know from previous conversations with me, I disagree. Morality is not necessarily linked to coercion. I have a great many things I believe are moral which I do not feel should be forced in any degree.

  3. SR,

    You point is true, within a certain time frame. (i.e. mortality)

    But if we pull the thread, we soon find that you are really talking exclusively about Supernatural Morality anyhow. Which is not being considered here.

  4. Geoff,

    You state two beliefs which don’t necessarily have to go together. (But obviously can.)

    1. Since it’s impossible to remove coercision, we can at least minimize it.
    2. We used to do a better job at this in the 1890s.

    I’m not sure either of these points is strongly linked to this post, which is more a metaphysical look at how we link morality and coercision in our minds.

    So — to make my point stronger — if you are right that in the 1890s we had fewer things we coerced people over, then it is also undoubtedly true that we also had fewer things felt were matters of morality.

    I.e. if we allowed 12 hour work days, we also probably felt 12 hour work days were not a moral issue so long as people willingly entered into such a contracts.

    So your example really isn’t for or against my point. It’s more like a related tangent.

    It brings up an interesting point: can you reduce coercision by reducing how many things we feel are moral issues? You seem to be suggesting that this is true, at least in the economic space.

    To be honest, I find this hard to believe. But it’s a point worth debating, I think.

  5. SR,

    Let me illustate what I mean with an example. (And Geoff, this applies to your response too, I think.)

    Let’s take our previous discussion on the MTA thread about cosmetic suergery. Let’s assume that God does not want us to get cosmetic surgery (with some exceptions to ‘fix’ something, but in any case God is against any sort of enhancement.)

    However, God has made no explicit such commandment. This is only something that can be (or so we are saying for the sake of argument) deduced by looking at Gospel principles in general and through personal revelation. Some people figure out this is God’s will, and others do not. Further, some do, but ignore it.

    On the surface, we now have a moral rule (cosmetic enhancements are immoral) that requires and demands no coercision because it’s not currently a commandment to the general public. However, it is still a moral rule with moral consequences.

    So SR could argue “here we have a moral rule with no coercision.”

    But pull the string a bit further. In fact, if we are starting with the assumption of only natural morality and death is the end, this above argument contradicts those assumptions. That is to say, the argument SR is making *requires* the assumption of God and an afterlife. Further, it’s in the afterlife that violations of this moral rule really get addressed. The person that got cosmetic surgery will eventually — in an afterlife — have to come to grips with whatever negativve moral effects cosmetic surgery causes and address those. So the utility of morality is all really resolved in the afterlife. (Possible counter argument: there are consequences in this life. Counter argument: If death is the end, are these assumed consequences really *always* going to apply? That seems rather unlikely in a “death is the end” reality.)

    There is still no requirement for coercision here. But then that’s because we’re now dealing with a Supernatural view of Morality. Once we assume that morality stems from a Godly view of reality, yes of course morality and coercision can now be decoupled. I made that point in my Supernatural Morality post that this post links to.

    But that’s my whole point! It is impossible to decouple morality and coercion without reference God at some point. (It’s actually impossible to reference morality at all without referencing Something-Like-God at some point.)

    Even in Geoff’s case this is true. If we’re assuming no God and no afterlife, it is not at all clear to me that his argument in any way suggests how we could decouple morality and coercision.

    It *might* suggest a way to minimize coercion (I don’t believe it does, but let’s assume it does.). And Geoff might then be suggesting something like this:

    1. We can in fact minimize coercion
    2. Therefore morality is in part to minimize coercion

    And this might be an interesting strategy to let a sort of naturalistic morality at least somewhat trancend simple coercion (I think Popper would approve!) But I am not here claiming a one-to-one connection. Only a deep connection between the two. And it seems to me that the two are still deeply linked even on this view.

    Also, I doubt we could really claim that morality is soley about minimizing coercion. (Geoff, related note: what about children working 12 hour days? Would you at least agree that parents have no right to contract on their behalf and that they have no right to contract either? And what if someone disagrees with that view? How would it be resolved?)

    However, whatever morality we are left with is still deeply related to coercison. It still applies to everyone in some measure. If we honestly feel it doesn’t apply to others in any way, I just don’t see how we could still view it as a true moral rule without having to reference God and an afterlife.

    And if two people have differing moral views — say someone thinks parents should have a fundamental right to contract their children for 12 hour work days — only coercion can resolve the difference of opinion if both sides are implacable. i.e. We are forced to codify one view or the other into laws then enforce it.

    Now Geoff, being a Theist, will likely now want to refer to God here. God does not intend for children to work 12 hour days, so there must not be a fundamental right to contract your children. And this strikes me as an completely acceptable (though Theistic) argument.

    But what if someone is an atheist? How would they go about making an equivalent argument while not accidently refering to a sort of Supernatural Morality that is really Something-Like-God? I doubt they can do it. They might speak of Fundamental Rights or the like — but it’s really an appeal to some outside Moral Authority that is really just Something-Like-God. So an atheist is therefore forced to refer to “God” too to make the argument.

    And that is my point. Yes, SR and Geoff can come up with non-coercive morality. But only because they are Theists. Once we assume the existence of God and an afterlife, then it certainly is possible to turn (some) morality into a simple (long term) utility rather than something based on coercision.

  6. Okay, summary of the last comment:

    Yes, SR, you’re right. But only if we’re assuming the existence of God (or at least Something-Like-God) and an afterlife where moral rules without coercion can be found to apply to everyone. So the idea of a non-Theist morality having that quality is still in question. (The point of the post.)


    It’s an interesting idea that we can look for reduced coercion and make that a major factor in “better or worse” morality. But whatever we still agree is morality will still in some sense have to apply to everyone, and thus will require some sort of coercion (not necessarily physical) to make it work. And people will still perceive such enforcement of rules as coercion if they disagree with them. So the only way to resolve this is either a) an appeal to God, or b) an appeal to might makes right.

  7. “(Geoff, related note: what about children working 12 hour days? Would you at least agree that parents have no right to contract on their behalf and that they have no right to contract either? And what if someone disagrees with that view? How would it be resolved?)”

    Bruce N, this is one of the classic arguments used against a relatively coercion-free society, ie, if you don’t have laws against child labor parents will send their kids out to work 12-hours days. This completely ignores the reality of the 19th century and the 21st century. The 19th century involved a transition from a 80 percent agrarian society to an industrial society. Did kids work on their farms in the 19th century? Of course they did. Were they forced to do it by evil parents? No, they were forced to do it for survival. So, this image of 19th century sweat shops that all of the textbooks tell us is the reality of industrialization completely ignores the fact that parents and children in most cases moved from the farm to the city because they thought working in a factory for 12 hours/day was *better* than slaving away on the farm.

    So, the morality of your example is a bit cloudy. Children working in factories was better than children working on a farm. If you leave people alone, they will usually choose something better than what they currently have.

    In the 21st century it seems to me the primary problem our kids have is that they are too coddled and lazy, spending their time watching TV and video games. A little factory work might be exactly what they need (or at least some kind of work). But this isn’t going to happen. No parents in the Western world these days are going to contract their kids out to a sweat shop, so the point is moot.

  8. I don’t think it requires a belief in God, just a belief in society. You can think that you should be nice to people in general for social reasons without appealing to a greater power. Most of what we all consider moral can be directly related to social benefit.

    I think the root of the issue with your reasoning is the oft-misunderstood concept of boundary drawing vs. manipulation/coercion. You can draw boundaries without coercion. And you can believe that something is moral just because you think that you would want to be treated that way, without appealing to a higher power.

    I don’t think you can prove atheism entirely irrational through this path.

  9. SR,

    My whole point is that you can’t disprove atheism via this route. So somehow you’ve misunderstood me since you think I’m saying otherwise.

    I previously wrote about morality as social benefit or utility. The key problem with that approach is that it’s not always a positive utility, only a statistical one. But we don’t really behave morally because we think “oh, I will have a statistical social benefit by doing this.” And I am dubious that happens much if at all.

    We behave morally because we feel we should. That is the reason we do.

  10. Geoff (and SR),

    I never suggested this as an attack on your liberatrianish beliefs. (Go back. Read it more carefully. You’ve jumped to a conclusion by reading in something that wasn’t there.)

    But you misunderstood my question. My question was, given a hypothetical someone that feels parents should be able to enter into contracts for children and work them in a mine and someone else (perhaps including yourself) that believes otherwise: how do you resolve the difference other than by coercion (i.e. making a law) that supports one side over the other? I simply see no alternative but to make a law and enforce it one way or the other in such a case.

    I like your idea of trying to find a society with the least coercion (even if I’m less then convinced that the 1890s is a good example). But it seems to me that you can’t really eliminate the fact that morality is always deeply tied to coercion in some way. Especially if we allow “coercion” to include the non-violent examples I wrote about — which are often called coercion even though they are not based on any sort of violence.

    SR’s point is that coercion can be more like boundary setting, so maybe we shouldn’t call it “coercision.” And I think that is a worthwhile thought because coercision doesn’t have to be manipulative or via physical force in a great many cases. There are positive and correct uses of coercision. (I think SR should be free to avoid the term “coercision” in such cases if she wishes, though I myself don’t feel the need to do so.)

    But the idea that morality has no coercive elements at all (perhaps fear of social rejection in the case of, say, encouraging people to not be bigots) doesn’t ring true to me.

    Personally, I can’t really think of any moral rules (at least ones that govern interpersonal relations) that don’t at least tangentially connect to some coercive element somewhere.

    And I’d encourage you or SR to give me a counter example to discuss rather than just claim such moral rules exist but not mention any.

    I’m not against such coercion at all. In fact, I’m very much in favor of it. So this isn’t a claim that morality shouldn’t utilize coercion. As you said yourself, Geoff, it would be a pretty bad society if you didn’t make laws and enforce them. But it’s still coercion. Just a moral use of it.

  11. Bruce N, I think the only productive way to debate this (for me) is to separate between what I call the natural law (in the Lockean sense) and moral laws set up by society. So the natural law says that is is against universal morality to take away peoples’ life, liberty and property. It is wrong to kill somebody, enslave them or take their stuff. This is always and forever wrong, both from the perspective of Deity and the atheistic sense of it being against somebody’s “basic humanity.”

    As I mentioned, we both recognize that a functioning society brings up caveats. We recognize manslaughter as being different than premeditated murder. We recognize that there are times when people may need a bit of enslavement for society to function (the draft may be necessary if an evil invader is about to take over your society). And there should be a bit of taxation (just a small bit) to keep society functioning. So, even the natural laws come with caveats, but our goal should be to get as close to a natural law society as possible. I think, by the way, that this is pretty much what the people who lived in King Benjamin’s time had.

    So, we see that even in a society with a very small bit of moral laws, what we today would call a nearly perfect libertarian society, morality does involve coercion, so yes, I guess your main point is correct. “How can we adjudicate between correct and incorrect forms of coercion if there is no objective morality?” Yes, these seems to be the key.

    So I guess we are agreeing more than debating anything. Please carry on.

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