Force, as a concept, comes up constantly in discussions of voluntaryism. But, like many words, it’s exact meaning is a bit of a slippery eel.
I’ve been thinking about this recently and think I have it nailed down. Therefore, I proffer this definition:
Force is any unwanted activity that changes the state of another’s person or property.
I think that the two key words here are “unwanted” and “changes.” In other words, anything you do that introduces unwanted changes in another person’s property (including, of course, the person themselves) is force. Let’s hold this definition up to some commonly considered scenarios and see how it performs.
It’s easy to see how this would apply in the case of a mugger demanding that you give them your money or he will shoot you. That’s certainly a threat of force, as you being shot is certainly unwanted, and the actual shooting causes a very noticeable change in your body. But what about when the change is very small?
If your neighbour shines a powerful spotlight into your window at night, that’s certainly an act of force. The light isn’t wanted, and it has changed your property quite a bit. But what about a candle in their window? Certainly, if you can see the candle then there some photons crossing your property line and entering your house. Is your neighbour using force on you? I would say that, in this case the “change” requirement has been met (however small) but what about “unwanted?” It is conceivable that the distant light of the candle could be unwanted, though it’d be a tough case to make in any practical circumstances. The candle is technically force, but is so insignificant that for all practical purposes it isn’t. The same is true with a lot of the small things we do. Simply siting in a room forces others to breathe my air, though again it’s to significant to care about (unless I’m carrying a horrible disease, of course, in that case it’s very forceful to have you breathe my air).
What about a starving beggar or a drowning child? If you don’t help them, are you using force? Well, in these cases I would say that the “unwanted” requirement is undoubtedly met. That person definitely doesn’t want you to not help them. But what about “change?” Many would say that yes, there is a change: If you don’t help them, they will die. That’s certainly a change, but it is a change from inactivity rather than activity, and that makes all the difference in the world. There’s a simple test, you ask “What would be the circumstances if I didn’t exist?” If the circumstances are the same as whatever your choose to do (or not do) then the change isn’t coming from you. Ergo, no force. If you didn’t exist, the beggar and the child would die anyway, therefore choosing to not help them isn’t a use of force. Keep in mind that this isn’t to say that not helping is probably a reprehensible act, it’s only a question of whether or not isn’t an act of force.
Now, consider a person who is being threatened with firing from their job. Are they being forced? Well, apply the simple test. If their employer didn’t exist, then they wouldn’t have a job to go to so from that perspective, no, they’re not being forced. But also, if their boss didn’t exist then presumably they would have gotten a job elsewhere, so in fact the person has been changed in that respect. So what’s the answer? The answer lies in the fact that acts of force must be considered in isolation. Determining an act of force cannot be made with consideration to past acts, otherwise anything the employer or employee did from that time on could be considered an act of force. It might make more sense if we change the wording of the simple test to “What would be the circumstances if I ceased to exist?” That makes it a bit more clear. In that case, the employee being fired isn’t force. And likewise, the reverse is true, the employee quitting can’t be considered force. This isn’t to say that there can’t be force involved somewhere, I’m speaking of simply terminating employment.
One last example: The classic ethical paradox of pushing someone out of the way of a bus. The argument goes that in order to save the person from the bus, you would need to initiate force on them in the form of pushing them out of the way. How can you save them without using force? What we have here is not actually a paradox, though it does looks like one on the surface. When you push someone out of the way of a bus, you aren’t initiating force on them if they want to be pushed out of the way. The problem is that at the time you push them, you’re not certain that they want to be pushed, and neither are they since they don’t see the bus. You’re actually taking a gamble that they do. The truth is, though, that you’re taking this gamble all the time. Going back to the candle example above, when you light a candle in your window, you don’t go and ask all of your neighbours if it’s okay, you gamble that the change won’t be significant or unwanted.
To sum up, the voluntaryist ideal is a world without the use of force. Unfortunately, this is impossible to achieve in a world with more than one person, so the voluntaryist instead strives to point their life in that direction. It’d be nice if the rest of the world did, too, but in in the absence of that the voluntaryist encourages (through non-forceful means) everyone else to become less forceful.
Whew, that was quite a bit more heavy and detailed than I thought it would be when I started, but I had to get it off my chest. Thanks for your patience.