Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Violence, Coercion, and the Use of Force

When is it appropriate to use violence? Under what circumstances is it acceptable to coerce people into doing something?

Different Kinds of Coercion

There are many forms that coercion can take:

  • armies can defend and initiate attacks against other countries;
  • police can use force or the threat of force to influence people's behavior;
  • jails and prisons prevent people from moving about freely;
  • parents sometimes resort to corporal punishment and spank their children;
  • or parents put their children in "time out" (sort of a kids equivalent of prison);
  • governments sometimes torture people for information;
  • one country will sometimes put sanctions on another country, harming their economy.

What these all involve is creating suffering or the threat of suffering, or taking away someone's freedom.

Should We Resort to Violence?

Sometimes we resort to violence and coercion in order to defy evil, to stop or prevent an injustice from happening. Sometimes this is done to get people to behave a certain way in the future, to incentivize them.  Sometimes it is done to punish people for things they've done in the past, for harm they are guilty of committing.

But is this acceptable? Does the ends justify the means?

It does seem like violence is sometimes justified, in that it can prevent even worse acts of violence. Police, for instance, often use violence (or, at least, the threat of violence) to fight crimes such as murder and rape. And it's difficult to see what the best punishment is for people who have committed, say, murder and rape, other than putting them in jail (if not executing them).

But there is always a danger with the use of violence. It creates suffering and resentment -- sometimes among the innocent -- which can beget even more violence. How often will the use of violence create the notion in someone else's mind that they're justified in responding with violence?

As always, it's difficult to know what the consequences of our actions will be. Will the use of force do more to prevent future violence and injustice, or will it do more to incite future violence and injustice?


Declaring war on another country, executing a criminal, issuing threats or sanctions, these are all actions that deserve careful consideration. Do they do more harm than good? What are the risks of doing them? What are the risks of not doing them?

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