Love and Law in Romans 13

(I promise I’ll finish my coercion series just as soon as I have a chance…probably tomorrow…in the meantime, though, this is extremely relevant to what I’ll be saying in Parts 4 and 5)

When I first started doing my work on Romans 13, I was struck quite early on, looking at the Greek, from a curious verbal connection at verses 7 and 8: opheilas and opheilete.  “Render to all tas opheilas–what is owed them…Opheilete–owe–nothing except to love one another.”  Well this was curious, it seemed to me, not least because we were accustomed to reading the passage as if it ended at verse 7.  And yet, if there was intended to be a dramatic section break, then why such a seemingly close bond between these verses.  For it did not seem to be mere word-play to me…the juxtaposition is far too striking for Paul to have intended us to breeze on by it.  In verse 7, we are told that we are supposed to be attentive to what we owe people, and then in the next verse, we are told that we’re not supposed to owe anything to people, except to love them, that is.  That was a bit of a puzzle.  But perhaps, it occurred to me, it was actually the answer to a puzzle.  After all, verse 7 is singularly enigmatic.  “Render to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”  “But Paul,” we want to respond in exasperation, “don’t you see that’s the very question–how do we know what is properly owed to whom?”  If this is the question we are asking, then verse 8 provides an answer–”You don’t owe anything to anyone, except love, which is to say everything.”  

A little more work, the discovery of a chiasm and a few other exegetical breakthroughs, and it all seemed clear–Paul was turning the whole thing on its head. We generally approach political duties as if they were just that–duties, onerous obligations, things we have to do because we have no choice.  Paul was saying, “No, don’t view it that way.  This is not some law that constrains you by necessity–you are not bound to the state by debt.  No, the only debt you owe them is the debt of love which Christ has called you in freedom to discharge.  Serve, pay, obey, out of love, not the constraint of law.”  Intriguingly, Luther actually seemed to latch onto this theme in his 1515 lectures (though he seems to lose much of this insight in his later work):

“The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than by despising it.  The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone.  It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet.  The ‘soul’ is the same as the ‘spirit’ of man, but inasmuch as it lives and works, and serves the visible world and earthly things, it must be subject ‘to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake’ (1 Pet. 2:13).  By this subjection it obeys God and desires the same as God.  By this subjection it overcomes the temporal world even now….” 

“There is a servitude which is very precious.  Of this the Apostle speaks in Gal. 5:13: ‘By love serve one another.’  This liberty the Apostle has in mind also when he says that though he was free, yet he made himself a servant of all, in order that he might gain the more….This servitude is the greatest freedom, which demands nothing, takes nothing, but gives and distributes.  Therefore the most glorious, indeed the only freedom that is truly found alone among Christians.  This the Apostle states also in this chapter, where he writes, ‘Owe no man any thing, but to love one another’ (13:8). This is spiritual servitude in a good sense.  All things serve man (Christians)…They themselves, however, are servants of none, for they are in need of no one, as already said.”

But Luther seems to be the only interpreter I have found who has drawn this kind of connection (unless perhaps it is Brunner, in the quote I posted yesterday…but Brunner remains at the level of principles, and does not engage the text in any detail).  Shockingly, a majority of interpreters did not seem to even notice the verbal connection.  They finished exegeting Romans 13:7 on its own terms, ended the section, started another section fresh, exegeted it on its own terms, and moved on, oblivious.  Of the interpreters who did notice the verbal connection, almost all of them seemed to view it as merely stylistic.  None seemed to think that Paul actually intended anything by it, and none seemed to think that it should call into question the traditional section division, whereby we drive a sharp wedge between 13:1-7 and what follows.  I’ve started wondering, “Am I blind or are they all blind?”  Very few interpreters seemed to lay any serious weight on 13:8a, much less imagine that it should perhaps condition our reading of 13:1-7.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to come across a commentary that defied this trend, but again, it failed to develop the potential revolutionary significance of the verse.  Robert Jewett’s magisterial commentary on Romans, every time it drew attention to the verse, pulled back from developing any interesting insights.  First, at the outset of his discussion of Romans 13, he said, “While the suggestion has been made that the pericope extends to 13:8a, there is practically universal agreement among commentators that it ends with v. 7.”  Oh good gracious!  Not the “practically universal agreement” argument.  When you read a couple dozen of these commentaries back-to-back (as I have had to do), you start to find out how much of what passes in this business for exegesis is just a matter of vain repetition.  One commentator makes an assumption, and so every commentator afterward makes the same assumption, and footnotes the first commentator.  You go back to the first commentator and find that he never produced an argument, he just assumed.  So it is here.  The “practically universal agreement,” from what I have seen, stems not from any careful argument about why the passage should end in 13:7 rather than 13:8, but rather from every single commentator simply assuming without argument that it did, which he could safely assume because so did every other commentator.  

We find an intriguing footnote here:

“Bernhard Bonsack develops this suggestion in ‘Rohmaterialien zu Rom. 13, 1-8a….’ in order to contend that in view of the sole commitment to love, obligations to the state are nonbinding.  This is supported by reconceiving the imperative in 13:1 as an indicative and rearranging 13:6-7 to read ‘For they are ministers of God.  Keeping this in mind, render to all what is obligated….;  While this reading is appealing on contemporary ethical grounds, it requires too many strained exegetical choices, and the only scholar to accept it is Riekkinen.” 

Huh.  Well, I don’t know about those suggestions regarding 13:1 and 13:6-7, and I’m not sure why they’d be necessary, but that sounds a heck of a lot like my reading.  I’d dearly like to read Bonsack and Riekkinen; unfortunately, they both wrote in German.   Jewett dismissively refers to “strained exegetical choices” here, but I’m not sure what these are.  If anything is a strained exegetical choice, it seems to me that it would be the choice to assume that when Paul talks about owing people stuff in verse 7 and then talks about not owing people stuff in verse 8, he intends no connection.  

Later on, when Jewett comes to verse 8, he takes note of the verbal connection, but immediately downplays it: “Although the opening maxim is linked with the foregoing verse by the term ‘obligation’ in 13:8, and with the earlier admonition to genuine love in 12:9, this pericope is quite independent in structure and rationale.”  He has learned this trick from all his forebears–as long as you take note of countervailing evidence at the beginning of your sentence, you can go on to simply assert its insignificance in the second half of the sentence, without providing any proof.  Isn’t it proof enough that you noticed the countervailing evidence, and yet can still make your assertion?  Surely you wouldn’t continue to make the assertion without good reason, so we don’t need to ask you what that reason is.  Jewett goes on to note that verses 7 and 8 stand in relation to one another as “antilogical gnomai”–that is to say maxims that appear to contradict one another.  This looks quite promising, as we expect that, Jewett having noted this, he will then suggest why they do not contradict each other.   What he goes on to say looks quite promising, and similar to Emil Brunner’s remarks about love encompassing and transforming justice (see previous post): “He wants Christians to be slaves of no human, if they can avoid it, indebted only to mutual love. Their former social obligations are to be replaced by a single new obligation to mee the needs of fellow members in the Church.”

So 13:8a is being used as a way of re-reading 13:1-7?  No, I’m afraid not.  Rather, the two designate different realms.  Vis-a-vis the authorities, we are in debt, under obligation; 13:8 marks a transition so that within the Church, on the contrary, we are free to serve one another in love.  He justifies this reading by his insistence that “one another” always refers to an inter-ecclesial context.  This would be convincing, except that in 12:16 (with which 13:8 is chiastically linked, “one another” is used in a context that intentionally blurs the lines between conduct toward outsider and insider.  In 12:14 and 12:17-21, Paul seems clearly to be talking about how Christians should relate to outsiders.  12:15 and 16 would seem to be more directed toward conduct within the community.  But as several commentators have recognized, the point of this juxtaposition seems to be that Paul is calling for Christians to treat enemies outside with exactly the same kind of love as they treat Christians within the fellowship.  So why shouldn’t “one another” in 13:8 also suggest a wider scope?  This is my question, and one that no commentator seems interested in answering.  

Emil Brunner on Love and Justice

Toward the end of a long day of slogging through commentaries, I came across this gem from Emil Brunner’s Letter to the Romans, at 13:8:

“To owe no one anything–that is the principle of justice.  ‘To everyone his own.’ With that Paul concludes his remarks regarding the attitude of the Christian to the authorities.  Yet this ‘owing no one anything’ is not separate and independent, but is embedded in something still greater.  Whoever owes nothing to anyone parts from the other once he has done his duty.  Love is greater than justice; it does more than justice demands.  The demand of justice ends with the individual; love alone is all-embracing because it does not keep its eye on ‘something’ that one owes to the other but on the other himself and myself.  I owe myself to him and therefore I am never done with him…  

“The commandments [in the Law] always mean the one thing: Love.  That which in the Law is expressed in isolated demands proves to be united from the point of view of faith in Jesus Christ and the love revealed in him.  So long as we stand ‘under the Law’ we cannot perceive this hidden unity of all the commandments.  It is part of legalism that the will of God must appear to it as a multiplicity of commandments.  In actual fact it is one and indivisible; God wants nothing else except love because he himself is love.  God’s commandments, rightly understood, always declare one thing only: love your neighbor.  There are individual examples as to what this love will mean in individual cases–just as the Lord in the Sermon on the Mount expounded the commandments as commandments of love. As God in Jesus Christ gives and wills himself entirely to us so we, too, ought to give ourselves entirely to our neighbor, entirely embrace him with our love.  If we do that, then there is no further need of any law; then everything that the law demands has been done.”

Hurricanes in a Warming World

Eh, what the heck…I’ll come out of the closet and spice up this theology-heavy blog.

As I recently posted on my old blog (which I falsely predicted would be resurrecting), the much-touted link between climate change and more frequent and more intense hurricane turns out to be much trickier than you would think.  The catastrophic and hyperactive 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons naturally led people to fish about for an explanation for the chaos, and it wasn’t hard to find a few scientists ready to line up and point the finger at global warming.  It stood to reason, of course, that if hurricanes fed on warm ocean water, and the world was getting warmer, including the oceans, then hurricanes would get more numerous and stronger.  At least, that was the bastardized form of the argument that was repeated often enough in the media to become accepted fact.  The actual scientists recognized that other factors would come into play and the relevant papers generally projected an actual decrease in number of tropical cyclones, with a slight increase in average intensity, and a marked increase in maximum potential intensity (which depends largely on water temperatures).  

This summer, other possible complicating factors emerged, as I discussed in that old post.  Coming into this season, projections were for a hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season–one of the most active on record.  What materialized instead from June 1st to August 20th was almost complete inactivity–sure, Alex spun up into the second most intense June hurricane recorded on June 30th, but after that, there were only two feeble and short-lived tropical storms, Bonnie and Colin.  Most remarkably, this inactivity coincided with well below-average eastern Pacific activity and historically low western Pacific activity, so that, on the whole, the Northern hemisphere was on track for record lows.  

Now, what else was going on at this time?  Well, much of the planet, particularly Asia, was baking–in eastern Europe’s case, under temperatures without equal in the historical record.  It was theorized that the super-heated landmasses caused a pattern of sinking air over the oceans, reducing atmospheric instability and putting a lid on cyclone development.  So global warming might actually suppress cyclone development?  Sure enough, no sooner did the Great Russian Heat Wave break in mid-August than the Atlantic saw a period of truly remarkable hurricane activity, producing over the next four weeks 9 named storms and five hurricanes–all five of them major hurricanes and four of them Category 4s–and breaking or challenging several interesting records in the process (for more on these, see below).  This pushed Atlantic hurricane activity from half the normal to date on August 20 to double the normal to date on September 20.

However, this shift did not occur in the Pacific Ocean, which remains at the lowest levels in the 30-year data period, thus the heat wave correlation thesis may not work so neatly after all.  The inactivity in the Pacific basin indeed is so pronounced that it seriously calls into question the thesis about climate change and hurricane activity.  See, while Atlantic hurricane activity gets much more press than cyclones in the rest of the world (for obvious reasons), it in fact only comprises only about 1/10 of global tropical cyclone activity on average.  And if the whole planet (more or less) is warming, and a warming planet means more cyclones, then it should mean more cyclones the world over.  But in fact, global tropical cyclone activity has collapsed in half since 2005, and has been sitting for a couple years now at record lows (with the records again going back 30 years)–and the highest years were back in the mid-90s. 

Why do we in the Anglo-American world labor under the delusion that we are living in a time of dangerously active and ever-worsening hurricane seasons?   Simply because the North Atlantic is in the midst of one of its well-documented twenty-year cycles of elevated activity–meanwhile, the rest of the world enjoys relative placidity.  So let’s hear the end of this careless pseudo-science, until there’s data to support it.


Of course, it’s not that simple either–it never is.  While these statistics are based on Accumulated Cyclone Energy measurements, probably the best way of comparing overall cyclone activity (and which does take intensity into account), they hide the curious fact that most of the cyclone basins in the world have recorded their most powerful storms on record in the past few years.  Other apparent anomalies have emerged that provide plenty more grist for the mill of those pushing hyping the effects of climate change on hurricanes.  In the Atlantic, at least, we have seen in recent years several records fall for speed of intensification, which is perhaps the scariest kind of record to be broken, and more and more storms seem to be pushing the envelope of what were thought to be plausible intensification rates.  Likewise, we have seen storms forming and strengthening in parts of the ocean unaccustomed to strong hurricanes.  Just in the past week, for instance, we had by far the furthest east Category 4 on record (Hurricane Julia), the first ever major hurricane in the Bay of Campeche (Hurricane Karl), and Hurricane Igor slammed into Newfoundland as its worst-ever hurricane, not to mention capturing the record for the largest Atlantic hurricane ever (in size).  Are these proof that something scary is happening over our oceans as a result of climate change, something that may make these already enigmatic storms even more unpredictable?  Or does this just mean that we don’t have enough data yet to accurately understand and compare what’s going on?  

Whichever is the case, science needs to be just a bit more humble in the claims it makes about these mysterious monsters.

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 3)

Now that we have outlined the general motivations for human action, how do these function in different spheres of human life?  (I will not, of course, be comprehensive here and try to cover the entire scope of human life!)  

In most people’s conception, and certainly in the “Christian libertarian” (for lack of a better term) conception, the religious sphere is governed primarily by the love motivation, the economic sphere is governed primarily by the reward motivation, and the political sphere is governed primarily by the fear motivation: we obey God because we love Him, we obey our boss because he will pay us, and we obey the government because we don’t want it to kill us.  (Hate could also enter into any of these spheres, and I will give brief attention to its role in the economic sphere and a bit more attention to its role in the political sphere.) 

However, as I think is apparent already in that quick summary, this is dangerously oversimplistic.  The example just given above about serving God shows the complexity of motivations even in the religious sphere, a sphere from which even the coercive element does not seem entirely absent.  (This is a contentious subject, and not one I want to enter into here, but inasmuch as leaders of the Church are entrusted with the power of binding and loosing, the exercise of church discipline has a coercive character–it moves to action by the motive of fear–at the very least fear of losing fellowship, at the most, fear of losing salvation.)

The economic sphere is certainly more complex.  First, briefly, the most marginal motivation in the economic sphere, it seems to me, is hate.  Of course, it is quite possible that I could hate someone enough that I would refuse to sell to them.  This was common in the age of segregation and still is in regions charged with racial conflict; classical economists claim that good economic sense will automatically overcome such behavior, but this is to underestimate the power of irrational hate.  Or I could hate someone enough that I would go buy from their competitor even when it didn’t make economic sense, or hate someone enough to refuse to employ them.  However, it is worth noting that in each of these cases, hate doesn’t really motivate an economic action as such; it motivates a refusal of an economic action: I won’t buy, I won’t sell, I won’t employ.  So we might consider hate as an occasional but relatively infrequent intrusion upon the economic sphere, rather than something which characterizes it.  

If we cannot exclude hate as a possible motivation in the economic sphere, then we certainly cannot exclude love, however much we may tend to view the realm of love and the realm of contract as mutually exclusively.  Most obviously, I might often buy things out of love for others.  But on a larger scale, could I not, for instance see my neighbors in desperate need of some good that I am able to provide, and so start up a business out of a desire to help them and provide it for them?  Defenders of capitalism often speak in this way–the entrepreneur identifies a need, and develops a business to serve it–however, they do not really believe this provides the true motivation for the entrepreneur; instead, it is the profit motive, which is to say reward.  Adam Smith of course said it most famously: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  This has been a pillar of capitalist theory since–we must expect people to work, buy, and sell chiefly because of the benefit to themselves that they expect.  Within reason, of course, there is nothing terribly wrong with this, but if the reward motivation completely detaches itself from any love motivation–if I seek my own self-interest without any regard to that of others, then we will soon have a very ugly situation on our hands.   

For my purposes here, though, I want to take chief note of how the reward motivation, which I acknowledge to be the dominant one in economics, can easily become distorted into a fear motivation.  Consider someone happily working at a small company–he does his job, to be sure, out of a desire for a paycheck, and perhaps does it well because he wants a bonus.  Of course, he will probably be a better worker if there is an element of love as well–if he really likes his boss, and wants to please him, and if he thinks the work he is doing is valuable.  A new manager takes over, and efficiency is the name of the game (I’m imagining an Office Space sort of situation here).  Workers are afraid of getting laid off.  The motivation to work because of desire to get a paycheck has changed into a motivation to work because of fear of not getting a paycheck.  And as the movie Office Space shows, once this becomes the dominant motivation, you have a very unhealthy work environment.  Moreover, I would submit that once this happens, we have a subtly coercive work environment.  Now, the free marketeer will object and insist that we have a perfectly voluntary system here, because no one is under any legal compulsion–the employees are perfectly free to choose not to work.  However, the free marketeers believe that if someone is legally required to do something, on pain of receiving a steep fine, then this is coercive.  Now, what, I must ask, is the material difference between these two situations?  If someone acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in losing their job), how is this different from someone who acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in paying a steep fine)?  

 The coercion, of course, becomes less and less subtle the more desperate the situation of the employee.  If the employee has plenty of independent means, he is unlikely to be very intimidated by threats of losing his job.  Indeed, if the work situation becomes too unpleasant, he will probably just quit.  A typical middle-class worker has a lot more cause to fear unemployment than a wealthy person, but given an unpleasant enough work situation, he will probably take his chances and quit, and try to get a job elsewhere.  Someone who is dirt-poor, isolated, and unsure of the chances of getting any other work may, through terrible fear, put up with the most horrific work conditions lest things become even more horrific by losing his job.  This of course happens all around the Third World, and more often than we care to think in the First.  And yet our free marketeers will insist that this remains a perfectly voluntary arrangement.  But, as soon as any legal strictures are brought into the picture, be they the tiniest fines or penalties, capable of inducing much less fear and much less severe consequences, they decry these as “coercion.”  

 So, coercion is undeniably a reality in employment.  What about in buying and selling?  Here, the fear motivation is rarely as strong, because it is rare that any single purchase will have ramifications as great as the loss or maintenance of employment.  Of course, there are certainly exceptions.  In large enough purchases, so large that the merchant or manufacturer’s livelihood depends on them, or in desperate circumstances, the buyer can gain a great deal of leverage over the seller.  The seller absolutely must make some large sale or face bankruptcy, and so the potential buyer is able to play on this fear and wield great power over the seller, forcing him to agree to terms that he would not normally accept and that we would not normally consider just.   Inasmuch as in this situation persuasion now takes place through fear, we have a coercive situation.  Of course, this may not be morally objectionable.  Perhaps the shopkeeper made several very foolish gambles, and that’s why he is in such straits.  If no one is willing to buy his product except at very unsatisfactory terms, that is perhaps his fault and not theirs.  However, we can certainly envision situations in which the seller is genuinely a victim.  Wal-Mart, for instance, is well-known for strong-arming small producers through its enormous buying power in some pretty unsavory ways. 

What about buying?  This is the part that interests me the most, because of the great increase in the sophistication of coercion that modern marketing has introduced.  In buying, there has always been a potential fear motivation, the fear of starvation, illness, or some other kind of great danger or suffering.  If a farmer loses his whole crop and is in fear of starvation, and comes to buy grain, then the seller is suddenly in a position of power over him, able to use that fear as a lever.  If the seller does so, and ratchets up his prices absurdly high, it is hard to see how this does not count as a kind of coercion.  However, for reasons unknown to me, our free marketeers will treat this as a completely voluntary transaction, and one in which the laws of supply and demand should have free rein to set a reasonable price.  They might object that the farmer does not need to pay the unreasonable price–he can just go to another merchant.  If this were true, then we would have no problem.  But of course, it is very often not true. Businesses know how much greater coercive leverage they can gain if it is not true, and that is why monopoly is such a prized goal.

 Now generally such coercive power over buying has been restricted to absolute needs–if someone breaks their pencil and has to buy another, the seller is unlikely to be able to bring much of a fear motivation to bear.  Enter the power of modern marketing.  Marketing of course has many valid uses, but one key function of modern marketing has been to redress the limitation that only absolute needs can put a buyer in a coerceable position.  The solution, of course, is to increase the scope of absolute needs, since “needs” are largely a matter of perception.  Take me, for instance.  I would say that I need a regular supply of milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat maybe three times a week, some cheese, salt and pepper, at least a cup of coffee a day, preferably some tea as well, several sets of nice clothing, a computer, earbuds, several albums of music, a cell phone, a number of computer programs, a steady supply of new books, wireless internet access, a comfortable bed and blankets, and some basic hygiene supplies.  Clearly, most of these are not genuine absolute needs.  But the fact that I perceive them as such means that I am prone to fear if I do not have them, and thus prone to having that fear worked upon to persuade me to do things or pay prices that I rationally would not want to pay.  And of course I think I would be reasonable in saying that this is a fairly short list of needs compared to most young people in the modern West, who are fairly easily persuaded that they need iPods, iPhones, thousands of songs of music, a digital camera with at least ten megapixels, an almost endless supply of the latest and most fashionable clothing, along with various food and drink addictions, ranging from the grossest junk food to the faddiest health food.  Some of this need-creation is done by marketing working on our physical appetites–whether the lust of the flesh or the lust of the eyes–but the most powerful forms work on our emotional appetites–on the pride of life–and sometimes by creating or preying on fear.  Teenagers are probably the most vulnerable demographic, easily convinced that they will be a complete social failure if they do not buy any number of fashionable absurdities.  We would point out that most of these “needs” are illusory, but in some cases, that’s not quite true.  For instance, in the realm of business, most businesses now pretty much need to have a website–if a new device can be successfully marketed to the majority of businesses in an industry, then suddenly, the others will find that it has gone from being a luxury to a necessity if they want to stay competitive. 

Now, again, not all of this by any means is morally objectionable.  In the latter example–of businesses constantly having to upgrade–that’s just part of how the advance of technology works, and although we might legitimately argue in certain cases that technology ought to move a bit more slowly, it is not necessarily exploitation for the purveyors of such technology to make it so that everyone has to jump on board.  And in the former example, we would no doubt say that the insecure buyers bear plenty of responsibility for letting themselves be duped into “needing” luxuries.  However, it is crucial to note that the fact that there is fault on the one side does not mean there is none on the other.  If someone has an irrational fear of something, and I decide to play up their irrational fears and use them to convince them to do all sorts of things for me, then I am certainly guilty of a wicked kind of manipulation, and probably, given the definitions we have been working with, a subtle form of coercion.  I think that we are naive if we do not recognize that a kind of “coercion” may be going on when a clothing company convinces a girl to pay four times what a pair of jeans is worth because they have played up her fears that she will be rejected by everyone if she doesn’t buy them.

The point here, of course, is not to argue that all or even most modern marketing is “coercive,” or to deny that most needless purchasing decisions are still made out of a vices as simple as covetousness, rather than fear.  The point is simply to establish that we need to offer a more complex account of how the economic sphere really operates in our world, and such an account, it seems to me, must include an analysis of the various subtle and even overt kinds of coercion at work.  In the next segment, I will turn to try and offer a similarly complex account of the political sphere.

The Psychology of Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 2)

Now, what do we mean by the concept of “coercion”?  The dictionary offers this as a definition for “coerce”: “to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.”  This is a helpful starting point, I think, particularly inasmuch as it helps to free us from an overly physical mental image we might have of coercion.  My guess is that when most of us hear “coercion” we visualize policemen wielding batons, beating someone into submission, or perhaps a group of people being forced at gunpoint to do some task. 

But coercion does not necessarily consist in such bald displays of physical force.  Indeed, if we are to take the definition offered here, then pure force does not count as “coercion”–if someone is bound and hauled along on a rope, then there is no persuasion involved, but mere force (thus, it is helpful to distinguish between “violence” and “coercion” more carefully than much contemporary discourse does).  Indeed, I would suggest that the “threats” part of the definition offered above is generally much more prominent than “force,” for except in cases such as torture where overwhelming violent force is used to break down all will to resist, it is generally the threat of violent force that persuades.  If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to blaspheme, they are attempting to persuade me to blaspheme by the threat of the violence (in this case, fatal violence) they might do to me otherwise.  In short, then, coercion operates by the tool of fear.  If I do not fear death, or if I fear it less than I fear blasphemy, then this attempted coercion fails to be coercive.   

Coercion is often defined in contrast to the voluntary–we do the voluntary because we want to, the coercive because we have to.  But it is apparent from the blasphemy illustration that the voluntary element always has, in theory, the possibility of triumphing over the coercive–I could always choose to do something else than what someone is trying to coerce me to do (and if I do, it is presumably because the threats being made seem less dangerous than the consequences of giving into them, as in the blasphemy illustration).  This simple duality of voluntary and coerced is thus not all that helpful, and most of our decisions actually lie somewhere on a spectrum being the completely unconstrained and the completely constrained.  So I want to step back from the simple voluntary vs. coerced duality and suggest instead a triad, based on consideration of how persuasion actually works.


I would submit that humans are persuaded to action by one or more of three basic motivations: fear, reward, and love.  Fear is the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us, reward is the hope for something good or pleasant that we may receive, and love is the wish for good to befall another.* 

Now I recognize of course that these three are not always so distinguishable in practice.  Love, for instance, though it ought to be unselfish, is generally not utterly selfless, nor indeed should it be, and thus the motivation of love seems linked with the desire for reward.  For instance, when I seek to make my wife happy, because I love her, I generally find my own happiness in that, whether in the cruder sense that I expect that she will reciprocate by doing nice things for me, or in the somewhat “nobler” sense that I take joy in seeing her happy.  However, the fact that desiring another’s good usually (and rightly) includes a desire for one’s own concomitant good does not mean that we cannot distinguish between which of these two motivations is dominant.  For instance, we are quite capable of recognizing the difference between a man who uses a woman merely for his own pleasure and one who takes joy in making her happy.  Additionally, while I have defined fear as “the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us,” there is also a kind of fear that is a by-product of love, namely, the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall another.  If someone threatens my wife, I may be afraid because I love her.  For now, we can treat this kind of fear as an element of love, but I will return to consider it further in Part 5, when I try to develop a constructive ethical appraisal of these motivations.

Likewise, it is not always so easy to distinguish between reward and fear.  Logically, indeed, it is possible to treat them as completely convertible.  If for instance I promised my son that I would give him ice cream if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of fear of the unpleasant outcome that he will not get ice cream; or alternatively, if I threatened him that he would be grounded if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of desire for the reward of continued liberty.  However, this misrepresents our actual experience–if I do something because I want ice cream, I experience myself as doing it out of desire for ice cream, not out of fear of not-ice-cream.  Nevertheless, there are situations where these two often do seem to become interchangeable.  Consider a social situation: I may go to a party because I want to experience the pleasure of others’ company, or I may go because I am afraid of being left out; we can distinguish between these two in theory, but in practice, I may not know myself which is the better characterization of my motivation.  Indeed, what begins as the first–desire for the reward of others’ company–may quickly, because of my insecurities, morph into the fear of exclusion.  (This relationship between fear and reward will be important later on.)  

There are even cases where all three motivations seem to be potentially in play.  For instance, do we serve God because we love Him and want to glorify Him, or because we desire the reward of heavenly bliss, or because we fear the terrors of hell?

Now, from the illustrations I have already given, it should be clear that we have a general hierarchy in our minds of these motivations: love is highest, then reward, then fear (in the abstract, at least).  For instance, we will think highly of someone who goes to a party he doesn’t enjoy because of love for his wife, who really wants to go; we will have no particular praise or blame for the person who goes to the party because he takes pleasure in the company of others there; we will criticize the insecurity of the person who goes to the party simply because he fears the idea of others enjoying themselves together without him.  This hierarchy is of course not absolute, and any of the three motivations may be legitimate in certain situations (for instance, any of the three motivations for serving God has a certain basis in Scripture, even if we might want to put the emphasis on the first.).  In most situations, though, it seems that we want to encourage a motivation of love conjoined with (in a subordinate position) a motivation of reward–a situation in which someone acts out of benefit for a neighbor and simultaneously seeks his own benefit therein–and to discourage motivations of fear.  But I will reserve a proper ethical discussion of what we should think of these various motivations till the end. 

For now, it suffices to note that based on what we said above about coercion, it seems that coercion is the attempt to persuade someone through the motivation of fear.  In the next segment, I will seek to apply the analysis of these three motivations, and the fear motivation in particular, to the sphere of economic life.


*There is, I suppose, a fourth motivation that we could consider, hate–however, I think that we can leave this out of consideration here because structurally, it is simply the inverse of love, and therefore can only serve as a positive motivation if it is couple with a corresponding love of which it is the shadow–e.g., love good, hate evil–otherwise, it can only motivate negative action.  Thus I don’t think that omitting hate from consideration here will undermine any of the following argument–but if anyone thinks it does, please tell me and I will try to refine accordingly.