Mercy vs. Justice: a Clash of Virtues

What do we do when virtues conflict?

The School of Athens by Raphael
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True virtues are not supposed to clash - at least that is the ideal. Our personal interests or baser instincts may at times conflict with the virtues we are trying to cultivate, but higher virtues themselves are always supposed to be in harmony with one another. How, then, do we explain the apparent conflict between the virtues of mercy and justice?

The Four Cardinal Virtues

For Plato, justice was one of the four cardinal virtues (along with temperance, courage, and wisdom). Aristotle, Plato's student, expanded the notion of virtue by arguing that virtuous conduct must occupy some middle ground between behavior that is excessive and behavior that is deficient. Aristotle called this concept the "Golden Mean," and so a person of moral maturity is one who seeks that mean in all that she does.

The Concept of Fairness

For both Plato and Aristotle, the Golden mean of justice could be located in the concept of fairness. Justice, as fairness, means that people get exactly what they deserve - no more, no less. If they get more, something is excessive; if they get less, something is deficient. It might be profoundly difficult to figure out exactly what it is that a person *does deserve, but in principle, perfect justice is about perfectly matching people and actions to their desserts.

Justice Is a Virtue

It isn't difficult to see why justice would be a virtue. A society where bad people get more and better than they deserve while good people get less and worse than they deserve is one which is corrupt, inefficient, and ripe for revolution. It is, in fact, the basic premise of all revolutionaries that society is unjust and needs to be reformed at a basic level. Perfect justice would thus appear to be a virtue not only because it is fair, but also because it results in a more peaceful and harmonious society overall.

Mercy Is an Important Virtue

At the same time, mercy is often regarded as an important virtue - a society where no one ever showed or experienced mercy would be one which is stifling, restrictive, and would appear to be lacking in the basic principle of kindness. That is odd, however, because mercy essentially requires that justice *not be done. One needs to understand here that mercy isn't a matter of being kind or nice, although such qualities may lead one to be more likely to show mercy. Mercy also isn't the same thing as sympathy or pity.

What mercy entails is that something *less than justice be one. If a convicted criminal asks for mercy, he is asking that he receive a punishment that is less than what he is really due. When a Christian begs God for mercy, she is asking that God punish her less than what God is justified in doing. In a society where mercy reigns, doesn't that require that justice is abandoned?​

Perhaps not, because justice also isn't the opposite of mercy: if we adopt the premises of virtue ethics as described by Aristotle, we would conclude that mercy lies between the vices of cruelty and uncaring, while justice lies between the vices of cruelty and softness. So, both are contrasted with the vice of cruelty, but still, they aren't the same and are in fact often at odds with one another.

How Mercy Undermines Itself

And make no mistake, they are indeed often in conflict. There is a great danger in showing mercy because if used too often or in the wrong circumstances, it can actually undermine itself. Many philosophers and legal theorists have noted that the more one pardons crimes, the more one also emboldens criminals because you are essentially telling them that their chances of getting away without paying the proper price have increased. That, in turn, is one of the things which drives revolutions: the perception that the system is unfair.

Why Justice Is Important

Justice is required because a good and functioning society requires the presence of justice - as long as people trust that justice will be done, they will better be able to trust one another. Mercy, however, is also required because as A. C. Grayling has written, "we all need mercy ourselves." The remission of moral debts may embolden sin, but it may also embolden virtue by giving people a second chance.

Virtues are traditionally conceived as standing midway between two vices; while justice and mercy may be virtues rather than vices, is it conceivable that there is yet another virtue that is midway between them? A golden mean among golden means? If there is, it has no name - but knowing when to show mercy and when to show strict justice is the key to navigating through the dangers that an excess of either may threaten.

Argument from Justice: Must Justice Exist in the Afterlife?

This Argument from Justice starts from the premise that in this world virtuous people are not always happy and do not always get what they deserve while wicked people do not always get the punishments they should. The balance of justice must be achieved somewhere and at some time, and since this does not occur here it must occur after we die.

There simply must be a future life where the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished in ways commensurate with their actual deeds. Unfortunately, there is no good reason to assume that justice must, in the end, balance out in our universe. The assumption of cosmic justice is at least as questionable as the assumption that a god exists—and so it certainly cannot be used to prove that a god exists.

In fact, humanists and many other atheists point to the fact that the lack of any such cosmic balance of justice means that the responsibility is ours to do all that we can to ensure that justice is done here and now. If we don't do it, no one else will do it for us.

The belief that there will be cosmic justice eventually - whether accurate or not - may be very appealing because it allows us to think that, regardless of what happens here, good will triumph. However, this removes from us some of the responsibility to get things right here and now. After all, what's the big deal if a few murderers go free or a few innocent people are executed if everything will be perfectly balanced later on?

And even if there is a system of perfect cosmic justice, there is no reason to simply assume that there exists a single, perfect god in charge of it all. Perhaps there are committees of gods who do the work. Or perhaps there are laws of cosmic justice which work like laws of gravity—something akin to the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma.

Furthermore, even if we assume that some sort of system of cosmic justice exists, why assume that it is necessarily perfect justice? Even if we imagine that we can understand what perfect justice is or would look like, we have no reason to assume that any cosmic system we encounter is necessarily better than any system we have here now.

Indeed, why assume that perfect justice can even exist, especially in conjunction with other desired qualities like mercy? The very concept of mercy requires that, on some level, justice is not being done. By definition, if some judge is being merciful towards us when punishing us for some transgression, then we are not getting the full punishment which we justly deserve - we are, therefore, not receiving full justice. Curiously, the apologists who use arguments like the Argument from Justice tend to believe in a god which they also insist is merciful, never acknowledging the contradiction.

Thus we can see not only that the basic premise of this argument is faulty, but that even if it were true, it fails to necessitate the conclusion theists seek. In fact, believing it may have unfortunate social consequences, even if it is psychologically appealing. For these reasons, it fails to offer a rational basis for theism.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Mercy vs. Justice: a Clash of Virtues." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Cline, Austin. (2020, August 27). Mercy vs. Justice: a Clash of Virtues. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Mercy vs. Justice: a Clash of Virtues." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).