Avoid coercing other rational beings

Eric A.

From the archives: Posted on 10th May, 1995

A poster wrote:

“Do you see children’s needs as uniquely demanding non-coercive responses, or is non-coercion intended as a broader philosophical approach?”

One properly avoids coercing other rational beings. Non-coercion is not the primary – the focus should be on the other person’s freedom rather than on the constraints on us. In essence, this brings us directly to the question of the philosophical basis for Rights.

To state the case as briefly as possible, I think the political concept of rights derives from the nature of human reason – reason is not an abstract, disembodied faculty, but a tool of survival. The use (and development) of reason requires freedom of action. Rational beings need to be able to apply their knowledge to reality.

Given this framework, the subsidiary questions are straightforward:

“There are (at least) three distinct questions: (1) Should I refrain from coercing non-humans, like pets, wild animals, insects, or ‘weeds,’ as a right of existence?”

Your list stopped just short of mentioning the microorganisms we all kill daily. Life alone is not enough to merit protection – indeed we cannot live without killing other organisms. Only rational beings are protected. We could start a debate about the faculties of dolphins or the great apes if we want to probe the grey areas, but I’m not sure it would shed light on dealing with children.

“(2) Should I refrain from coercing other humans, like murderers, rapists, shoplifters, grocery clerks, school teachers, or adults in general, as a right of self-determination?”

One should avoid coercing those who are not violating your rights (or the rights of others). One need not respect the freedom of action of murderers, but grocery clerks deserve respect. 

“(3) Do the answers to the other questions depend on whether “coercion” involves just physical force, or broader forms of manipulation?”

This is one of the more interesting questions on this list – even if we all universally condemned coercion in the parent-child relationship there is a spectrum of belief about what constitutes coercion.

Another poster wrote,

“‘Coercion’ is force, the use of force to attain one’s goals.”

I’d broaden that definition beyond force (and threats) to include deception and manipulation through partial truths. But Sarah defines coercion so broadly that it seems that it could be coercive for a parent to communicate emotional responses to a child (except perhaps in non-emotional terms). I find that the term is so problematic in this context that I’d much rather focus on the positive ideas of consensual parenting or children’s autonomy than on mere avoidance of coercion.

The poster goes on:

“I don’t believe there is any special “context” in relation to raising children. The issue is whether some use of force is justifiable in regards to one’s children.

I for one believe that it is justifiable. Coercion is not a dirty word.”

I think that one’s relationship with one’s children is in fact different than it is with other adults. In addition to the differences in size, strength, knowledge, physical skills, etc. that are present between any adult and child, there are special factors to the parent/child relationship. Among other issues, the parent is responsible for the existence of the child, who enters the world in a wholly dependent state. This alone puts the parent/child relationship on a different moral basis than any other. (If there is no special context to the p/c relationship, does the poster believe he is justified in using force on other people’s children?)

Finally, it is this initial helpless state that brings me back to the justification of rights on the basis of rationality. Is reason something with which a child is endowed at birth, or is it acquired by stages and degrees through childhood? If it is acquired gradually, should freedom also come gradually? (If present at birth, does it precede birth?) To me, this issue of the nature of reason and its development in children is the most interesting open question in Taking Children Seriously.

Eric A., 1995, ‘Avoid coercing other rational beings’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/avoid-coercing-other-rational-beings/