Towards a new analysis of compulsion

Lennart Nordenfelt

in Rationality and Compulsion

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2007 | ISBN: 9780199214853
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754517 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Towards a new analysis of compulsion

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In this chapter, I will go deeper into the analysis of the notion of compulsion in an action-theoretic context. This analysis will be quite general and not tied simply to an ethical or legal context. In several previous analyses, the concept of compulsion has been analysed solely with regard to the case where compulsion is a justification of or excuse for moral or legal wrongdoing. (See my discussion of Wertheimer's theory, Chapter 7, Section 7.3.2.) This is a crucial situation but it is not the only possible one. The context of mental illness, which is my own focus of interest, is another crucial context.

My analysis will also question the naive assumption that compulsion is an all-or-nothing matter, i.e. the idea that you are either compelled to do something or you are not compelled to do it. My proposal involves the suggestion that several degrees of compulsion exist, from total compulsion to a low degree of compulsion. Given the idea that compulsion and the feeling of compulsion are central ingredients of mental illness, the assumption of degrees of compulsion can be reflected in degrees of mental illness.

The action-theoretic framework must be observed. Compulsion here concerns human intentional action. A person who is dragged from one place to another is not compelled in my sense. Being dragged is not to perform any action at all. It is to be the object of physical force (see below). Thus compulsion must go via the compelled person's intentions and beliefs. When A is compelled to do F, it must still be practically possible for A to perform non-F. However, in the light of A's intentions and beliefs, F is for A the only thing to do. Thus the initial formula (i) must be rectified:

(ii) A was compelled to do F if, and only if, A could not avoid doing F in the light of A's intentions and beliefs.

Compulsion is often but not necessarily an interactive concept in the following sense: Agent A (the primary agent) acts towards agent B (the secondary agent) in a way such that B is compelled to perform F. This interactive case of compulsion is often called coercion. Only human beings can coerce other human beings. However, natural events and states of affairs can compel people to act. I will in a later part of this chapter discuss the general case that also covers the compulsion executed by natural states and events. (For a different use of the term ‘coercion’, see Watson, 1977.)

Chapter.  7481 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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