The Normative Functions of Coercion Claims

Posted: 4 Sep 2002

See all articles by Mitchell N. Berman

Mitchell N. Berman

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School


Recent decades have witnessed a marked increase in efforts to craft a satisfactory definition of coercion. Despite substantial gains in understanding, however, much about coercion remains obscure. This article argues that prior bids to define coercion have not fully succeeded largely because scholars have been seduced by the vision of a single unified concept. This is a mistake, for coercion talk is employed to perform two very different normative functions. First, we apply the coercion label to signal that a given proposal is morally bad and, relatedly, that its maker is morally blameworthy. Second, coercion claims are used to excuse (fully or partially) an individual for engaging in action that would otherwise warrant moral or legal censure.

This article demonstrates that the sets of conditions that constitute coercion for these two normative purposes are distinct. In substantiating this thesis, the article identifies the necessary and sufficient conditions that validate each of the two basic types of coercion claims, and also unravels the puzzling relationship among the terms "coercion", "threat", and "offer". Lastly, it shows how distinguishing these two normative functions enables us to resolve a myriad of much - debated cases from the philosophical literature. It is hoped that careful attention to the distinct functions of coercion claims will be of use to legal theorists operating in a wide range of fields, including criminal law, constitutional law, and contracts.

Suggested Citation

Berman, Mitchell N., The Normative Functions of Coercion Claims. U of Texas Law School, Public Law Research No. 40, Available at SSRN:

Mitchell N. Berman (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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