Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Christopher W. Morrisa1

a1 Philosophy, University of Maryland


State power is widely thought to be coercive. The view that governments must wield force or that their power is necessarily coercive is widespread in contemporary political thought. John Rawls is representative in claiming that (political power is always coercive power backed up by the government(s use of sanctions, for government alone has the authority to use force in upholding its laws.( This belief in the centrality of coercion and force plays an important but not well appreciated role in contemporary political thought. I wish to challenge this belief and the considerations that motivate it. States are not necessarily coercive or coercive (by definition.( Their claimed authority is prior to the force they wield. Legitimate states should need to resort to coercion and force much less than other states, and that fact seems unappreciated in contemporary political thought.

Christopher W. Morris is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is the author of An Essay on the Modern State (2002) and the editor of Amartya Sen (2009), a recent collection of papers on the work of philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. Professor Morris's interests range over topics in moral, political, and legal philosophy, as well as the theory of practical rationality.


* The predecessor of this essay, entitled “Is the State Necessarily Coercive?” was discussed at Bowling Green State University, George Mason University, Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia, and the 20th World Congress of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (Amsterdam). I am grateful to these audiences for comments, as well as to Marvin Belzer, Alon Harel, and Arthur Ripstein for helpful written remarks. Drafts of this version of the essay were presented at Chapman University and the University of Arizona, and I am grateful to these audiences as well as to the other contributors to this volume for comments. Lastly, Ellen Paul and James Taggart have provided me with valuable comments on the penultimate draft of the essay.