They don't do it because they want to, but only when no one else can or are able to. They only do it because they have to, because they're told to.

What adjective would describe this type of person?

closed as off-topic by Mari-Lou A, NVZ, Phil Sweet, ab2, user140086 Jul 2 '16 at 5:21

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  • 2
    I would describe this as being "virtuous under duress" or "righteous under compulsion." Under some systems of philosophy, such conduct does not qualify as righteous or virtuous, because it lacks the necessary elements of free will and selflessness that these systems require of righteousness and virtue. – Sven Yargs Jan 3 '16 at 8:01
  • Reminds me of the Will Smith movie Hancock as the drunk superhero. – Stu W Mar 3 '16 at 16:05
  • righteous things sounds a tad old fashioned. Do you mean: do the right thing? – Lambie Jul 1 '16 at 16:31

Since this question is still floating around in the Unanswered Questions queue a month after it was asked, I'm going to suggest three adjectives that may be somewhat relevant to the meaning that the poster wants to capture: antiheroic, involuntary, and expedient.

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has this entry for the noun antihero:

antihero n (1714) : a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities —antiheroic adj

So if you think of heroic as encompassing such characteristics as (quoting from the Eleventh Collegiate again) "exhibiting or marked by courage and daring" and "supremely noble and self-sacrificing," it seems fair to say that a grudgingly righteous person who avoids self-sacrifice, flees danger, and shows no sign of nobility unless cornered is antiheroic.

For involuntary, the Eleventh Collegiate has this entry:

involuntary adj (15c) 1 : done contrary to or without choice 2 : COMPULSORY 3 : not subject to control of the will : REFLEX

The first two definitions of involuntary here stress the absence of free will in the conduct that might on its face seem righteous. In effect, the involuntarily or antiheroically virtuous person is acting out of character and under duress in behaving in anything but an utterly selfish way—and even his or her righteous acts, under these conditions, may count less as evidence of a reformed character than as further evidence of a character dedicated to expediency—expediency being the residue of opportunism that remains when no really appealing options are on the table.

In fact expedient makes a very good third option for the poster's purposes. Here, again, is the Eleventh Collegiate:

expedient adj (14c) 1 : suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance 2 : characterized by concern with what is opportune; esp : governed by self-interest

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