Thursday, October 2, 2008

What's worse than coercion?

Desperation is coercive, or so it is said. The analogy between having a gun to your head and starvation at your door is a good one, as far as decision making is concerned.

So why do we always state this just before doing the last thing we would do to someone with a gun to their head? 

Our reasoning goes: 
  1. She's only working for nothing/selling her kidneys/poisoning her water supply because she has no other option.
  2. Therefore she's effectively being coerced.
  3. That's terrible. 
  4. We won't allow it. We won't buy her t-shirts or her kidneys.
  5. Now she can't be coerced. Hoorah!
So we take away the 'not getting shot in the head' option. 

This would be fine if we also gave another choice. However if we did that that the person would no longer be desperate, and thus no longer 'coerced' anyway (and so there would be no need to interfere). There should never be a need to prevent coercion by taking away choices.

In our analogy, there is a difference between preventing coercion by forcing someone to be shot and by giving them a safe exit. 


denis bider said...

That's a pithy summary of the reasoning pattern. :-)

I suppose that people reason like this because they imagine there are better long-run options, which people forgo when there's a desperate but short-run option.

This might, in fact, be true in the case of selling kidneys - I recall reading about research which showed that people who sell them (for $500 a pop or so) end up no better in the long run than people who in similar situations did not sell an organ.

They just have one kidney less, or possibly they're dead due to complications.

denis bider said...

When assessing this from a utilitarian perspective, though, you need to also count the benefit of the kidney recipient who might have otherwise not lived to receive a kidney.

John Fast said...

I'm in agony because several years ago I saw a beautiful cartoon illustrating (literally) this point.

It showed a starving third-worlder and an American activist gloating that his group managed to shut-down the local sweatshops so the fellow wouldn't be "exploited" any more.

My agony comes from the fact that I lost the bookmark for the website, and so I can't post it on my office door (when I get an office).

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