Japa Pallikkathayil, “The Possibility of Choice: Three Accounts of the Problem with Coercion”

Coercion is both presumptively wrong and undermines the responsibility of the person coerced. How do these two features of coercion hang together, and what explains why? In this paper, Japa Pallikkathayil offers a rich and original account.

She focuses on cases of “volitional” coercion (hereafter, simply coercion)—where one agent tries to alter another person’s choice—rather than on physical coercion (brute force). Typically, philosophers have focused on trying to define coercion. Pallikkathayil instead tries to explain what’s wrong with the paradigm cases of coercion—for example, the Mugger’s threat, “your money or your life”—rather than on definitional matters. Such cases typically involve “contingency announcements”: speech acts of the form ‘I will do x if and only if you do y”. Only a small subspecies of contingency announcements is morally problematic—the prospective trade, ‘I’ll give you my pretzel’s for your chips’, isn’t, for example—because these announcements unacceptably constrain the victim’s choice. So part of the puzzle is to explain, not only (1) what the moral objection to the mugger’s announcement is and (2) why it diminishes the victim’s responsibility, but also (3) to do so in a way that does not overgeneralize to other cases (the lunchtime offer above, e.g.).

Pallikkathayil considers three accounts:

  1. The impaired action account [IA]
  2. The impaired consent account [IC]
  3. The impaired normative authority account [INA]

She rejects the first two (though the second, sympathetically) and defends the third.

  1. Impaired Action

The impaired action account models volitional coercion on physical coercion. It claims that coercion is wrong because it induces a defect in the action’s relationship to her action or agency. In order for the account to work, “action” must be understood in a rich sense, one connected to autonomy, for clearly the mugger’s victim still does something. But autonomy can be understood in two senses: (1) as a relation between an agent and her physiological states, or (2) as a relation between an agent and other agents. The impaired action account takes the first sense.

To undermine its appeal, Pallikkathayil undercuts the two features of the mugger-victim interaction that seem to support it: (1) the victim’s diminished responsibility and (2) the victim’s experience of the interaction as an unwilling participant.

First, responsibility. The connection between coercive contingency announcements and responsibility seems to motivate IA. But, Pallikkathayil contends, this rests on a conflation between different sense of responsibility. Consider four ways of parsing “is A responsible for Φing in situation S”:

  • May A’s behavior be attributed to the agent (for moral appraisal)?
  • Is the action permissible or impermissible?
  • Is the action praiseworthy or blameworthy, etc.?
  • Should we let the benefits and burdens of the action fall on the agent who performed it?

Coercion can effect (2)-(4) without altering our judgment about (1). The fact that the action is attributable to an agent does not settle how we ought to evaluate it. The agent’s responsibility might still be mitigated. So, IA isn’t needed to explain the agent’s diminished responsibility

Second, unwillingness: coercive interactions are one’s which the agent does not typically engage in willingly. Yet, there are different senses of unwillingness.

  • Coercion places its victims in circumstances that are hostile to their aims.

But, (1) doesn’t undermine an agent’s capacity to act.

  • Coercion shapes the agent’s alternatives such that the agent’s reasons point in one direction.

However, (2) only undermines an agent’s capacity to act if one conflates having meaningful options with acting. You can choose without meaningful options: suppose your only job offer is your dream job. What makes the negative case seem different? Perhaps, Pallikkathayil conjectures, it concerns how one experiences the force of reasons: as if the verdict comes from outside. But, still, in both cases the agent can deliberate and act.

  • The action is the result of deliberative confusion
  • The action is akratic

These sense may affect the status of a behavior as a genuine action. But these aren’t necessary effects of the mugger’s announcement.

  1. Impaired Consent

The impaired consent account suggests that the problem lies in the relation between the victim and the coercer. This seems right. But it suggests that the impairment takes a specific form: the victim’s response does not constitute consent to participate in bringing about the coercer’s end.

To unpack the suggestion, we need to analyze consent. To (validly or successfully) Consent (in the sense relevant here) is to “exercise a normative discretionary power”; that is, to do something which is morally transformative and reshapes the landscape of permissions and obligations.

In the case of coercion, this moral transformation does not occur: the mugger can’t keep the money, e.g. And the impaired consent account claims this is because the recipient is unable to consent to the mugger. But, for the account to work, we need an explanation of why this is so.

The Kantians who advanced this account have paid insufficient attention to this task. Pallikkathayil tries to help them out. The standard story comes from Kant’s formula of humanity on which one must never treat others as a mere means. One way of spelling out the idea of a mere means is through “possible consent”: A treats B as a mere means just in case B couldn’t possibly consent to that treatment.

Christine Korsgaard develops this story via the case of deception. If I ask you for a loan that I never intend to repay, you think my end is different than it is. Since this is so, consent to furthering my true end (taking your money) is allegedly impossible. On this view, consent seems to require choosing an action under a description that makes reference to the other’s true ends. Kantians claim the same problem occurs in the case of coercion: the victim can’t consent to the mugger’s end of obtaining the money. But, why? The victim, after all, gives the money knowingly and intentionally. What more is required for consent?

Korsgaard claims what is needed is “some power over the proceedings”. This might mean something like control over the circumstances of choice. It is true that the victim seems to lack control over how her options have been shaped. But, the suggestion raises three questions:

  • Why is a say in the shaping of one’s options a precondition for consent?
  • What kind of say is required?
  • Does the mugger prevent his victim from having this kind of say?

Pallikkathayil works backward, beginning with three. Pallikkathayil argues that there is only one kind of control which is necessarily denied in the mugger-victim interaction. So, this has to be the relevant sort of control, if the explanation is to work.

But she begins by distinguishing some various kinds of control. There are two broad approaches. On nonmoral approaches, the requisite kind of control is to be determined without any moral evaluation of what the parties are doing—just by looking at how the parties take each other’s plans (whatever they are) into account. This approach is appealing because consent seems to be a basic wrong (a wrong we can identify without having to identify any other wrongs). But, Pallikkathayil argues, the approach fails, and this suggests that coercion isn’t a basic, but rather a parasitic wrong (a wrong that depends on other wrongful aspects of an interaction).

Here’s her argument. She begins by asking what, on the nonmoral approach, power over the proceedings might require. She considers various interpretations.

The first is a weak interpretation, on which all that is needed is to give another adequate control is “a willingness to revise one’s plans in light of the considerations the other raises. This, however, is too weak: if the victim can negotiate (I’ll give you my wallet, but not the pictures), that’s fine, on this view.

So we might prefer a second, strong interpretation. On this view, one’s option can’t be altered by another without one’s agreement. Each has a veto over the interaction. But, if everyone (including the mugger!) has a veto, conflict is simply irresolvable.

A third, bilaterial interpretation has it that “the parties are required to come to a shared view of how the interaction will proceed”. This doesn’t seem much better. The parties could come to a shared interaction by (e.g.) a fair coin toss. So, the view doesn’t explain how the mugger makes consent impossible.

So, we need to consider a moral approach. Pallikkathayil’s thought is this: a contingency announcement constrains the recipient’s options only when (1) the announcement has the power to influence the receipt (2) only if the recipient is denied veto power over the intention announced. She calls this the veto conception of constraint. The first part of the definition is added in order to accommodate the lunchtime case: here, even if I’m set in my intention, you can escape that intention by declining the trade.

This can then explain the mugger case in the following way: if the mugger gave the victim veto power over the intention, the victim would have a costless way of avoiding death. So, the announcement only makes sense if one assumes the victim is not given such power. Of course, the announcement does not guarantee the mugger’s preferred outcome: (1) the victim may not regard the reason as sufficient (say, in the case of ‘a beating or your life’, she’d accept a beating to keep the money, (2) the mugger may misjudge the costs in question.

The veto conception does not make reference to the impermissibility of the intention announced. It holds that an intention’s impermissibility is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an offer constraining. To make the case that it is not necessary, Pallikkathayil considers the case of an employer who says to her employee: I will fire you if and only if you are late for work again. Here, the employers options seem constrained because, if the employed had control over the intention, the mode of influence would be ineffective. The contingency announcement here is permissible, but constraining.

So, in what sense does the mugger impermissibly constrain the victim’s options? To make sense of this, some terminology. A legitimate demand is the counterpart of an obligation. If A has an obligation to treat B in a certain way, then B can legitimately demand that she be treated in that way. In the mugger case, the victim can legitimately demand that the mugger abandon his intention because it is an intention to violate an obligation he has to the recipient. Hence, veto power.

But this won’t work for all cases. Suppose A kidnaps B to extract ransom from C. B has a legitimate demand here, but why C? Pallikkathayil suggests that, by linking C’s action, A confers standing to B. [I’m not sure how this explanation works. See page 12].

Let us say that someone who has standing to legitimately demand that another abandon her intention has a moral veto over that intention. This then suggests an account of impermissibly constrained options:  “a contingency announcement constrains the recipient’s options when the announcement has the potential to influence the recipient only if the recipient is denied a moral veto”. This then furnishes the relevant sense of “power over proceedings” need to make consent impossible. It is a moralized conception of this power because it relies on a moral assessment of the announcer’s intention.

And this proposal makes sense. Consent, after all, supposed to be morally transformative. And its moral powers can only work if one presupposes a background of moral norms that specify the prohibitions which giving consent cancels. This set of prohibitions carves out a ‘sphere for each person’ within which she is solely entitled to determine what happens. This then suggests the following interpretation of the power of proceedings: in order to have this power, one’s option must not be impermissibly constrained.

One objection is this. Suppose the mugger threatens to smash the victim’s windshield if she doesn’t fork over the cash. But, suppose the victim’s car (unbeknownst to the mugger) is already destined for the junkyard, and so the victim is not moved by the offer. Here, it seems like the victim can exercise her discretionary authority despite her impermissibly constrained options. So, one might add the condition that one lacks power over proceedings only if one has been deprived of options that one regards as deliberatively significant.

Pallikkathayil sets aside the issue of which of these two views one should assume and simply states that disjunctive view that: in order to have the power over the proceedings that is needed to make consent possible, a person’s options must not be impermissibly constrained, at least not in ways that are deliberatively significant, and perhaps not at all. (She highlights two features of the view, which I ignore—see p.14).

Now return to the impaired consent account. On this account, the mugger’s action is impermissible because: (1) it impermissibly constrains the victim’s options and (2) this constraint has the further effect of preventing the victim from exercising her power to consent, which she is entitled to exercise. So, it explains the wrong. Moreover, it explains why the victim is not responsible: while the victim’s action is still a proper object of appraisal, her action does not have the morally transformative licensing effect it otherwise would. Her action does not count as consent to participate in the mugger’s plan.

To see how this is relevant, here’s another case: suppose A is a terrorist and B is a subway engineer. A threatens B to give up the subway plan. Even if B acquiesces, she “does not count as working” with B to bomb the subway” (in contrast to a co-conspirator).   There are various complications here which I’ll set aside (see p. 15-16).

So, the impaired consent account is plausible. But, Pallikkathayil thinks, it still has a problem. The main problem is that consent is not the only kind of morally transformative action. There are other normative discretionary powers, such as the power to promise. Promising generates obligations to perform the actions promised. Coercion may disrupt the exercise of these powers as well (e.g., promise me X or I’ll kill you). So, the account needs to be generalized.

  1. The impaired normative authority account [INA]

This brings us to Pallikkathayil’s own preferred view: the impaired normative authority account. Normative discretionary powers allow agents to change the landscape of permissions and obligations simply by choosing to do so. More generally, impermissibly constrained options impede the exercise of other forms of basic normative authority as well.

Thus, INA builds on IC. A certain contingency announcement impermissibly constrains a persons options, and this has the further effect of prohibiting the victim from exercising her normative authority.

One objection to both INA and IC is that coercion seems to be a basic wrong, rather than a parasitic one. Consider this case: an employer (who may otherwise permissibly fire her employee) says: I will fire you unless you have sex with me.  INA suggests this is not wrong in the same way the mugger’s offer is. Pallikkathayil offers some arguments who way the offer might be wrong that strike me as very unsatisfactory. And she concludes that, in absence of any explanation of the kind she canvasses, the announcement does not impermissibly constraint the employee’s options. More broadly, the range of blackmail cases seem to be counterexamples, which Pallikkathayil recognizes and address in a footnote (see p. 19 for her discussion).

This seems like the place to push Pallikkathayil’s account, and I think Pallikkathayil needs to say more here. But, she concludes, that “the temptation to understand coercion as a basic wrong may reflect a failure to consider the many grounds on which it might be impermissible for an agent to act on the intention he is announcing”.

Though I am skeptical about some of the implications of the view, Pallikkathayil’s account is interesting and worth taking seriously, and breaths much needed life into the philosophical discussion of coercion.


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