When, if ever, is coercion exercised by governments and political institutions legitimate? Essay

To question the necessity and validity of coercion in today’s society would fundamentally be to question the basis of our state, as political institutions have been democratically given authority over us for centuries. Coercion, practiced by those in authority, would best be defined as a government using the means of force and restraint to ensure cooperation, such as punishment through fines and jail if one does not pay their taxes, for example. The problem here is that the force used to coerce a community may be unnecessarily overbearing, as it may restrict lives, urges and needs.

So we should in fact question, which of the situations allowing coercion to occur are legitimate or not. How can this legitimacy be established? Or when should an individual let a political institution coerce him. My aim, to quote Estienne de la Boi??tie in his work La servitude volontaire, ‘is to discover how it can happen that a vast number of individuals, of towns, cities and nations can allow one man to tyrannize them, a man who has no power except the power they themselves give him.

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‘A view held in past centuries that had given unquestionable power to monarchs, clergy, and masters, was the divine authority theory. Those in power and their inferiors believed that G_d2 had given them power and authority to rule, meaning that they had the absolute right to coerce any individual. This connection to the divine authority could have been made in three ways; the rulers could have had divine status themselves, they may have been related to a G_d or as humans they had been given the authority from G_d.Uneducated human beings were prepared to consider themselves slaves to kings under divine authority, without even considering the possibility of its falseness. This assumption could have easily permitted an evil ruler to ascend to the throne and create great coercive pressures.

Since the coerced individuals believed this to be a right from G_d, its legitimacy at that point in time was valid. This theory however has got several flaws, which have been noted by some religious people such as Locke and Plato.Coercion under this belief is not wholly legitimate, since there are problems in establishing where G_d’s authority comes from, and how to prove that a political ruler has got divine authorisation.

No tangible proof to this end joined with less religious belief shows the emptiness of this theory, which is no longer practiced in Western societies. There is a belief advocated by Hobbes in his work, Leviathan, that the state of nature would become a war of all against all on the condition that there is no state to govern and protect.The absence of government will bring us into great conflict, because we are all searching to achieve what is known as ‘felicity, continual success in achieving the objects of desire. ‘3 By adding to that the scarcity of resources, there should be inevitable attacks for gain, reputation and safety. Every individual will work in his personal interest rather than in a common interest, and so Hobbes believed that the only way to subdue such individual powers would be to create a greater one. A sovereign, who creates conditions, to securely follow laws of nature, thus legitimising the act of coercion.However, it is difficult to say who would be chosen to rule if everyone wants to achieve power in Hobbes’ state of nature, and then those who do rule could easily misuse their power and authority for their own gain. Another theory that would render the act of coercion legitimate is the existence of inequalities between human beings, making some fit for dominance and others fit to be ruled.

Jean Hampton calls this, the natural subordination theory, in which ‘slavery, racism, and the subordination of women have all been justified on the basis that those being rules are inferiors who are naturally -and rightfully- dominated by their betters.By saying that it is natural for there to exist power relationships, where some dominate others, is to give support to the idea that nature has created unequal groups in society. What if a group of inferiors attempts to supersede their superiors? These individuals would no longer be in a situation where coercion could continue, as they become equal in terms of power. Another more scientific view is that an inferior should be subordinated to a superior on the precondition that the inferior and his community would be better off under control of the superior.In a political sphere, this would mean that the citizens would benefit from the guidance and protection of a political state.

The citizens can depend on their government to look after their welfare, but on the other hand, it would not be within reason to think all the citizens are better off once they are governed. If compared to a Hobbesian state of nature, citizens will clearly be better off, but this is no fair comparison,5 therefore justifying a weakness to this theory.Moreover, Aristotle uses this view to say that there are people that are better than others in a certain way, and there are those who are deficient in a certain way. He recognises two types of subordination; master over natural slaves and man over woman.

His first idea states that natural slaves exist due to their inability to pursue their own reason. Although they are able to recognise reason, insofar as they can obey commands, natural slaves are not supposed to be able to possess it, therefore they need masters to direct them, as they cannot rule themselves.This connects to the second part of the natural subordination theory for the reason that the natural slave is seen to benefit from taking part in the master’s plans more than he would otherwise. What is otherwise? Are there other opportunities for ‘natural slaves’? Although the benefit to a slave would legitimise his being coerced, we should consider whether the master rules his slave well. The master could be using force, violence and separation from family against his slave, which in my opinion gives no valid basis to coercion. Can might really make right?Aristotle would argue that the overall good consequences to master and slave would surpass the fact that the master is not a good ruler. Aristotle further believes that women are subordinate beings and that it is fair to coerce them because their sense of rationality is ineffective and they are more likely to make mistakes in planning their lives. As they are unable to rely upon their own reason, women need to be ruled by persons with a dominating reason, i.

e. men. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also supports the idea that women are educated to accept their naturally given, subordinate role to men.How can it be established then that women are subordinate to men, if they are able to complete tasks that involve educating males and have been in ruling positions in the past? Coercing someone because they are supposedly inferior is not enough in today’s society, as it has been agreed upon morally and politically that all human beings are equal, and the only purpose for such an argument would be to keep the ruling individuals in power, a view that would nowadays be opposed. John Locke disagreed with all of the above theories.At first he believed that ‘it would generally be possible to live an acceptable life even in the absence of government. ‘6 Let us tackle this idea by disproving the others. For Locke the state of nature comprises three points, that it is a state of perfect freedom, that there is equality and that it is bound by the Law of Nature.

We should be able to see from this whether coercion by a political institution would be legitimate in the cases shown. Equality, according to Locke, exists with regards to morality rather than physical equality, which Hobbes proposes.Nobody has got a natural right to subordinate another, this being in the view that no one has ever been chosen by G_d to rule over others.

Although this contradicts both the divine authority theory and the theory of natural subordination, Locke does however believe that G_d, who is our one natural superior, put us on earth. He therefore allows himself to continue by saying that the Law of Nature aims to preserve mankind, (Locke, Second Treatise, s. 6, p. 271), as we were all created in the image of G_d.So the state of nature would become a peaceful society in which everyone occupies themselves with their own possessions. We need to be able to explain those who harm others and do not follow the law. It would be necessary to enforce the law against them, and seeing as everyone is equal in a state of nature, we all have this collective power to punish those who offend. In addition to this, Locke further contradicts Hobbes, as he writes that at first the state of nature is abundant with goods, but with time people will begin to steal from each other, which arrives at Hobbes’ belief of scarcity.

As a result people will begin to disagree, not about what belonged to whom, but about whether offences have taken place. Locke would therefore conclude that a system of coercion would have to be legitimately introduced in order for offenders to be rightly punished and so that the Law of Nature will be interpreted civilly. In this case then I would maintain that it would be legitimate to have coercive measures. Once again however, this idea goes against Locke’s original theory that everyone is equal, and by creating a power above everyone, inequalities will eventually surface.

Would it not be more legitimate to allow everyone to take part in their natural right to enforce the Law of Nature, allowing them to cooperate against the offenders in society? This is more of an anarchist view, to which I shall return later. Another assumption that could give way to the use of coercion is the perfectionist theory of political authority. This would mean that the ruler has some sort of superior knowledge over his subjects and he would consequently know how to make them happy.Plato advocated this idea through a supposition that each human is composed of three parts: the reasonable part, the spirited part and the appetitive part. If all these three parts were sufficiently present with the reasonable part ruling, the individual would have a good life.

Plato then grafts this idea onto society, stating that the rational part has the authority to rule, because this part has the ability to know and understand the Good. Rulers are supposed to receive their coercive authority from the Good. Would it not be right to say then that they worked in everyone’s best interests?Plato believes that this rational part can be sufficiently present in anyone, including women, but those who possess it will rule society. The creation of an elite privileged ruling class of those who know the Good, as opposed to the rest of the population, may come about, showing Plato’s quasi-inegalitarian views. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that a human being could grasp the Good to the extent that Plato implies his guardians should, and if this has not yet happened, then Plato’s theory has no real justification.

This would mean that all political institutions up until today have been illegitimately coercive, lacking any authority. 7 If we have ruled out inequality and superiorities in reasoning and knowledge, what could still defend political authority? How could an individual or even a whole nation allow one man to have power over them without absolute resistance, particularly in modern societies where political leaders are chosen democratically? My final argument that could give legitimacy to coercion depends on whether it is consent-based.In The Politics, Aristotle worked on the assumption that political authority is based on the mutual consent among people, that there should exist a certain type of coercive force that would benefit them all.

Different groups of people are content by different ideals, and so by constructing various societies with their own political regimes, these people would best be satisfied. Aristotle further argues in The Politics (book 3, chap. 15) that concerning political matters, more men acting together are better than the best one working alone. Even through consent-based authority, there could nevertheless be good and bad rulers.If a ruler were good, then it would be legitimate for him to be in authority. If there was a bad ruler, Aristotle still maintains that his authority is valid, as would Estienne de la Boi??tie.

De la Boi??tie tries to explain that a person, given authority by the people, can use that in an adverse manner, and the people would lose their freedom. Would this coercion imposed upon the people be legitimate, just because they consented to his rule? This could occur when people are born into a type of regime, where they don’t know anything else, or if they are gullible enough to believe a certain manifesto.Would it be legitimate if the people gave authority to someone, because he defended them with bravery, or governed them with great care? He may abuse the power given to him. It can be said that the state and its operators, e.

g. police, act illegitimately as they did not ask each and every individual if they could act as they do, how then could they be in authority? I feel that in this case of consent-based authority a nation entrusts certain individuals with an authority over them, so that the nation would benefit from the coercion. If they tolerate the individuals in authority, then it should be legitimate for them to stay in this position.If a tyrannical ruler is placed in power, cowardice would not go so far as to keep a whole nation quiet about him,8 and he will be dealt with, as it would be illegitimate to let him continue coercing the nation. Anarchists are those who believe that we are able to survive without a state, as it is seen as unnecessary. According to them any form of coercion is illegitimate because a government is proposed ‘as a remedy to anti-social behaviour, but, in general, governments are its cause.

‘9 In contrast to other theorists, they are proposing a less utopian idea.William Godwin wrote that a future, where the state will no longer be necessary, would be accompanied by increased cooperation among men. He believes that it is not rational to centralise power in the hands of the few, particularly the wealthy.

Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, is also of the view that absence of government does not lead to loss of social control, for society will progress through those who are able to achieve cooperation. Even selfish individuals will end up working with others to achieve their own goals, as humans are considered to be naturally good and moral, thus creating a stable society.However, the existence of anti-social behaviour would create a dilemma for the anarchist.

Not restraining the culprit could lead to conflict, and by enforcing social rules upon individuals, that society would resemble a state. Would it not be wise to have some sort of leadership in time of conflict, or even to avoid it? A state of anarchy poses a totally different stance upon the question, as it negates the legitimacy of any form of coercion. Having analysed different situations in which coercion could be considered legitimate however, it is of my opinion that we have to find a way to justify the state because we cannot endure anarchy.Locke introduced the idea that at first we would get along fine in a state of nature, but with time there would be a need for a coercive power to control anti-social individuals.

This gives legitimacy to a governing body. I also feel that this validity for authority could be merged with the idea that it is consent-based. By voluntarily giving authority to a group of persons, who would be in power to enforce laws, it would be within reason to agree that coercion would be legitimate.


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