Duress and Coercion Essay

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Coercion has been at the center of many recent debates in normative philosophy primarily because of the role acting under duress plays in determining an agent’s moral responsibility for her actions. Many believe that an agent who acts under duress is less morally responsible for her actions than one who does not, despite her action being intentional. Duress is sometimes said to undermine an agent’s autonomy.

Coercion involves two parties—the coercer and the coercer. An agent acts under duress, and is coerced, if and only if she chooses to do as a coercer requests because of a threat levied against her by said coercer, usually a threat of substantial harm or violence. For example, a thief may approach a pedestrian in an alley and make the following threat: “Your money or your life,” threatening to kill the pedestrian if she does not give him her money. If she gives him her money because of the threat, she has been successfully coerced and acts under duress. Under normal circumstances had the same pedestrian encountered a nonthreatening stranger, such as a homeless person, who asked her for all of her money, she is free to decline. Coercion can be seen as interfering with the pedestrian’s free will because her behavior changes because of the coercive threat levied against her.

One can be coerced into acting or refraining from acting. For example, a thief might threaten to kill a bank guard’s family unless he refrains from going to work as usual.

Coercion is different from what is sometimes called “physical coercion,” wherein one person forces another person’s body to act. For example, one might physically coerce another person into dropping a knife by putting pressure on the knife-wielder’s wrists. Harry Frankfurt has attempted to draw a parallel between coercion and physical coercion: In physical coercion one forces another’s body to do as she wishes by force; in coercion a coercer forces another’s will, or mind, to do as she wishes by making a coercive threat.

Nozick on Coercion

Robert Nozick offered a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for judging whether an agent (P) has coerced an agent (Q):

  • P intends to get Q to perform some action (A)
  • P communicates to Q that P wants Q to perform action A
  • P communicates to Q that if Q does not perform A, P will bring about some bad consequences that make not A-ing less desirable to Q than A-ing
  • P is credible to Q
  • Q performs action A

Part of the reason for Q A-ing is to lessen the likelihood that P will bring about the undesirable consequences.

Note that on Nozick’s account coercion is necessarily successful; P coerces Q only if Q does as P requests. If Q does not do as P requests, then P has failed to coerce Q (although one might still call P’s

threat a coercive threat because it is intended to coerce Q).

The Difficulty in Ascertaining Duress

It can be difficult to ascertain whether one was coerced to act. Harry Frankfurt constructs a series of cases that each contain the following three parts:

  • Jones has freely decided for his own reasons to perform an action—for example, he has decided to rob a bank.
  • Someone threatens Jones with a severe penalty, such that any reasonable person would submit to the threat, and requests that he perform exactly the same action that Jones had coincidentally already decided to perform.
  • Jones performs the action.

In Frankfurt’s first case, Jones is not a reasonable man and the coercer’s threat makes no impact on him. Jones robs a bank because he had set his mind to it; his compliance with the threat is only coincidental. Jones has not been coerced by the threat, and it does not make sense to say that he is any less morally responsible for his actions than had no coercive threat been made against him.

In the second case, Jones is overwhelmed by the threat. He is so overwhelmed that he immediately forgets that he had ever decided to rob a bank and chooses to rob a bank solely to avoid the threat made against him. Frankfurt admits that Jones may be morally culpable for having previously decided to rob a bank, but it does not make sense to say that he is morally responsible for his robbing the bank in this case because he did so under duress.

In the third case, Jones is a reasonable man, and the threat levied against him would have been sufficient to get him to rob the bank if he had not already had the intention to do so. It is fortuitous for him that the coercer’s threat is consistent with his prior plans, and Jones follows through with his original plan to rob the bank motivated by his own reasons. Jones freely admits to himself that had he not had those prior plans, he would still have robbed the bank so as to prevent the coercer from following through with his threat. Frankfurt is unsure as to whether it is appropriate to say that Jones was coerced in this case; however, he contends that Jones would be morally responsible for his actions.

Coercion as Inescapable

Some philosophers contend that a threat is coercive if and only if it is inescapable, such that it is impossible for the coerced party to do otherwise. Frankfurt contends that a person who acts under duress does not act of her own free will, and thus is not morally responsible for her actions and should neither be credited nor blamed for them. According to Frankfurt, an agent may even be incapable of defying a threat that she realizes it would be reasonable for her to defy. For example, someone with a pathological fear of bees may be coerced to perform an action by the threat of being stung even if she realizes it would be more reasonable to be stung than to perform the action requested.

According to Frankfurt, a threat may be coercive in some situations, but not others. For example, a pedestrian may easily be coerced by the threat of death to give her money to a thief, yet may defy the same threat of death if the thief requests her child’s life.

Coercion as Escapable

Some philosophers believe that coercion doesn’t eliminate people’s ability to do otherwise, but merely changes the options available to them. Michael Otsuka offers an explanation for why one might be blameless in coercion cases; he appeals to the principle of avoidable blame. According to this principle, in any given situation there needs to be at least one option open to an agent for which that agent would be entirely morally blameless (or praiseless).

Suppose Smith is in charge of depositing her charity’s money at the bank. Under normal circumstances if she were to give away this money to a stranger on the street, she would be morally blameworthy. Similarly, it would be morally unacceptable for her to risk her life and the money, say by darting across a busy intersection. Now suppose that Smith is stopped by a thief who threatens, “Your money or your life.” Smith understands that if she refuses, he will kill her and take the money anyway. Suppose she is neither indifferent to the threat nor compelled to act because of the threat; rather, she has libertarian free will—she has the ability to either give the thief the money or refuse to do so (at the risk of being shot and having the money stolen anyway). Under normal circumstances neither option is acceptable; however, in this situation she has only these two options open to her. According to the principle of avoidable blame, there must be at least one option that is morally acceptable—presumably that option is the first, as both options result in the money being stolen but only the first option safeguards her life. Even if it makes sense to say that Smith could have done otherwise—that she was capable of acting irrationally and risk her own life by defying the thief—it makes sense to say that she was coerced if she freely gives the money to the thief because of the threat. To do so satisfies each of Nozick’s conditions for coercion.


  1. Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
  2. Gaines, Larry and LeRoy Miller. Criminal Justice in Action: The Core. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006.
  3. Nozick, Robert. “Coercion,” In Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel, Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes, and Morton White, eds. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.
  4. Otsuka, Michael. “Incompatibilism and the Avoidability of Blame.” Ethics, v.108/4 (1998).
  5. Simkulet, William. “On Moral Enhancement.” American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, v.3/4 (2012).

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