Avoiding Coercion

Let's consider disputes involving two people. In theory, they can discuss their differences and come to agree. However, that may take unlimited time. What if they want to come to agree by next week? Or even within their lifetimes?

Avoiding coercion does not require agreement about everything. It only requires agreeing about how to proceed on joint projects or any other overlap between two people's lives. We're only going to discuss avoiding coercion when both people want to avoid it, and how that is possible, so we only need to worry about cooperative projects.

To avoid coercion, we don't need to agree about any ultimate goals. We don't even need agreement about any upcoming steps in the project (though that may well be useful if the current step depends on them). All we really need is an agreement about what to do right now. Then we'll need a separate agreement about what to do about the next step when we get to it. As long as we keep having just enough agreement to proceed, just in time, there will be no coercion, no matter how much other stuff we disagree about.

The reason there will be no coercion if we agree about what to do right now is that both people will be happy with what they are doing right now. As coercion can be thought of as doing things against your will or suffering, non-coercion can be thought of as doing something you're happy with or prefer.

The subset of issues we need to be able to create agreement on to avoid coercion could be called "immediate, practical issues". If we disagree about abstract issues, that's OK as long as no one is taking actions which bother anyone else. Agreeing about abstract issues can be a good way to come to agree about practical issues, but it's not a requirement. That's good because agreeing on abstract issues, quickly, is not always an option.

Whenever we face a problem P1, and we disagree about how to proceed, we can use a simple method to replace the problem P1 with a new problem. This doesn't make problem P1 go away entirely, it just means we don't need to solve it to avoid coercion, we can instead solve the new problem P2. And if we find P2 hard, we can do it again, and then we'll only need to solve P3 (or P2, or P1) to avoid coercion. We can do this an unlimited number of times and solve any one problem from the set {P1, P2, P3, P4, …}.

The method of constructing P2 goes like this: given we disagree about P1, what should we do? P3 is constructed like this: given we disagree about P1 and P2, what should we do?

If we can agree about what to do, given we disagree about P1, then we can do that and no one has reason for complaint, so there's no coercion.

Next question: are these new problems useful? If we can't solve P1, are we likely to solve P2? It turns out the answer here is yes. In general, each problem is easier to solve than the previous one. That means this method will soon reach a fairly easy problem, and coercion can be avoided.

There are two reasons to expect P2 to be easier to solve than P1. First, when working on P1, we got stuck. There is some part of it we found difficult. P2 doesn't have that hard part, whatever it is. And if we get stuck on P2, then whatever we got stuck on will not be a part of P3. And so on.

Second, the problems get progressively easier because they are progressively less ambitious. At first we try to agree about what to do. Then we try to agree about what to do, given a constraint. Then we try to agree, but given two constraints. At each step, the scope for discussion becomes more limited. Progressively more stuff is out of bounds. That pushes in the direction of simpler ways of proceeding involving less cooperation. In the limiting case, we could just agree to disagree and go our separate ways. That's much simpler than agreeing about, say, how to create a movie together, and who will perform which tasks to create it.

In other words, after a few iterations we'll be considering a problem like this: "Given we disagree about this long list of things, what should we do?" At that point, it starts to become clear: if you can't cooperate, then don't cooperate. If working together won't benefit both of you, then don't work together.

There are billions of people out there whom I disagree with, strongly, about many issues. But we never fight because we don't try to cooperate. If we meet on the street, we still don't fight. We follow simple, well known traditions to interact peacefully. For example, we don't walk into each other. Basically we leave each other alone. As long as people are willing to leave each other alone, coercion can be avoided. And if people make avoiding coercion their top priority, then they will leave people alone if that's what it takes to avoid anyone being hurt.

Each iteration of the problem, using this method, is asking for a simpler solution involving less cooperation and less agreement. Given we disagree a lot, what should we do? Either cooperate in a minimal way about things we do agree on, or if we don't agree on anything, then go our separate ways. And after a dozen iterations, the obvious thing to do is stop trying, and then we won't fight.

Cooperation is a great and valuable thing, and it is absolutely worth attempting. I am only saying that if we fail to cooperate we can avoid coercion by acknowledging it isn't working and deciding to abort the attempt, and perhaps try again another time.

Using this method, all coercion between people can be avoided — all disputes resolved — if a few conditions hold. First, you must want to avoid coercion. If one person would rather hurt you than find a solution, then it's not going to work. This method is for people who both want to find a non-coercive solution. Second, you need to know this method. Hopefully that is now taken care of. Third, you need to know how to leave each other alone. You need to know common decency within your culture (and you need to live in a civilized society). Fourth, you need to proceed rationally. None of this is very difficult, but if you act irrationally then you may fail. And fifth, you need to not have any obligations or pressures to cooperate; if you are being forced in some way to cooperate then it's more complicated. Given these conditions, coercion can be avoided every single time. The first three conditions are minimal. The fourth is more important. It says you'll need a moderate amount of reason to avoid coercion. That shouldn't come as any surprise; unthinking or unreasoning lifestyles do not work out well.

The fifth condition deserves more attention. Suppose a friend and I drive to a concert. My friend wants to leave early, but he's obligated to drive me home when he leaves. We can't just go our separate ways because I'll be stranded. In this case, using the method has to be slightly altered. P2 will be: given we disagree about P1, and given the obligations, what should we do? And P3 is: given we disagree about P1, P2, and given the obligations, then what should we do? This is really the same formula as before. The obligation part was always there, but if there are no obligations then it can be omitted.

What happens when there are obligations is the method pushes us towards the following result: go your separate ways as much as you can, but also do the minimal possible thing to meet all the obligations. In this case, we could split the price of a taxi for me, or we could stay for half of the remaining concert and then leave together. These are simple ways to meet the obligation, and they can be discussed without any comments about how much we like the band, whether people should stay at concerts they are tired of, how much we were hoping to have someone to chat with on the boring ride home, and so on. We can bring up each of those issues if we find it agreeable and useful to bring up, but it's optional.

What if we don't agree about the taxi, nor about whether to stay longer? Then move on to P3. How can we proceed given we aren't able to agree about those things? And that's pretty easy. If we can't agree and don't want to fight, we should do the easiest thing, which is a taxi. You leave, I stay. This costs nothing more than a little money, and money matters less than coercion (ignoring huge amounts). Objecting to that, without offering a better idea, would be irrational. Objecting to it while offering a better idea would immediately lead to a solution. Either way, a solution is found.

What if we can't think of any solutions? Is creativity a requirement? No it's not. If you can't think of any solutions, then just think: what should we do, given we have no good ideas? Then use your best idea. Do whatever your original plans were. If you don't have some alternative you consider better than your original plans, then you're in no position to object to them. (And if you do have a better idea, then you have thought of a potential solution.) Coercion requires two active theories, for example your original plan and a new plan you prefer. If you haven't got more than one theory you can't be coerced.

All of the above works, with no modifications, within one mind. If I have two roughly autonomous ideas that disagree, they can come to agree in the same way as two people can. Just substitute the ideas in place of the people in the above explanations.

All of the above works with more than two people or ideas, it's just a little more complicated, and the solutions will tend more strongly towards not cooperating. This is nothing amazing: it's just saying that cooperating is harder when more people are involved.

What about parents? They have significant obligations to their children. But, again, that doesn't really change anything. Try to agree. Do your best. And if you don't, try to agree and cooperate in a more minimal way. If that fails, try cooperating less. If that fails, then don't cooperate at all on this issue. And all this time bear in mind any basic obligations to your child and meet them. Virtually all parents already far exceed the absolute minimum obligations to care for their child. What they do wrong is not failing to meet those obligations. They mess up in areas which are morally important but are not their bare minimum obligations. And they mess up by trying to do more and cooperate more in coercive ways. Of course the more you can cooperate with your kid and help him beyond the minimum, the better, but cooperation at the cost of coercion and suffering isn't helping anyone. Cooperate as much as you can, but stop there, don't let your desire to help your child cause painful fights.

What about extremely short time constraints? What if you have three seconds to decide what to do? Then do your best, given your existing knowledge and three seconds worth of communication, and who can fault you for that or be upset about the result? The less time you have, the less good an idea you may be able to come up with, but also the less good of an idea you should expect to come up with, so it balances out. And either this event couldn't be foreseen in advance, so it's not your fault to be unprepared, or if it could have been foreseen, why didn't you guys work out what to do in advance? If you didn't want to, you were choosing to have this rushed result, and have no cause for complaint.

In conclusion, it is possible for people to get through everyday life with no coercion at all, with no need to be especially creative, if they want to, just using a small subset of common decency, a trivial, mechanical method, and a moderate amount of reason.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!