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Here are a few social situations:

  • Situation A: A hungry person goes into a shop. The shopkeeper offers to give him food, but on condition that he receives money.
  • Situation B: An unemployed person goes to the office of a boss. The boss offers her a job, but on condition that she sleeps with him.
  • Situation C: Someone has a secret. One of his relatives offers not to reveal it, but on condition that he buys her something.

I know that some of these situations are immoral, others are not, but I don't understand why.

I'm sorry if this question seems strange or if it makes you uncomfortable but I have a lot of trouble with social relationships and things that are obvious to many are not obvious to me.

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    You don't really have an unambiguous example of a threat. In C, the one with a secret doesn't have a right to prevent the relative from speaking. I would add Situation D, Someone owns a shop. A man offers not to burn the shop down if he is payed money. Jul 10, 2022 at 14:56
  • Are there supposed to be threats in all of your examples? Threat is a promise of to do something damaging in case one does not comply. This only happens in your C. One is not supposed to get that from declining a contract, that's the difference. But a contract offer does not need to come with a threat to be unethical, as your B shows. If doing something is unethical then offering a fee for it does not make it ethical either.
    – Conifold
    Jul 10, 2022 at 19:46
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    It seems like you're actually asking about the difference between a contract and extortion. There are no threats in any of your situations.
    – Barmar
    Jul 10, 2022 at 21:56
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    A threat is a) an unilateral condition, b) implies a negative consequence (win-lose) for the passive interactor. A contract is a bilateral agreement, usually implying a win-win outcome.
    – RodolfoAP
    Jul 12, 2022 at 8:56

6 Answers 6

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To be legally binding, a contract must be entered into voluntarily by 2 or more parties, it may not obligate any of them to perform an illegal act, and each party must provide and receive value in the transaction. Any arrangement not meeting these criteria is not a legally binding contract and may instead constitute a threat.

Threats are not voluntary on the part of the threatened party. The threatened party also does not receive value (absence of injury is not a value) and the party making the threat is engaged in illegal activity (threatening to inflict injury).

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  • That constrains the question to an implied legal framework. Also what does "receive value" mean? I mean a person being blackmailed receives value by not being exposed or someone being harassed and threatened receives value by not being assaulted. That still makes it an act of coercion. The problem is that this kinda switches to an omniscient 3rd party while with the legal angle implies a non-omniscient 2nd party.
    – haxor789
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:17
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In a trade, a person is offering to do something for someone else. In a threat, someone is presenting the possibility that they will do something to someone else. So in Situation A, the shopkeeper is offering to do something in exchange for money, while in Situation B, the relative is offering to not do something in exchange for money. In a trade, both people are better off for the other person existing, while in a threat, one person is worse off.

The term "threat" also implies that the thing that might be done is not something that the person has a moral and/or legal right to do. The shopkeeper has a moral right to not give food to people who don't pay, but the relative likely doesn't has a moral right to tell the secret (although it depends on the secret), and almost certainly doesn't have the right to tell it for not being paid money (unless, it's something like "This person refuses to pay back a loan I made to them").

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  • I disagree with your second paragraph. Threatening to perform an action might be morally worse than actually performing the action. 1st example: Blackmail often happens in situation where someone would have been morally justified to tell the secret, but instead decides not to tell the secret, and threatens to tell it instead. 2nd example: If a manager must choose one of their employees to clean the toilets they could either choose randomly, which is not amoral; but they could also threaten to choose a particular employee, and ask for a favour instead, and this would be amoral.
    – Stef
    Feb 4, 2023 at 18:40
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A threat is a form of coercion where you try to make someone do or not do something, by implicitly or explicitly implying that you'd otherwise endanger them in any way shape or form.

Now you could argue whether something has to be active to be a threat. And whether that danger has to be actively caused by the person threatening. Or whether it's also possible that your exploiting an existing danger or just contribute to an existing danger and make the threat more subtle.

For example you formulated all of your Situation as "an offer". And every single one of these offers is morally repugnant as you apparently take advantage of another person's inability to refuse that "offer".

So depending on the context and the subtext of these offers it's possible that each and every one of them is a coded threat.

One has a secret. One of his relatives offers not to reveal it, but on condition that he buys her something.

Like you could just as well formulate that as "Pay me or I'm going to tell people". Because that's the implied message here, your payment would buy my silence so "if you don't pay, I'm not required to be silent". Which implies that I'm going to tell people your secret. Which depending on the severity of the secret and the sensibility of the person to keep it a secret can by a major or minor threat.

In Situation B) the threat would be "Fuck me or you're not getting hired" and in Situation C) it's "Pay me or you don't get food".

Now situation C) is pretty much the only one of them where you could argue that unless the person entering the shop and is extremely starving, the shop is the only food source in town and the shopkeeper overprices or whatnot. That it's just a regular business. Where as Situation C) is classical blackmailing and situation B) is sexual harassment and an abuse of power.

The nature of a threat usually involves making the other person believe they are or would get into a position of danger unless they do or don't do something benefiting the person making the threat.

While a contract is just an agreement between to parties. So a threat is a special kind of contract where the agreement is not mutual but coerced by the person making the threat.

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A threat is "a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done."

In some cases there would be no threat at all after you leave the place where there was threat. You may leave those places if you wish to avoid any threat.

In the first two cases you have cited here, there is no threat immediately before you accept the offer. But if you accept the offer and break the contract, there will be threat on you. Similarly, in the third situation there is threat only if you tried to reveal the secret.

In the three cases there is no threat on you if you do not accept or do anything.

And the contract begins ...

In Situation A: When you begin to eat the food he gives

In Situation B: When you accept the job and the remuneration

In Situation C: When you tell him that you wish to get the thing he offers

In a contract, the binding agreement is always between two or more persons or parties and both are responsible for the aftereffects. There is always a binding agreement.

But in the case of a threat, if there is no enmity, thereat is often to one side. And there is no agreement in it.

Two speeding vehicles from the opposite directions are a threat to each other. So there are situations like this also.

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  • I agree. A threat is a statement that does not require agreement between parties. A contract is a statement that requires agreement between parties.
    – user59124
    Jul 10, 2022 at 18:35
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You are onto something.

You have seen a common thing between threat and contract. The common thing is very real possibility of taking away something from you, even if that is minor convenience.

A shopkeeper denying to sale you something when you have money is a threat. Its a very small threat. Something you can easily overcome by going to another shop nearby. It still do take away convenience from you. Your time and energy do get wasted.

A threat don't have to be dangerous to life, limb or wealth to be a threat. A minor threat still cost time and energy. The time it costs cannot be replaced, as time once gone is never recovered.

A contract has an implicit threat in it. A contract has to have conditions in it to be a contract (otherwise its a gift if you have no obligations). The implicit threat is that the other party will stop supplying what its supplying if you don't do your part.

Depending on the situation the implicit threat can or cannot be a very serious matter to you. At the very least, breaking a contract do hurt your reputation. So you do have something considerable on stake.

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A contract is a form of agreement in which each of the contracting parties agrees to do (or not do) something in return for the other.

A threat, in the sense you mean, is a statement of intention by one party to do something considered damaging by another, with a view to forcing the other party to comply with some demand.

A contract can be summarised as an agreement between the parties in the form of 'Party A agrees to do x and Party B agrees to do y in return', whereas a threat is a unilateral declaration of the form 'Party A will do x unless Party B agrees to do y'.

Clearly, you can construe any offer as a threat, in that sense. For example, the shopkeeper's offer to sell food can be phrased as a threat of the form 'I will prevent you from taking my food if you don't pay me'. However, we normally use the word threat only for cases in which the proposed action is deliberately unwelcome and damaging to the extent that the threatened party is forced to comply.

You might like to contrast two shopkeepers each offering to sell food. In one case, the price being asked is the going rate, and there are other food shops nearby. In the other case, the shop is the only one for 500 miles, the customer is close to death through malnutrition and the price being asked is extortionate. The second shopkeeper might be considered to be threatening the customer with death if they don't pay the extortionate price, whereas the first shopkeeper's stance would not normally be considered threatening.

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