Coercion and Autonomy

The view in Western culture that coercion is a bad thing reflects a deep commitment to the principle of autonomy. Starting with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his 1785 work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, secular ethics has taken the respect for the autonomous actions of others as a primary point of orientation. In this context, coercion is wrong because it interferes with autonomy. Thus the nineteenth-century English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty (1859) that there were inherent limitations on the power that the state or other authorities should exercise over individuals:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-

protection____ the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. (Mill, p. 494)

Although this often quoted passage seems to prohibit many coercive actions that Western society accepts routinely today, it is worth noting that Mill made exceptions for children and for adults not of sound mind. His vision of autonomy is so rationalistic that there appears to be no basis for respecting the autonomy of those who are lacking in reasoning ability.

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