Sally works for a big corporation. She works 9 to 5, with a half hour lunch, Monday through Friday. She often brings work home with her and on Saturdays, she takes a class, hoping it will help her receive a promotion and raise. On Sundays, she cleans her home and preps for the following week. This is her schedule every week unless she manages to get a vacation day or two (or if she gets sick)—in which case, work backs up and her return is hard.
Sally does not like her job but there are no other jobs available that she would like. She wishes she didn’t have to work. Some will say she only takes the job because of coercion. This would be “circumstance-based,” “background,” or “situational” coercion (for discussions, see chapter 7 of Scanlon or chapter 4 of Cohen-Almagor). In this sort of coercion, there is no individual person or clear corporate entity that does anything coercive. There is no one to blame for Sally’s situation and no one to interfere with to help Sally.
Some will insist that what is described is not coercive at all—that without a coercer, there cannot be coercion. They might also insist that Sally consents to the the employment. They might even say Sally consents to the social system within which she is employed. Some of this is true—Sally does, I think, consent to her employment. What about the claim that there is no coercion?
Generally speaking, we think of coercion as one agent, P, acting to get a second agent, Q, to do some action, A, typically by threatening to do something Q does not want to happen (firing Q, harming Q’s relative, etc). When P does this, it is reasonable to think P is responsible—or at least partly responsible—for Q’s (coerced) actions and that P is subject to justifiable interference. In Sally’s case, there simply is no P acting to get Sally to keep working. There are only the facts of the social, political, and economic world which jointly make it such that if Sally does not work, she will not be able to afford to live. The circumstances are what matters and circumstances aren’t agents that do things.
Does this mean it makes no sense to say Sally is coerced? I’m skeptical. Sally is not doing as she wants to do. She acts counter-preferentially because of the way the social, political, and economic world she (and we) inhabit is set up. While there is no particular agent to blame or interfere with, we can still think there is something unfortunate going on. If you don’t want to call it coercion, call it shcoercion. The important point is not one of conceptual analysis but of the morality of the situation.
Some think that the situation is not merely unfortunate but that it is so unjust we ought to change things in the political and economic order so that Sally (and the rest of us) would not be coerced (or shcoerced) by circumstances to work a particular job. Marxists and others on the left might even say the situation is so unjust that we ought to have the government act to make it such that Sally would not have to work at all. (See, for example, Van Parijs.)
While I would deny that the world should be set up in such a way that anyone can choose not to work at all if they prefer that, it seems clear that a situation where many people have to work at jobs they don’t like at all is at least unfortunate. (I’m also OK with saying it is coercive or shcoercive, but would note that not all coercion or shcoercion is bad).
A world in which most people work is good for all of us. A world in which many have to work at jobs they don’t like is, obviously, less good than one in which all of us could work at jobs we like. This is not a Marxist or socialist claim. Indeed, I believe the most reasonable way to actualize such a situation—where all or most can work at jobs they like—is to move far more toward a free market (or freed market—see, for example, Carson) than we have. I’ll keep further thoughts about that for a possible future post.
In the meantime, here’s what really strikes me as odd: the same people that think they are unjustly coerced into working will often also say that voting in a democratic system—including a democratic system like ours—is indication of consent to the system. This strikes me as completely incongruous with the view that they are coerced into working. I didn’t have any part in making our democratic system and I deny that when I vote within that system, I am thereby consenting to it. I vote, when I do, thinking “I wish we had a better system, but I want to vote now even though I am participating in what seems to me a clearly illegitimate system.” No one asked for my consent to a two party system. Or a system within which the majority can ruin the lives of a minority. Perhaps this system is less coercive than the employment system—but if so, its because I can choose simply not to vote at all. I’m not, that is, coerced into voting. I am, though, coerced into voting in a bad system if I wish to vote at all. Its not like I can go out and vote in a good system—that option is not possible for me.
If it’s true that others made impossible the option of Sally not working at all—or not working at all given the system we live in (I doubt it)—then the coercion there would be on par with the coercion that leaves me only able to vote in what seems to me an illegitimate system. It strikes me as more likely that it is circumstance-based coercion (or shcoercion) in both cases. In both cases, I think, there is no specific agent to blame or interfere with. In neither case does this mean we should rest comfortable with the social-political-economic order. If we ought to think of changing things for people like Sally, we ought to think of changing things for people like me. But many people seem to think Sally is treated unjustly and I am not. Why? That is, why do people believe that voting in a system they had no part in making constitutes consent to that system but working for an employer in a system they had no part in making does not?