This question is inspired from news that several Lukoil franchisees in New Jersey had radically increased prices in protest of unfair pricing practices, in order to gain the attention of customers and force the company to respond.

This is only one example of the use of coercion in an attempt to generate a particular response; these kinds of coercive actions have been practiced for millenia (war is an obvious example). While it is reasonable to say that nobody wants to be forced to do something they don't want to do, it seems as though coercion is necessary to achieve certain goals. Just how far can one go in influencing the actions of others before coercion becomes necessary?

"Coercion" is intended to mean "the practice of forcing another party to act in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats or intimidation or some other form of pressure or force" as given in Wikipedia. The Lukoil franchisee protest is an example of coercion, as it is intended to deny Lukoil business until the problem is addressed.

  • This seems more like a question for psychology than philosophy: to answer this question one had best be equipped with human behavioral studies on influence.
    – Rex Kerr
    Sep 14, 2012 at 5:08
  • @RexKerr: I'm open to having this migrated to Psychology & Neuroscience, but I'll wait for the community to take a closer look. This question does have some philosophical relevance, though...
    – bwDraco
    Sep 14, 2012 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


I haven't read too much about the subject, and I invite anyone that knows more than I do to correct or amend my answer. Most of the information is synthesized from the SEP article on coercion, but as always, I suggest reading the primary sources.

To answer your question, you first need to precisely define coercion as things are not as simple as they appear. There are, generally speaking, several schools of thought regarding coercion, purported by Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, and Nozick.

Aquinas - The 'inclination of the will' and non-coerciveness of threats

For Aquinas, the result of coercion is the disconnect between what he calls the 'inclination of the will' and the action taken by the agent. Simply put, it looks something like this:

  • I want to go to the store -> [no coercion] -> I voluntarily go to the store
  • I want to go to the store -> [coercion] -> I involuntarily do not go to the store

The first column being the 'inclination of the will.' It's also of note to say that, according to Aquinas, in case A, the agent is responsible for his actions, whereas in case B, he is not. Lets go back to your original question; if you agree with Aquinas, you don't really 'influence' anything, anyway. It's as if you make the coercee your puppet (you control them but 100% of the responsibility falls on you).

"But how far can we go without coercing?" you may ask. Aquinas makes a very interesting distinction. He argues that anything non-violent cannot be construed as coercive. So you could technically threaten, terrorize, or otherwise non-violently 'influence' someone to do your bidding and Aquinas would say two things: a) it's not coercion (yay!), and b) the agent is, in fact, 100% responsible for the actions they may take.

  1. If you don't vote for me, I'm going to kill you.
  2. I will rape your wife unless you give me your wallet.
  3. Every second you don't sign the contract, your company loses $1,000,000.

Are all not non-coercive according to Aquinas. 1 and 2 are threats and Aquinas doesn't believe threats can possibly be coercive. 3 is not a threat (your company is losing money as we speak!) but it's non-violent so, again, it's not coercive.

If you run a government and subscribe to this kind of philosophy, you're in luck. You can do just about anything. Violent torture, punching someone in the face, or otherwise being violent while attempting to undermine someone's 'inclination of the will' is the only way of being coercive. Raising gas prices is the least of your worries. Primary source reading: Summa Theologica.

Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill - Justice and the role of the state

Hobbes, Locke, and Kant mainly thought of coercion as a tool of the state that ought to be conducive to justice. Even Aquinas thought that a governor needed certain coercive powers to ensure order. Hobbes, in particular, thought it to be an essential part of government:

[W]here there is no coercive Power erected, that is, where there is no Commonwealth, there is no Propriety; all men having Right to all things: Therefore where there is no Commonwealth, there nothing is Unjust. So that the nature of Justice, consists in keeping of valid Covenants: but the Validity of Covenants begins not but with the Constitution of a Civil Power, sufficient to compel men to keep them: And then it is also that Propriety begins (Hobbes 1651, Ch. 15).

All four (also Bentham and others) believed, like Aquinas, that a 'covenant from fear was valid,' so fear is, therefore, not coercive. The limits of coercion seem to align closely to what Aquinas laid out. Mill, however, argued that coercion consists of more than violence and threats thereof. He made several leaps:

  1. Social institutions (not the government) possess coercive methods that are much more powerful than the state's. He cites marriage as an example.
  2. Fines, laws, taxes, etc. are all instances of coercion. He doesn't say these things are bad per se, but they are coercive.

If you agree with Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, you're more or less golden as their views on what is and is not coercive agree with Aquinas'. You're not coercive until you have to violently impose something on someone.

Mill is trickier. Even having fines for say, littering, implies coercion. Of course, he argues that it's necessary, but it's coercive nonetheless. It would be difficult to influence anyone one way or another without any leverage. Primary source reading: Mill's On Liberty.

Nozick - Coercive threats and (no) unsuccessful instances of coercion

Nozick says a lot about coercion and I would do you a great disservice if I tried to simplify his position here. Parts of his argument that I think are relevant (and revolutionary) are the following:

  • Threats can be coercive.
  • An instance of coercion occurs if and only if the coercee does what she is told to do.

So, according to Nozick, you can influence anyone insofar as you don't threaten them (or obviously don't actually violently abuse them) IFF the threat leads to their action being dictated by you.

It seems like a silly thing to say, but it makes a lot of sense. Check out this simple thought experiment.

You run a country but hard times fall on it. Crops die out, many are emigrating, etc. You are forced to pass austerity measures that many citizens aren't fond of but you're doing your best and you've always been a fair leader (a). However, there's a small dissident group forming (lets call them the Rebels). You eventually capture their leader, Bob. Bob is a zealot. He truly believes that you're a horrible leader. First you try to have a conversation with him. You try to reason with him, you try to make him understand that it's hard being in power and that not everything is black and white. As mentioned, he's a zealot. He rejects any rational argument, so you move to the next step. You torture him and attempt to force him to renege his allegiance to the Rebel force, but no dice (b). He's convinced he's right. The next morning, you decide to do the next best thing: you publicly execute Bob. The Rebellion soon dies as many fear and decide to sever their ties with the dissidents (c).

Primary source reading: Socratic Puzzles.

Conclusion - How far is too far?

Looking at the example above, we see various milestones of coercion:

  • According to Mill, you coerced citizens with austerity measures in (a).
  • According to Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, you coerced Bob with torture in (b).
  • According to Nozick, you coerced the Rebel onlookers in (c).

So, the answer your question of "how far can you go," depends on two things: 1) how, exactly, you define coercion and 2) the potential coercee's willingness to change their mind.

  • The intended meaning of "coercion" in the question is that of Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant.
    – bwDraco
    Sep 14, 2012 at 21:44
  • @DragonLord, the answer is simple then: as long as you don't violently harm anyone, you're good to go. But most philosophers nowadays really think that Nozick was onto something. Coercion is probably more like what he describes rather than what Aquinas, Kant, Locke, etc. describe (especially the threat part). Sep 14, 2012 at 21:48
  • More precisely, Kant's definition is intended here, because non-violent threats to impose a significant financial or material loss are being considered coercion, even if unsuccessful.
    – bwDraco
    Sep 14, 2012 at 21:57
  • Perhaps this is why there are stories of spiritual leaders being entirely unmoved by threats and actual torture, etc.? To show that they could not be coerced. "You may have my head, but not the head of my religion."
    – Scott Rowe
    May 22, 2023 at 2:09

'When the Chinese gave up foot binding it was because the Literati, the ruling class that was created by a system of national exams that ran the empire for a millennia, because they realized it was wrong, but they also realized that because it was wrong, it was leading to a dishonor to China. It was leading to a contempt for the Chinese.'


I think Appiah is homing in on a very potent weapon here. It is in the neighborhood of Kant's concept of authority that 'shoots blanks'; yet, it is quite of a different register and something of an iron hand.

  • 2
    Can you expand on this answer? I can't seem to understand it very well...
    – bwDraco
    Sep 14, 2012 at 15:31
  • Say that the functional definition of power is the ability to get someone to do something. This can happen with a whip or by persuasion, as with Kant's concept of (politico-philosophical-Socratic) authority, or by shaming them. The latter method is a very big way we, as members of small & local groups, regulate people's behavior in ordinary life through, for instance, gossip.
    – user2133
    Sep 14, 2012 at 21:31

If the company sets there prices to low the company will sacrifice the profits and go out of business. If the company sets there prices to high then the public will find a fair price elsewhere and the company will exprience the same loss on the other side. Coercion to force this is not needed. Competitive values will correct the problem.

Force; deception; fraud; coercion; are corollarys of each other.They are used today and have been used for centuries by individuals; governments; religions; dictators. To fool manipulate,and force peaple to sacrifice. A greate tool for usurping your money,your property, your life. Can we infuence others without using coercion? yes we can by the logical use of our own mind. Do not follow or instil or accept coercion or force.This would be. Immorral. Only accept and instil the benificial to yourself and too all.This would be. Morral.

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