Commentators on the Holocaust often refer to the oft cited justification "just following orders" as a paltry excuse. But given that "just following orders" can often mean that a person must choose to follow orders or face legal consequences or death isn't that a pretty good excuse? We generally don't judge a person who is acting under duress in the same way as someone who isn't. Maybe when commentators reference this phrase they are only citing the most egregious cases where it was used, but I can't help but feel that these commentators are glossing over the moral complexity involved in cases where a person is said to be "following orders".

It is certainly true that moral philosophers recognize that people who are in receipt of orders are operating under duress, and this may play some part in excusing their behavior. The fact that one is under duress does not necessarily excuse everything that is done, though. The evidence of what happened in the Holocaust suggests that people who did not want to carry out the various atrocities that went on did not suffer as a consequence. In fact, most of the participants were enthusiastic and profited directly from their cruel conduct.

Even where this is not the case, many would refuse to do something immoral even if the consequences are serious for the agent. Utilitarians might contemplate the balance between the pains and pleasures involved, but from the point of view of deontologists there are many situations where the fact that the agent will suffer if he or she does something evil would be irrelevant to the issue of whether they should do it or otherwise. If it is wrong you do not do it regardless of the consequences, order or no order.

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