Persuasive and Coercive Power in Process Metaphysics

by J. E. Barnhart

J. E. Barnhart is Associate Professor of Philosophy, North Texas State University, Denton, Texas.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 153-157, Vol. 3, Number 3, Fall, 1973. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author attempts to clarify some important differences between persuasive power and coercive power as encountered in our daily social experiences, and then see how the differences apply in metaphysical discourse.

In a recent article two nontheists, Peter H. Hare and Edward H. Madden, chide process theists for failing to understand that "a certain amount of coercive power is morally required" (PS 2:45). They strongly disagree with John Cobb when he writes, "The only power capable of any worthwhile result is the power of persuasion" (GW 90).

In this paper I hope to clarify some important differences between persuasive power and coercive power as encountered in our daily social experiences and then see how the differences apply in metaphysical discourse. Coercive power has often been described as "external force." But psychoanalysis regards this as misleading because welling up "inside" the individual seem to be all sorts of forces which are greatly coercive. One way of dealing with this problem of the "external" and the "internal" has been to let the boundaries of the "self" float, as it were, so that when a coercive force is sufficiently identified, it can be viewed as "external" to the self. For example, if previously strong sexual urges were considered to be ingredient to the self, they may now be regarded as outside the self.

But clearly this will not do because it merely presupposes a resolution of the problem at stake; the problem is that of determining when power becomes coercive. We would not know whether to "place" strong sexual urges outside or inside the self until we first determine whether they are coercive to the individual or not. I will return to this point later.

According to B. F. Skinner in his recent work, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, (2:83-99) "persuasive control," so beloved by Professor Cobb, appears to be merely another word for ineffective and haphazard control. It may be that Plato’s Demiurge uses "persuasion" because he lacks the more effective power. F. M. Cornford states the matter bluntly: "Reason has need to persuade her [i.e., Necessity], not having unlimited power to compel." An omnipotent deity, however, would not have to resort to persuasion because it would not itself be forced to be "working in certain materials, or under certain conditions" (1:36).

Now we seem to have been brought to a dilemma which prevents us from respecting either persuasive power (because we see it as incompetence) or coercive power. It is time to ask what is so repulsive about coercive power. Indeed, when is power coercive? Is persuasion weakness, whereas coercion is strength and success? This would seem to suggest that persuasive power is simply would-be coercive power.

My point is that, contrary to Cobb, persuasive power (to move oneself and others) may not be in itself good. But neither is it evil per se. The test would seem to lie in what the power is accomplishing and what its numerous impacts are. However, Cobb has very legitimate grounds for suspecting coercive power, and I wish to throw some light on this suspicion. When we respond negatively to power, we do so for a very simple reason. It goes contrary to our wants and desires!

This simple point helps to reveal an ambiguous use of the word "coercive": (1) Sometimes the speaker seems to be saying or implying that coercive power is that power which is successful, strong, efficient, and competent. (2) Almost always "coercive power" is used to refer to that power which thwarts certain wants and desires in various degrees and ways. In order to justify the use of coercion on people (and perhaps on other organisms) the speaker will tend to divide a person’s wants into "real" wants and "illusory" wants (or higher and lower wants). Presumably it is the so-called illusory or lower wants that are to be frustrated (coerced) in order that the so-called "real," "true," "genuine," or "higher" wants may be fulfilled. To be sure, the illusory wants are wants in the sense that they do exist, but they are judged as not having measured up to whatever standard the speaker has in mind.

So-called "realistic politics" seems to take as an article of faith that control though coercion (in the sense of overriding people’s desires, wants, and aims) is a more successful, strong, efficient, and competent form of power or control. Persuasion is seen by these "realists" as ineffective control at best. But this article of faith is not warranted. It generalizes too easily from the less sensitive levels of organic life to the more sensitive levels. (Indeed, some of our ecological crises may be the result of not having a more sophisticated line of continuum between hard-core coercion and respectful persuasion.) No one is more outspoken than B. F. Skinner in denouncing "negative reinforcement" as well as direct punishment of organisms. He favors "positive reinforcement" because it builds up less resentment and obtains better long-term results. In short, he finds coercion to be inefficient in dealing with animal organisms.

It is a mistake, therefore, to think of persuasion as necessarily less effective than coercion. Indeed, like coercion, persuasion may be either effective and competent, on the one hand, or pathetically unsuccessful, on the other hand. There are many cases in which persuasion is a far more effective and abiding form of control than is coercion. There is some truth in Skinner’s claim that certain humanists, in their resentment against coercive power, have given their support to ineffective controls rather than to effective control for good. But ineffectiveness and persuasion are not necessarily wed together. Naturally, the more effective and efficient a power is in preventing us from satisfying our wants and desires, the more we resent it. The less successful it is (Or we think it is) in interfering with our freedom (i.e., satisfaction of our wants), the less we resent it. Unfortunately, like the humanists whom Skinner criticizes, we sometimes confuse the strength and efficiency of a power with its undesired effects on us. (A bureaucracy is bad if it effectively controls our behavior against our desires; but it is also bad if we count on it to get us what we want and it fails to do so.) What is often forgotten is that if we are to enhance our freedom, we must have power that is efficient and strong. Confusing weakness of power with freedom is close to substituting neglect for freedom, and I think that Hare and Madden see the God of process theism as either incompetent or neglectful. It is in this light that we can perhaps better understand their assertion that "a certain amount of coercive power is morally required" (PS 2:45).

Now, in calling for more coercive power, are Hare and Madden actually demanding that the deity frustrate more of the wants and desires of finite entities in order that certain goals may be attained? This is not an easy question to answer, for presumably the aim or ideal which these writers have in mind is the increased satisfaction (not frustration) of finite desires. I suggest that what Hare and Madden are emphasizing is not the frustration of desires in order to attain an ideal but rather the more effective, efficient, and successful use of power to approximate the ideal. And this is not necessarily in conflict with Cobb’s emphasis on "persuasive power" which respects desires and wants of individuals (humans and other forms of actuality in his complex pan-psychistic universe). Hare and Madden seem to be confused about Cobb on this point, and Cobb is perhaps partly responsible for the confusion.

A tragic dilemma seems to confront us at this point. Our ideal is the maximizing of the satisfaction (in intensity and duration at least) of desires. Yet in order to do this, some desires must be either repressed or eliminated. To be sure, the "harmony and intensity" of feeling or satisfaction is a vision of richness and inclusiveness. But every vision must inevitably exclude somewhat.

I suggest that the problem of theodicy confronting process theism focuses considerably on the question of God’s "design" for bringing into being new aims, desires, and wants. There is indeed a certain moral irresponsibility in "allowing" new desires to emerge if the possibilities of their being greatly frustrated are high. Presumably Hare and Madden are in reality advocating a kind of quasi-coercive power which would not so much frustrate the desires of finite entities that already are in the scheme of things as prevent new desires and aims from coming into being if they do not stand a very strung chance of gaining satisfaction or if they greatly disrupt the harmony and rhythm by which desires are guaranteed a better chance of satisfaction.

Of course, it is debatable as to how much control the deity of process theism has over the fountainhead of new desires and wants. If this control is too weak, it will be virtually impossible for God to ever "catch up" in his persuasive control.

To be sure, persuasion cannot be persuasion unless it respects the claims of the desires and wants to enjoy satisfaction. Here Calvin’s God appears to be most limited. Such a God is strong on coercion and weak in terms of persuasion. But of course the "vision" of orthodox Calvinists is greatly different from that of process theists, although Karl Barth’s new Calvinism seems to have been enticed by a kind of inclusive "universalism" which prompted Brunner and Berkouwer to show signs of concern over Barth’s long-run eschatology.

The kind of control exerted is considerably determined by the "raw material" being controlled. It may be said now that Cobb’s emphasis on persuasive control represents a sensitivity to the multiple levels of actuality of the "raw material." On the other hand, the emphasis on coercive control which Hare and Madden exemplify may be taken as reflecting the realization that, after all, not all desires are of the same intensity, etc. Hence, what Hare and Madden seem to expect from a loving God is a more direct and bold use of coercion on his part in controlling certain low-level aims and desires in the interest of the higher level. In effect Hare and Madden are saying that if there were a God of love, he would have to face up to the tragedy of the universe and would have to exert responsible coercive power against certain aims and desires. Otherwise divine love would be nothing more than a version of cosmic indifference indistinguishable from the atheism to which Hare and Madden subscribe. In short, a loving God would have to take sides and fight for certain ends and against certain other ends. An uninvolved and indifferent God is no God at all -- or at least is not a loving God.

But the process theists tend to see God as something of a wise statesman who refuses to be bought off by any lobby or bloc. Yet even this comparison has limitations, for the God of process theism has desires of his own. Nevertheless, his desires are regarded as the hope for harmony in the universe. It is as if God desires through the world of actual entities. The world’s desires grow out of him, and yet by their impact on him, God himself both takes on and qualifies new actual desires in his own life. This "give and take" between God and the world -- this mutual sharing and generating of desires -- is a flow of two-way persuasion.

To change the desires of another being is not necessarily to override him or to coerce him. We might say that persuasion travels on the waterways of desires. It moves from desire to desire. Like effective and respectful therapy, persuasion brings about new wants and aims, but it does so, not by coercion or by frustrating desires, but by opening new possibilities, which is the result of divine "creativity." To be sure, this world of desires and means is not neat, and some coercion is inevitable. It is a question of degree, a question of where we live along the line of continuum between coercion and persuasion. In some cases, coercion is the only responsible alternative in order to maintain the ideal of maximum intensity and harmony of feeling and satisfaction. But of course this grand ideal must not be unresponsive to the actual world, otherwise it could not be an ideal which allows for mutual persuasion. The past generates coercive limits, yet it also produces new aims. And when these aims are afforded the opportunity, mutually to support one another, then persuasion is more likely.

In drawing from the reservoir of his primordial function the God of process theism provides for the greater possibility of persuasive interchange. This God persuades because his aims often "blend" with the aims of the world; he is the very ground of persuasion.

When a more highly developed finite organism becomes conscious of mutually supportive aims and desires, then he more readily moves in their direction. In this sense the vision of harmonized aims appeals to and controls him. The vision moves him; motivates him. But he moves willingly; he wants to be so moved. He "decides" to be carried along; for he finds in the rising current a compelling force that is not coercive. It appeals and is persuasive.

The conclusion that grows out of a rational presentation of evidence and argument may be both coercive and persuasive. Insofar as the individual agent desires to have his intellectual curiosity satisfied, he gains a measure of freedom in confronting the conclusion. But the agent may have other desires to which the conclusion may be a threat. One’s "mind" may be persuaded by the argument and its conclusion. But certain of one’s desires which are not reducible to the passion for knowledge may find the new knowledge to be frustrating. As therapists know, "insight" is often not a sufficient condition for "wholeness and healing." Partial persuasion is a common personal and social experience for all of us, and apparently the persuasive interchange between God and the world is not without great lapses and a measure of outright failure.

It is no easy matter to determine how much success among humans (at least) is required before we can say that God is successful in exerting power and control for freedom, beauty, happiness, and intensity and harmony of feeling. Much depends on how high our ideals are. Indeed, our ideals may shoot up, and that process is sometimes described as the product of "divine discontent." Is this, then, the persuasive power of deity in the sense that reason is informed by new desire and imagination? Perhaps it is the fate of theistic religion always to be raising the standards and thereby guaranteeing that it will always be hounded by the problems of theodicy.



GW -- John Cobb. God and the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

1. Francis M. Cornford. Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato translated with a running commentary. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

2. B. F. Skinner. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.