There was a story in the news recently about a young woman who was a soldier in the Libyan military. During the rebellion, she was forced to kill captured rebels. These were not killings during battle. The rebels were individually taken to a room, and she was ordered to execute them. When she showed reluctance, another soldier pointed a gun to her head, threatening her with death if she did not kill the rebels. She says that this happened 10 or 11 times. She knew that this type of killing is wrong. But the media seem to be treating her as merely a victim of a corrupt government.
This raises some general moral questions, apart from her particular circumstances. What role does duress play in morality? Can a sinful act ever become moral due to duress? Does an intrinsically evil act even become objectively moral or subjectively moral, due to duress?
In the case of the above described woman soldier, her act was objectively the sin of murder. These rebels did not have a trial, in which they were condemned to death as a punishment for a crime. They were not killed on the battlefield. Even in a time of war, one cannot summarily or arbitrarily execute prisoners.
There are three fonts of morality. Murder is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, because the moral object in the second font of morality is evil. Neither a good intention, nor dire circumstances, can make an intrinsically evil act moral. Whenever any one font is bad, the act is immoral.
Duress is in the circumstances. The woman soldier was threatened with death, if she did not commit murder. As a consequence for choosing not to commit murder, she would be killed. So her death would be a bad consequence in the third font. But since the second font (moral object) is immoral, the act remains immoral, despite dire consequences in the third font. Therefore, her actions remained objectively gravely immoral. She committed 10 or 11 murders, according to her own description.
When an act is objectively immoral, the person is nevertheless innocent of actual sin, unless he realizes that the act is immoral and freely chooses that act. This is the distinction between objective sin (what is objectively immoral before God) and actual sin (culpability for an immoral act). A person might commit an objective sin without culpability, if he did not realize the act was immoral, despite a sincere search for moral truth, or if he did not act freely.
Now some persons claim that duress takes away freedom, such that an objectively immoral act is necessarily not a sin due to a lack of free choice whenever there is grave duress. But this is not what the Church teaches about duress.
A person still exercises free will, even if he must make a choice in the face of certain death for himself. Jesus chose our salvation in the face of certain death. The claim that great duress takes away free will implies that Jesus did not act with true freedom in His human will when He chose to do the will of the Father while in agony in the garden. All the holy martyrs chose death rather than commit a grave sin (such as denying the Faith). Their duress does not imply that their act was not a free choice. If the choice of the martyrs was not free, then they are not truly martyrs.
Pope John Paul II: “The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 91.)
Therefore, a person who knows that an act is immoral, and who chooses that act with his free will, is culpable for actual sin. The woman soldier in question is not an innocent victim, but a guilty murderer. She knew that it was gravely immoral to kill those rebels, but she did so anyway. In that situation, the only moral act would be to refuse to sin and suffer death instead.
Certainly, duress can effect the human person. If someone is under severe duress, he might not judge as well as he normally would. And so he might incorrectly judge that an act is moral, when it is not. In such a case, the act would be objectively immoral, but not an actual sin. It is also possible for this type of effect of duress on judgment to reduce a sin from actual mortal to actual venial, if the person’s incorrect judgment is such that he believes the act is only a venial sin, when it is objectively a mortal sin.
Duress can also effect free will. However, this does not mean that all persons under duress are innocent of all sins so committed. Rather, duress can effect the will, just as it can effect the intellect. A person under duress might act with less deliberation, since if he takes time to consider his choices more fully, he would suffer greatly or die. It is reasonable, if taking a long time to deliberate will result in anyone’s death, to take less time to deliberate about a choice. But less deliberation does not necessarily imply that the resulting choice has little or no culpability. A choice can be made with full deliberation in a short space of time, especially if the person has a good understanding of morality. But in some cases, duress can effect deliberation such that an objective mortal sin is only venial, due to a lack of full deliberation.
An actual mortal sin is a gravely immoral act committed with full knowledge and full deliberation. Duress may substantially reduce the knowledge or the deliberation to less than full, making the act perhaps only an actual venial sin. But this is not necessarily the case.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC, n. 1756.)
An intrinsically evil act (second font) is immoral, regardless of good intention (first font) or duress (third font). This duress might be mild, in the case of social pressure; or it might be grave, in the case of an emergency. But nevertheless, an intrinsically evil act is always immoral.
Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62)
Can duress ever change an act from immoral without the duress, to moral with the duress?
If an act is immoral due to your own bad intention, then change your intention. Pray to God for the grace to have a pure heart and a clear mind, so that you can act in accord with morality, that is, in accord with an ordered love of God, neighbor, self. Duress in the third font does not change your own bad intention in the first font.
If an act is immoral due to an evil moral object, then that type of act is always immoral. You must choose to refrain from committing that act. But you may choose to commit another type of act, one that is moral under all three fonts. Duress in the third font does not change the moral object of the second font.
If an act is immoral solely due to the circumstances, such that the person reasonably anticipates that the bad consequences of the act will morally outweigh the good consequences of the act, the act is immoral until and unless the circumstances change. The third font of morality, circumstances, is immoral whenever the bad consequences outweigh the good consequences, in so far as these consequences can be reasonably anticipated.
However, if we consider an act that is immoral solely due to the circumstances, and then we add the additional circumstance of duress, the weight of this circumstance (e.g. the bad consequence of death to an innocent person) may change the evaluation of the third font, such that now the good consequences (including avoiding the death of an innocent) outweigh the bad consequences. The act then becomes moral.
More on morality and duress in my book, The Catechism of Catholic Ethics: a work of Roman Catholic moral theology.