DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2021, from

2. Threats and offers

If such things as ‘coercive offers’ exist they must not, by definition, be a species of threat, but rather be in essential contrast to the more typical instances of coercion which involve a demand enforced by a threat. Coercive offers would also be in contrast to the more familiar noncoercive inducement; attractive prospects which function as enticements that one ‘cannot resist’. With few exceptions, philosophers have held that allegedly ‘irresistible’ attractiveness does not negate voluntariness or excuse the attracted party from responsibility.

The common genus of which threats and offers are species is that of preference-affecting proposals – those proposals not likely to be received with perfect indifference. To begin with, an offer is a proposal to contribute to a person something that they want or find welcome, something they would prefer having to not having. A threat, on the other hand, is a proposal to inflict something they would not welcome. But, threats and offers are more than ‘proposals.’ They also contain a reciprocation condition; a ‘demand’ in the case of threats, and a ‘request’ in the case of offers. These elements amount to the coercer’s quid pro quo: ‘what is in it for them’. In the case of coercive threats, at least, far more is in it for them than for the other party. This way of speaking makes it clear that credible threats in support of demands are a kind of contractual transaction, but a transaction so lopsided as to be unconscionable, involuntary on one side, and legally invalid.

One kind of preference-affecting proposal is a demand backed by a threat; another is a request backed by an inducement. Both of these can be construed as typically biconditional in form: the action that A requests or demands from B is taken to be both a necessary and a sufficient condition of A’s reciprocation: ‘I will do x to (or for) you if and only if you will do y for me’. A’s offer of $11,000 for B’s car thus translates:

  1. If you give me your car, I will give you $11,000.

  2. If you do not give me your car, I will not give you $11,000.

The first preference-affecting proposal (1) – ‘I will give you $11,000’ – is obviously an offer. The second – ‘I will not give you $11,000’ – is not an offer, but neither is it a threat. ‘I will not give you $11,000’ would count as a threat only if the speaker paid that amount regularly and was now proposing to withhold it, thus disappointing the other party’s natural expectation. Since the proposal is part offer and part neither offer nor threat, it is an offer overall.

Such an example is an easy case. It would be more difficult if it were unclear what the ‘normal course of events’ was, or what is in the circumstances a ‘reasonable expectation’. An important element of the analysis then would be some proposed ‘norms of expectability’. Some writers employ for this purpose a kind of statistical test while others employ a test of moral requiredness (Nozick 1969). Suppose the consequent clause in the second biconditional (2) is something like: ‘I will not pull you out of the lake in which you are about to drown’ (unless you promise to sign over all your worldly goods to me). Such a proposal violates a moral norm. We not only expect most people in such circumstances to attempt easy rescue (statistical norm); our morality requires it (moral norm). Thus the proposal not to rescue would be a threatened deviation both from statistical and from moral norms. And when the projected behaviour deviates from one of these norms but not the other, it can be sufficient to classify it as a threat. In summary, if A’s projected consequences of B’s failure to do y are worse (or less welcome) than they would be in the normal and expected course of events (where ‘expected’ straddles ‘predicted’ and ‘morally required’), then A’s proposal is a threat. If it correctly portrays those consequences as improvements, it is an offer.

Citing this article:
Feinberg, Joel. Threats and offers. Coercion, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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