On the Use of Force

Force Is Both Voluntary and Coercive

For the person using force, it is voluntary. It is the ultimate expression of one-sided decision-making, where one’s personal power is unilaterally utilized.

But for the person force is used against, choice is denied. Force is coercive, and that coercion is force’s trademark. It is the attempt to impose one person’s decision upon someone else.

Force, therefore, contains a sense of irony. It is the use of one’s self-autonomy to deny another of their self-autonomy.

Force: Good or Bad, Right or Wrong?

There are two questions that determine whether the use of force is good or bad, right or wrong:

  1. What is the intrinsic value of force? and
  2. What is the value of the outcomes force produces?

Because your answer to the first question is (somewhat) independent from your answer to the second question, you might encounter situations where force is both good and bad, both right and wrong.

For example, consider self-defense. On one hand, we might agree that violence (the intrinsic value of force) is not appropriate. However, we might then agree that the use of violence to protect oneself from violence (the outcome of force) is appropriate. So, whether or not we consider self-defense good or bad depends on which factors are more important.

Or, consider the thought experiment of the large man and the trolley (a.k.a., “the trolley problem,” or “trolleyology”), where you must weigh the value of one life against the value of five lives. In this scenario, you have the power to decide who lives and who dies. In other words, your use of force, or lack thereof, determines which of the two terrible outcomes is realized.

The Many Forms of Force

Although physical violence, like in the self-defense and trolleyology examples, is the most obvious use of force, force can manifest in many different forms: physical, emotional, educational, economic, societal, cultural, etc.

For example, consider the use of force by repressive regimes around the world. Not only do these political organizations use force in the form of physical violence, but they often use political power to cause economic, educational, emotional, and societal violence as well. History is ripe with examples of people using the many forms of force to get what they want at the expense of others.

Furthermore, even when the use of physical force is absent, the other forms of force can cause deep, long-lasting harm. In other words, just because someone isn’t physically hurt from the use of force does not mean that there is no harm done in the process.

However, force isn’t always used to harm others. For example, consider the many laws in the U.S. that protect children: child labor laws, the right/requirement to receive an education, the minimum age to purchase tobacco and alcohol, etc. It might seem contradictory, but sometimes people use force for the benefit of another person without the intent to cause anyone harm.

Final Thoughts

In many respects, the use of force has an implicit negative connotation. If you use it to gain what you want, it means you don’t believe the other person would otherwise help you get it. And if you use it for someone else’s benefit, it implies that you do not trust that person to “do the right thing.”

However, the intrinsic value of force must also be weighed against what it accomplishes. To separate the act from the outcome paints an incomplete picture. Ultimately, whether you consider the use of force to be good or bad is up to you to determine.

So, the next time you are thinking of using force, remember to ask yourself this question: while the use of force is always an option, are there other ways you can create value without resorting to force? If the answer is yes, then you can often create more value through those options than through the use of force alone.

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