When someone acts under duress, they are not acting of their own free will. "It's not like they want to do what they do so how can what they do be immoral?" people ask me. If I call the action taken under duress immoral, they claim my "morality" is "broken". To people, the lack of free will excuses an action. This is why people who steal, rape, etc out of necessity for survival, especially at gun point, are not imprisoned, and if imprisoned, their sentences are shortened ...

My question is: how can an action be immoral under duress? The duress doesn't have to involve someone else holding a gun to someone's head. It can be societal pressure and threat of isolation. For example: someone is threatened to commit an immoral act in a society that encourages the immoral act. Whoever does not partake in the action is put at a psychological and financial disadvantage. At best bullied and at worst imprisoned. And so this someone commits the immoral act, which people believe loses its immorality due to the coercion

But contrary to popular belief, can the action still be immoral?

Can anything be immoral without free will?

  • "This is why people who steal, rape, etc out of necessity for survival, especially at gun point, are not imprisoned" what country do you live in exactly ? I'd like to avoid it at all cost...
    – armand
    May 28, 2022 at 2:17
  • 2
    Ideally, if you are forced to do something immoral, you should oppose to it till death, otherwise your acts are immoral. If you lose control of your acts, immoral acts you perform are not anymore yours, that is, other individual's acts (not yours) are immoral. But lose of control must be authentic, not just rhetoric.
    – RodolfoAP
    May 28, 2022 at 6:19

1 Answer 1


Duress and coercion do not remove free will. They are circumstances that constrain it -- admittedly more than most circumstances.

Nevertheless, most people do believe that duress and coercion are not overwhelming circumstances. Witness the popular meme of a crowd in Nazi Germany where one man is not saluting. It points at the man and instructs you to be like him.

Generally, the greatness of the evil one is pressured to commit is counterbalanced against the coercion faced. For instance, for a plea of necessity, one condition is

The harm caused by the criminal act must not be greater than the harm avoided

For instance, one might plead not guilty by reason of necessity for driving while drunk if fleeing for one's life, but not to avoid losing your job.

  • 1
    An excellent answer, but I don't think it's true that "admittedly ore than most circumstances" Life is full of constraints that can't be overcome at all: you can't read minds, you can't spend resources you don't have, and you can't flap your arms and fly. All threats do is change the incentive structure of your decisions, they don't typically create hard constraints like physics does. May 28, 2022 at 5:06
  • @DavidGudemann inability to fly doesn't pressure you to do evil
    – Mary
    May 28, 2022 at 13:48
  • use your imagination. You are in an airplane that is about to crash. One passenger has a parachute and is about to jump out. You have a gun. You could shoot him and take his parachute, thereby saving your own life by committing murder. If you could fly, you wouldn't have this strong incentive to commit murder. May 28, 2022 at 17:08
  • @DavidGudeman rare situations are less of a constraint than common ones
    – Mary
    May 28, 2022 at 17:13
  • @DavidGudeman You're right. Everyone is coerced to do things they don't want to by existing. From the limitations you mentioned to the pressure to pursue education and work to earn money and afford necessities in fear that one would become homeless otherwise. Threats at gun point are nothing compared to everyday constraints
    – ActualCry
    May 28, 2022 at 17:33

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