Coercion is a really difficult concept to define. When theorists say things like “the workplace is a site of coercion” what does that mean, and what should we do about it? One way of understanding coercion is in a non-moralized way. This strategy says that an act is coercive if it has a certain form (e.g. physical force or threats of force) and whether it is wrong is a separate question. The moralized way of understanding coercion says that insofar as an act is coercive, it is pro tanto wrong, the concept itself builds in the moral stuff.
On either definition, the paradigm case of coercion is when a mugger threatens ‘your money or your life.’ Similarly, we can imagine a workplace where an employer announces ‘work here or starve’ or ‘do X or I will fire you’ or makes any other kinds of announcements where the employee must either comply or face terrible consequences. But does the workplace’s similarity to the paradigm case settle that the workplace is coercive? Consider another case. An organ match is willing to sell you a lifesaving kidney for $5,000. He says, ‘your money or your life,’ in a sense, but has he coerced you? Like the paradigmatic mugger case, someone threatens to do something (withholding a kidney) that will kill you unless you pay up, but here our intuitions are different.
Japa Pallikkathayil’s wonderful essay about coercion can help us settle some of these questions without tackling the definitional project. Rather than seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be coercive, she asks what it is about the mugger case that can explain why a) these kinds of cases are generally impermissible, and b) these kinds of threats mitigate victim’s responsibility. She then explains that coercive acts typically have these features because they impair the victim’s normative authority.
When the mugger threatens ‘your money or your life’ he makes it impossible for his victim to genuinely consent (or to exercise any of her normative powers) because he constrains the victim’s options without giving her ‘veto power’ to end the interaction entirely. Coercive acts like the mugger’s impede our ability to “exercise our authority to make discretionary changes in the permissions and obligations of others.” Importantly then, for an act to be coercive the victim must antecedently have the authority to reject whatever the coercer proposes. In the paradigm case Pallikkathayil writes, “The mugger’s victim is… entitled to veto power with respect to his intention precisely because it is an intention to wrong her.”
But not all cases are like this. In the kidney case the match doesn’t threaten to wrong you because you are not entitled to his kidney, so he does not threaten to do anything impermissible by announcing that he won’t donate his kidney unless you pay him (some egalitarians might disagree with this). For this reason, you are not entitled to veto power with respect to the match’s intention.
In her account, Pallikkathayil helpfully addresses the asymmetries between the mugger case and the workplace. (11) She considers a case where an employer threatens to fire an employee if she continues to show up late and commit other fireable offenses:
Although the employer constrains the employee’s options, since he does so through the announcement of an intention that it would be permissible to act on, we have no reason to think that the employer impermissibly constrains the employee’s options. This, I suggest, is confirmed when we examine how to characterize the moral objection to the way in which the mugger constrains his victim’s options…. when we focus on the impermissibility of the mugger’s announced intention, the sense in which the victim is owed veto power becomes clear. (12)
In other words, there is a very real way that the employer’s threat deprives the employee of control over her options. But unlike the mugger case, the employer permissibly constrains the employee’s options. The employer is entitled to carry out her threat and the employee does not have the authority to reject the employer’s proposal that either she shows up on time or is fired.
Still, in some cases, employment does seem intuitively like wrongful coercion. Pallikkathayil considers sexual harassment, where an employer says “I will fire you if and only if you refuse to have sex with me.” She argues that this is wrong in some cases when the employer has “institutional or contractual obligations to fire the employee only on certain grounds.” (18) However, where there is no pre-specified job description, then sexual harassment must be wrong either because a) proposing to pay for sex is wrong or b) radically changing a person’s job description from (e.g. from secretary to prostitute/maid/babysitter) is wrong. That is, the employer’s threat must be to do something that is independently wrong. (19)
My intuition is that something like (b) makes sexual harassment wrong. In these extreme cases employees do have the authority to decline certain tasks that employers demand. In this case the employee may say ‘you lead me to believe that the job did not require prostitution, so I have been deceived.’ Because it is wrong to deceive people, it is wrong to radically change a person’s job description, and so threatening to fire someone for refusing to comply with an impermissible demand is also impermissible.
Pallikkathayil’s account enables us to address the normative issues that are raised by coercive acts like the muggers without settling whether the word ‘coercion’ refers to any acts that limit a victim’s choices or only acts that wrongfully limit choices. So when people say things like ‘the workplace is a site of coercion’ either they mean that the workplace constrains employees’ choices (obviously true) or that the workplace impermissibly constrains employees’ choices. On the either reading, I have suggested, following Pallikkathayil, that the workplace only impermissibly constrains employee’s options when employers impair employees’ normative authority. If employees do not have the authority to decline certain tasks or reject being fired then the workplace isn’t impermissibly coercive.