What do you have against coercion?

“Coercion is a way of choosing between rival theories that is independent of the theories’ content, and depends only on which of the proponents of the theories is stronger. Coercion embodies the false theory that might makes right.
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


“What do you have against coercion?”

Disagreements can either be resolved through reason, or they can be dealt with coercively.

Think about the logic of what coercion does. Coercion is a way of choosing between rival theories that is independent of the theories’ content, and depends only on which of the proponents of the theories is stronger. Coercion embodies the false theory that might makes right. So it can’t be part of a rational system. It introduces irrationality into the knowledge-creating system and gives the wrong answer.

As William Godwin wrote:

“The right of the parent over his child lies either in his superior strength or his superior reason. If in his strength, we have only to apply this right universally, in order to drive all morality out of the world. If in his reason, in that reason let him confide.
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.”

– William Godwin, 1793, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, VII.II p. 370

That argument by William Godwin applies just as much to more subtle, covert forms of coercion, as it does to physically violent punishment. Whatever technique we use to compel our children, no matter how ‘gentle’ we think we are being, the effect on the child’s mind is the same.

In the absence of coercion, our child’s thinking can be flowing with ideas, questions, guesses, exploring, wondering about things, making bold explanatory conjectures, coming up with creative potential solutions, noticing when some of those candidate solutions don’t hold up under scrutiny and dropping them, noticing when one seems to solve the problem, noticing and wondering about new things, creating new guesses, explanations and ideas, and so on. That is the natural thing human minds do in the absence of interference in that rational knowledge-creating process.

Coercion throws a spanner in the works. It cuts off or adversely diverts the flow of thinking. It bungs everything up. When you introduce staticity or stuckness into the system, that means that in those areas of stuckness, nothing can change, no improvement can happen, no errors can be corrected: coercion interferes with learning.

When we coerce our children, we are in effect saying that we are right and they are wrong. It is as if we parents think we have the final truth. As if we have forgotten that we are fallible so might well be horribly mistaken even when it feels as if the thoughts in our mind are the revealed truth.

What example are we giving our children when we coerce them? In effect, we are teaching them that it is legitimate to get your way by coercing others. Is that really what we want to be conveying to our children? Might does not make right.

Coercion impedes the growth of knowledge. The moulding and shaping to which well-meaning parents subject their children does not just impede their children’s learning in the moment, it also tends to interfere with the children’s on-going capacity to correct errors. It hobbles their ability even to identify errors. It pushes for stasis, everything staying the same, doing the same to your own children as your parents did to you, then your children doing the same to their children as you did to them, and so on down through the generations. No improvement. Coercion hobbles progress. Progress of the entire world.

For how many more generations are we going to keep blighting our children’s lives and the future of the world by passing down all this hobbling coercion?

Problems are soluble!1 And we can solve them! Not perfectly, not infallibly: we are human beings not omniscient infallible gods! Yet despite our lack of knowledge, we human beings have made progress in the world. We have corrected many errors. How many more we could correct were we not systematically interfering with the growth of knowledge by coercing and hobbling our children? Incidentally, isn’t it wonderful that we human beings are so acutely aware of so many errors needing to be corrected? Another reason to celebrate humanity! Noticing errors helps us correct them! From each new and (we hope) better problem situation, we see new problems to solve, new errors to correct. Enjoy each new vista! Have fun! Play! Live! Love!


1. For a deeper understanding of why I say that problems are soluble, read David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What do you have against coercion?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-do-you-have-against-coercion/

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