• John Shrawder

Decision Making – Coercion and Autonomy

In the last postings we discussed persuasion, deception, trust, and critical thinking in decision making. In this posting we will discuss coercion


Autonomy is the capacity to decide to live one's own life according to one's own reasons and motives and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces. An autonomous person makes his or her own decisions without coercion or manipulation.

Autonomous people are independent. They have some critical thinking skills and can be trusted to manage persuasive communications and to resist the efforts to deceive and manipulate and make clear decisions on their own behalf. They are trusted in accepting the advice of others or rejecting them as they see fit. They are solely responsible for the own decisions and are willing to live with the consequences of their mistakes.

Coercion is when one person makes decisions for another without consulting the other person. The person doing the coercion may not care about the person they are coercing. Common coercive practices could include violence, threats of violence, threats of financial losses or legal and social rejection. Crime is an example of one person coercing another without regard for the other person’s values or interests. Slavery is another example.

All societies have coercion. Governments often use coercive practices to deter crime. Sometimes governments can be despotic and harm people without regard for the values and interests of those they harm.

Autonomy, Coercion, and Happiness

The World Happiness Report shows that health and income are related to the average happiness and misery across nations and cultures. Anything that increases these is more likely to increase happiness.

However the happiness research also shows that Autonomy or the Freedom to Make One’s Life Choices has also been correlated with human happiness. The Gallup World Poll measures this by asking people “Do you feel satisfied or dissatisfied with the freedom to choose what to do with your life?” People can be happier in countries with lower levels of income and health but higher abilities to choose what to do with their lives. It is hard to define why people feel more or less free.

Many people in the United States do not feel free to make their own life choices. They feel they are being coerced. The survey shows that average people in the United States rank 63rd of the 156 countries surveyed in how “free” they feel. This is the worst ranking of the six measures that have been correlated with happiness.

The combination of Corruption and Freedom can be seen as a sign of how a nation views its institutions. When freedom is low, institutions are seen as coercing people and regulating their behaviors in unwelcome ways. When corruption is low, then the institutions are seen as working in their own interest and against the average public

The United States scores in the top half of 156 nations in Overall Happiness, Perception of Freedom, and Corruption. Americans are below the people of Australia, Canada, and Germany in Overall happiness, Sense of Freedom, and Corruption and ahead of Italy, Mexico, and Russia. Both measures should be viewed as a constraint on overall happiness in the United States.

People in Asian countries like India, China., Cambodia, and the United Arab Emirates report feeling more free than in the United States or most European countries.

Paternalism and Autonomy

Paternalism is when a parent, individual, or community feels justified in using coercive force, persuasion or even deception to interfere or override the decisions of another person. Paternalism is widely accepted when parents and teachers make decisions for infants and young children since children do not have the maturity, intelligence, or emotional control to make judgments. Coercion is justified under these circumstances.

Unlike with other coercive relationships, a person with paternalistic authority is limited by the rules and institutions of society. They are expected to not harm the person they are making the decision for. Paternalism is defended by a society’s belief that the person interfered with are not mature, or intelligent, or emotionally stable. Some people cannot be trusted to make their own decisions and will be better off and protected from harm if wiser people than themselves makes decisions for them. However, it can lead to unhappiness if people are blocked from making their own decisions.

A nation’s happiness increases when people feel they have the freedom to make their own life choices. However, to increase happiness it is also important that good decisions are made for every person. This justifies paternalism in cases where some people do not possess critical thinking skills and are likely to make harmful decisions. The goals of good decisions and freedom can conflict.

I emphasize teaching decision making skills in high schools for this reason. Good decision making skills empower people to be autonomous and make their own decisions but helps assure that these decisions are wise.

In school we must consider several notions.

  • What is the meaning of “freedom”? Which "freedoms" are most valued?

  • Why might people in the USA and European countries feel less “free” than those in Asia?

  • How can people be made to feel more “free”?

I will consider these in the next several postings.

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