Consider the following list of potential scenarios (A and B are human beings):
1) A murders B.
2) A rapes B.
3) A steals B’s car.
4) A sprays some gas with an unpleasant smell (like hydrogen sulphide) which reaches B’s nostrils.
5) A loudly plays a song by Justin Bieber which annoys his neighbor B who hates such music.
6) A builds a house clearly in the shape of an erect penis which annoys B when she looks at it.
7) A publishes in his newspaper a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed which is seen by B who is a devout Muslim and B is offended.
8) A publicly shames B for being polyamorous.
The central question for the moral realist adherents of libertarian ethics here is which of those scenarios involve coercion, or initiation of physical force by one person against another without the latter’s consent.
Many people even in the libertarian ranks believe that this question does not have an adequately justified answer. They would say that the answer will always be to a certain extent arbitrary. They would say that cases 1-3 are relatively obvious examples but cases 4-8 are ambiguous. And a proponent of ethical absolutism will not be rescued by saying that for example case 8 does not involve any direct physical impact by A on B. The mechanism of B learning about A’s shaming her is still physical.
Although, at the first sight, this skeptical position seems to be correct, there is in fact a criterion which allows to differentiate between the cases involving and not involving coercion in the above list.
An issue which is often neglected in such discussions is the issue of the nature of the persons who are supposed to be protected against coercion. The defining nature of human beings is the ability to deliberate, or reason conceptually and form opinions and make choices as a result of this deliberative activity. This deliberative activity often also influences the psychological well-being of a person.
The intuition behind the notion of coercion is that certain kinds of actions override the ability of the person to determine the way she physically manifests her choices. Murder is the ultimate such action. Another good term for such actions is objectification. These actions physically affect a person as if she were an inanimate object thus frustrating some of her freely chosen goals. Their key feature is bypassing the mediation by a person’s mind.
And this observation gives us the very criterion we need to at least in principle distinguish between cases involving and not involving coercion in the list with which I started this post. The criterion is the dependence of the presence of the action’s effect on the deliberative reasoning of the person.
Take case 8 from the list. The reason B gets frustrated by shaming is because she accepts in one way or another that what she does (in this case – polyamory) is shameful. Thus, the negative effect of A’s action can only materialize because of her reasoning in a certain way. On the other hand, the presence of the effect of a car theft clearly doesn’t depend on the thought process of the car’s owner. She either has control over the car or she doesn’t.
The only difficult case in the above list in this respect is (5). Our current knowledge of the brain and mind activity may not be sufficient to allow us to say definitely whether music may frustrate someone through mere physical mechanism. Nonetheless, at least the criterion to be established is still the same as in other cases, even if it is difficult to establish in practice.