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11/22/2018 7:31 pm  #1


Is mercy really a virtue?

Do you know what mercy is? It's when you're watching a medieval fantasy series where the brutal king is terrorizing his subjects and brings one of his condemned before him and says "hmm...I think I will show you mercy." When you see that... doesn't it make you feel a little bit unclean inside and squirm a little? Like maybe the king shouldn't be such a medieval warlord and actually design a modern, rational society where the condemned aren't victimized to begin with? But that would be justice, not mercy. I strongly suspect that nobody (not just me) sees joy or happiness when the king does that. Most people feel of kind of visceral dread whenever a king shows mercy. He didn't show mercy because he was kind. He showed mercy because he wanted to and to show off that he can do whatever he wants. Even though mercy isn't a virtue kindness definitely is. Kindness is the virtue of being a good gift-giver. Fairness is also a virtue and distinct from justice.

 

11/23/2018 4:15 am  #2


Re: Is mercy really a virtue?

Due_Kindheartedness wrote:

Do you know what mercy is? It's when you're watching a medieval fantasy series where the brutal king is terrorizing his subjects and brings one of his condemned before him and says "hmm...I think I will show you mercy." When you see that... doesn't it make you feel a little bit unclean inside and squirm a little? Like maybe the king shouldn't be such a medieval warlord and actually design a modern, rational society where the condemned aren't victimized to begin with? But that would be justice, not mercy. I strongly suspect that nobody (not just me) sees joy or happiness when the king does that. Most people feel of kind of visceral dread whenever a king shows mercy. He didn't show mercy because he was kind. He showed mercy because he wanted to and to show off that he can do whatever he wants. Even though mercy isn't a virtue kindness definitely is. Kindness is the virtue of being a good gift-giver. Fairness is also a virtue and distinct from justice.

​I was listening to a program about real life justice in Medieval France a while ago, there was a kind of legal procedure whereby the population of a town or village could mobilise to save a condemned person from execution by demanding in sufficient numbers that he/she be shown mercy. The sentence would then be commuted into a public penance. This kind of thing wasn't uncommon apparently. That's one type of mercy, but different to the fantasy situation.
 

 

11/23/2018 4:16 pm  #3


Re: Is mercy really a virtue?

Yes, the situation you describe is a bothersome one. But that doesn't show that mercy is not a virtue, unless the king is showing genuine mercy.

Mercy involves pardoning someone even though justice does not require it. When someone is actually at fault and thereby in debt to you, you show mercy when you forgive him or forgive his debts. It wouldn't be mercy to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that he was not actually at fault.

The king in your example is deciding not to harm someone, but the person in question did not actually wrong him and there was no debt. The claim of mercy is either nakedly insincere, or metaphorical (as when one says that one sports team is "punishing" another), or rooted in delusion (it is common for unjust persons to think they have been wronged when they have not been, and thus they can also think they are showing mercy when they aren't).

 

11/23/2018 9:42 pm  #4


Re: Is mercy really a virtue?

The example you have given isn't really an example of mercy if the king does it for the wrong reasons, at least according to the Aristotelean conception of virtue.

I think mercy being designated a virtue is based on religious grounds.  Christianity assumes that the Law is perfect and simultaneously impossible for humans to follow.  Because of this, Christ offers us unending Mercy coupled with unending Justice.  The Graeco-Roman view of law is different that the Judaic, and thus mercy is viewed differently.  Most of the ancients didn't talk about mercy a lot, and when they do, like Seneca, it's not viewed as a cardinal virtue.  It is more often viewed as something good for the person giving mercy.  Something similar is going on when Buddhists talk about compassion, where mercy is viewed as a type of compassion.  I think to really penetrate into this question, you need to understand what is meant by 'law', because mercy is always going to be in contrast to justice/law.

 

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