Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 549–567 | Cite as

Coercive Interference and Moral Judgment

  • Jan-Willem van der RijtEmail author


Coercion is by its very nature hostile to the individual subjected to it. At the same time, it often is a necessary evil: political life cannot function without at least some instances of coercion. Hence, it is not surprising that coercion has been the topic of heated philosophical debate for many decades. Though numerous accounts have been put forth in the literature, relatively little attention has been paid to the question what exactly being subjected to coercion does to an individual that makes it so hostile to his person. This paper develops an analysis of the subjective aspect of coercion whereby this hostility is explained. It is argued that coercion is not just a matter of interference with one’s agency, but also affects one’s morality. Because coercion is a form of subjugation it does more than merely limit one’s freedom, it constitutes an affront to one’s dignity as well. A new account of coercion is developed that pays particular attention to the subjectivity inherent in coercion. This account takes a middle ground in the ongoing debate between advocates of moralised and non-moralised conceptualisations of coercion. The paper closes by applying this account to two prominent issues in the literature on coercion: the use of coercion claims in attempts to avoid being held responsible for one’s actions, and the coerciveness of the law.


Coercion Moral judgment Moralisation Responsibility Coerciveness of the law 



Most of the research underlying this paper was conducted within the NWO project Modelling Freedom: Formal Analysis and Normative Philosophy carried out at the University of Groningen. I thank my colleagues there for their many helpful suggestions. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Netherlands School for Research in Practical Philosophy Summer School ‘Morality and Politics’ (Soesterberg, the Netherlands); ‘Brave New World 2007’ (Manchester, United Kingdom); and the 9th symposium ‘Contemporary Philosophical Issues’ (Rijeka, Croatia). I benefitted greatly from the discussions at these venues. For their helpful comments on previous versions of this paper I am grateful to Alon Harel, Robert Heeger, Thomas Hill, János Kis, Gerald Postema, Peter Schaber, Thomas Schmidt, and two anonymous referees.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Humanities – Department of PhilosophyUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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