Lecture 4: Coercion and Liberty

Classical Liberalism

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

We have seen so far in these lectures that every human being is a distinct center of action, and that that center is located especially in his will, which individualizes him; that the freedom of the human will creates the moral order and human dignity; and that through our actions which we initiate we each have direct experience and so knowledge that our will is free.  From these reflections certain consequences follow.

The existence of freedom of the will creates a moral demand.  

In  the absence of free will there can be no such thing as either moral or immoral action. But as soon as free will is present, the moral order is present, and both moral and immoral action become possible.  To say this is to say that moral action becomes morally necessary. The moral imperative, namely obligation or duty, arises.  Whatever free action is done must be moral.  The order of human existence, the actual relationships between persons, must conform to the requirements of the moral order.

The first and most fundamental moral demand is to respect the freedom of the will.

This follows from the fact that the freedom of the will is the foundation of the moral order and moral values.  We saw in a previous lecture that because the freedom of the will is the foundation of the moral order, it is by that fact the foundation of human dignity. The moral order demands respect, and therefore the freedom of the will which creates it demands respect. Every sane, conscious adult is in command of his actions, and that power of command is worthy of respect and demands to be respected.  This respect must be given to each person both by others and by himself.

We saw that respect is not merely an emotion but the rational recognition, manifested in action or behavior, that some person or action places us under an obligation.  Respect is not all of one kind. There are different kinds or levels of it arising from the different kinds of obligation that we experience ourselves as being under to another person or action, the different kinds of worthiness that individuals or other realities have to be respected. A person can deserve respect because of his personal qualities, his achievements or his personal character. The law can deserve respect because it is just.  But over and above these there is a special kind of respect that is due to all beings that possess freedom of will.  We shall see in a moment who these are.

Interior freedom demands exterior freedom.  Respect for the interior freedom of a person’s will consists in giving him exterior freedom or liberty.

So far in these lectures we have been concerned mainly with the interior freedom of the will. But now we must pass from the interior to the exterior. A condition of things in which the interior freedom of the will was respected and honored only interiorly, and in which exteriorly anyone was permitted to treat anyone else in whatever manner he wished like, would be absurd as well as fatal, since human existence consists integrally of both dimensions.

In the first lecture we pointed out that the will can be subject to two very different kinds of restraint. One is the limitation of choice imposed by nature. I stretch out my hand only to find it encounters a wall and can go no further. The other is physical force imposed on me by other human beings against my will, as when another person takes hold of my arms and puts handcuffs on me.  The former is simple limitation of choice. The latter is coercion. The demand to respect the freedom of the will is not a demand to expand other people’s range of choices, but a demand not to exercise coercion on them.


The idea of coercion has been analysed since ancient times and is well understood by common sense. It means the use of force, the threat of force, or fraud. Fraud is deception for the purpose of leading an individual to choose against his intention, to his detriment.  (In recent usage among philosophers the meaning of “coercion” is sometimes restricted to the threat of force, and fraud, omitting the use of force. But in these pages we take it in its usual, more comprehensive sense which includes the use of force and which is found in many dictionaries.)

The use of force on a person completely deprives him to that extent of the freedom of his will. The threat of force does not eliminate his freedom but diminishes it. It still leaves him with the ability to act, the action can still be imputed to him, but the threat reduces his responsibility for it.  In judging the degree of responsibility he bears, a number of factors must be taken into account, such as the likelihood that the threat will be carried out, the magnitude of the penalty threatened, and the kind of action demanded under threat.  It is a distinctive feature of law that it always acts by the threat of force: that is implied in the concept of law.  Fraud deprives the action of the requisite consent, and so eliminates both imputability and responsibility. If I give up my money intending to buy a genuine diamond but am deceitfully sold an imitation, I am led by the deception to do something I did not intend and cannot be held responsible for.

Dignity and Indignity

The natural freedom of the adult human will confers a unique dignity on every member of the human species, a dignity fundamentally different from any that results from the individual’s personal qualities. What does this dignity demand? What obligations of respect does it impose on others?

Respect for the freedom of the will imposes one kind of obligation and one only: not to employ coercion. Which, to repeat, comprises the use of force, the threat of force, and fraud. All of these negate and override and cancel out the freedom of the will. Nothing else does. We will see in the next lecture that there are special circumstances that can justify coercion. But for the moment we put that aside to consider the question of what constitutes an indignity.

There is now a large body of literature which concludes from the fact that all human beings share the same basic human dignity that they therefore possess a right to equal treatment of all kinds, for example to equal economic benefits from society or equal income, or a right not to be discriminated against.  An example of this literature is a recent book by Deborah Hellman, professor of law at the University of Maryland, When Is Discrimination Wrong?[1]  Because her theory is representative of this widespread viewpoint and is more developed than some others we will comment on it in a little detail.

Her answer to her own question is that discrimination is wrong whenever it is “demeaning.”  By that, she explains, she means that the discriminatory action has two features: it “puts the other person down,” and this putting down is done by someone who possesses more power than the person who is put down. (p. 57)  For example, “Being denied a job on the basis of being a female demeans women…” (p.15)  This is morally wrong, in her view, because it offends against “the principle of the equal moral worth of all persons.” (p. 14)  And this moral wrong is sufficiently serious to demand penalties such as a fine or imprisonment.

Her principle is laudable that all persons possess in some sense equal moral worth. But her conclusion that this requires equality of employment, and in general the prohibition of “discrimination” does not follow from it. For one thing, she does not distinguish between forcible or coercive discrimination and non-coercive or peaceful discrimination.  For a private employer to deny a woman a job is morally wrong in the same way, in her view, that the forcible segregation of blacks and whites in restaurants by the force of the law was morally wrong.  But the law infringed on the freedom of will of blacks, while the employer does not infringe on the freedom of the woman’s will. We will return to this point in more detail in a later lecture.

A second consideration is that her view leaves completely out of account the rights of the employer.  The employer creates the job. He puts his money at risk to pay the salary that defines the job. He gives the job its meaning because he decides the purpose the job will serve. Consequently the job belongs to him. It does not belong to the employee. If the employee should fall ill and become unable to work, the job does not go out of existence but just becomes available for someone else. But if the employer loses his money and can no longer pay for the job, it goes out of existence.  Similarly the job does not belong to the state. The state does not create it, does not pay its salary and does not define its purposes (unless the state is itself the employer). The state has no ownership rights over the job at all.  The proper role of the state is to protect the rights of the employer.

A third consideration is that she does not attempt to provide any foundation for the principle of the equal moral worth of persons or for her interpretation of it.  She simply considers it “a bedrock moral principle.” (p. 6)   But the foundation attributed to any principle can be decisive in determining its force.  If she provided such a foundation we could at least examine whether it justifies her conclusion. But she is not interested in the question of a foundation; that would lead into philosophy, which she would prefer to avoid. She does not even argue that the principle of equal moral worth is a principle of justice. On the contrary, she carefully separates the question of justice from the question of equality, which she advocates: a surprising move, to say the least,  from a philosophical viewpoint.  For it is widely assumed that it is a distinctive feature of injustice that it can warrant the use of force to remedy it.

A fourth question concerns the role of intention in her analysis of moral action. Any plausible theory of moral action must recognize the importance of its interior dimension, the agent’s beliefs and intentions, as we have stressed in these lectures, as well as the exterior or visible action.  But in her view of discrimination the agent’s intention plays no role whatever.  It is entirely a matter of the visible or objective action, viewed in its social and cultural context.  It is true that in this she agrees with the Supreme Court, which in 1971 in its wisdom decreed that, unlike in almost all other crimes,  it is possible to commit the crime of discrimination even though one has no intent to commit a wrong. But neither of them has answered the obvious question as to how a person can possibly commit a crime he had no intention of committing.  This is why the legal traditions of the Western world at least since the time of St. Augustine have accepted the necessity of mens rea to convict anyone of a crime.

To return to the more general question of indignity. We have been arguing that since the basic human dignity of every person arises out of the freedom of his will, the only true offense against that dignity is an action that strikes against that freedom.  True or moral indignity is therefore very different from an insult. A mere verbal insult does not inflict force. It may hurt our feelings. But it does not deprive us of our freedom of will or the human dignity that springs from that. The freedom of the will, and therefore the human dignity derived from it, is infringed on by coercion and only by coercion.

Human dignity is at bottom a biological concept: it is a quality of a biological species.

I do not mean that human dignity is a concept that has been explained or justified by the science of biology, which it certainly has not and cannot.  I mean that the power of free choice that we are talking about, and the dignity that results from that, is a product of our biological nature as human beings. It is a question of the biological species to which we belong. It is a gift that is possessed by all and only human beings (or all rational beings). The kind of respect we mean here applies equally to human children as to adults. Although only adults have the full power of free choice, this power is given them by their biological nature as human beings, a nature in which children share equally with adults. Children acquire freedom of the will just by growing up. They do not have to metamorphose into a new species of being.

It may be helpful to distinguish between the possession of freedom of the will and the power to exercise it.  A person who is asleep possesses freedom of will but not the power to exercise it at the moment.  The same is true of someone in a coma after an accident, and of someone who is drunk or drugged. All these remain members of the human race and possess human dignity, though their personal dignity may be compromised if it was their own fault that they were drunk or drugged. A person with Alzheimers disease may have lost the actual power to make free choices, but if he should recover from the disease he will also be restored by his biological nature to the practice of freedom. This applies already to the fetus in the womb, because once the initial union of male and female cells has taken place the fetus is genetically human and belongs demonstrably to the human species. For it to acquire the actual power of free choice nothing more is needed than its normal biological development into an adult. The class of beings to be described as possessing free will and human dignity is the class of all those that are genetically human.  

Some people assume that the biological difference between one species and another is merely a matter of the arrangement of the atoms. Some arrangements of atoms are rocks, some are bananas, others are people. But this is a mechanistic conception of life which believes in only mechanistic causation. In point of fact the differences between one species and another are teleological, like life itself.  What is distinctive of living beings is not just a different arrangement of atoms from the arrangement in rocks, but a fundamentally different form of causality, which, as we saw,  is reciprocal, so that each organ or part is both cause and the effect of every other part, and is even a precondition of the possibility of the other part; and furthermore, each part is possible only because of its relation to the whole.  In human beings the mind and will are both cause and effect of the other organs.  Some arrangements of atoms belong to the moral order while others do not.   What makes the difference in the genome we are not yet in a position to say scientifically, and we may never be. But in the meantime no sane person will believe we should treat bananas as if they were people, or people as if they were bananas.  Here as in many other areas of life we know more than we can prove.

To explain this last remark: properly speaking science cannot tell the difference between bananas and people, nor between what is alive and what is dead. The reason is that science is restricted to mechanical causation. Of course bananas and people have different genes and so on. And of course scientists are human beings and have common sense, and common sense tells us what is alive and what dead, for example when we see something moving itself (metabolism).  But it is true that from the strict scientific viewpoint all these things are just different arrangements of atoms.

To reiterate, teleology is not science, it does not give us proof or knowledge, but understanding.  We have no idea how to explain teleological causation, and especially we have no idea how to explain it in terms of mechanistic causation.  Teleology is a common-sense but indispensable complement to science. Yet in our day it seems to have been almost completely lost sight of.  One explanation of this may be that it seems to point in the direction of an intelligent first cause.

[Note on Species and varieties.

It is a peculiarity of Darwin’s theory of evolution that it depends on the distinction between varieties and species, yet it eliminates this distinction. The general form of his argument for evolution by natural selection is that we see every day how new varieties evolve through the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, and so we can easily see how the same process could also explain the evolution of species, even though we actually never seem to witness the evolution of species by this means. Yet this leads him to conclude in the end that at bottom there is no distinction between varieties and species: species are just large varieties. If he had said this at the beginning he would rightly have been accused of begging the question. ]

[1] Harvard University Press, 2008.