Two recent crises have raised the question as to the legitimate use of coercive force: the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the first case the coercive force mainly took the form of legal restrictions on various human activities such as work and travel; in the second case, coercive force is being exercised primarily in the form of sanctions and financial support for Ukraine (which makes possible the other kind of coercive force Ukraine is using to expel the invader). In both cases there has been much debate about the ethics of such measures.
The purpose of this post is to consider briefly the ethics of the use of coercive force in responding to the ecological and social crisis depicted in Laudato sì. In Chapter 5 of that document there are various discrete but firm references to the need for such force (for example, §§ 167,175,181). This need arises out of the simple fact that when some parties attempt to respond to the crisis by introducing change other parties tend to obstruct this process. It is not realistic to imagine that all parties will freely cooperate in effecting the necessary change. But is it ethically legitimate to use coercive force to constrain such parties to cooperate or at least to desist from obstructing change?
An important premise to any answer to this question concerns the fact that coercive force is already in use in the normal functioning of society (police, courts, prisons etc. are obvious expressions of this fact). One is reminded of Max Weber’s quip that the State is the only community with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There is nothing in Catholic Social Teaching that suggests that the use of such force is ipso facto morally illegitimate, although it obviously could be. Such force is considered legitimate if used in pursuit of the common good.
It might help our thinking on this question if we consider what would have happened if governments had refused to use coercive force in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But if this coercive force was legitimate because it helped saved millions and millions of human lives, then is it not also legitimate in the ecological-social crisis which is already threatening millions of live, especially in poorer parts of the world? At this point it might well make more sense to talk about the use of coercive force to save these lives as not just being morally legitimate but as being morally imperative.
fr. Martin McKeever, CSsR