Mercy and Justice: The Contradiction and Connection

I dredged up a paper I wrote in 2007 – 5 years after my brother died and 4 years before my mother died. Forgive me if the writing isn’t as polished. I was a 20 year old junior in college. It reads like a philosophy paper! 🙂

Mercy and Justice: the Contradiction and Connection
There are many difficulties and variances in the definition of justice. Justice is commonly understood as fairness. Aristotle said Justice “consists in treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences.” The golden rule says justice “is doing to others as one would have them do to oneself and giving equal turn for benefit received.” Thrasymachus called justice “what is advantageous to the strong.” Epicurus saw justice as a means to maximize the pleasure of men in society. The stoics see justice as a function of the Natural Law. Aquinas saw justice as “a local application of natural law” in the sense of God’s will. For this paper, justice will be defined as the equal proportion to be taken from or given to an individual in regards to their actions.

The contrast then is mercy. Mercy implies compassion to forebear punishment even when justice demands it. As defined by Merriam-Webster, mercy is compassionate treatment of those in distress. It is commonly thought that mercy is a sub category of justice. That unless there is justice requiring punishment, there can be no mercy. However, this conception is false. Mercy exists as an a priori to justice. Without compassionate treatment of those in distress, there is no motivation to be just. Without compassionate treatment of those in distress there is no desire to punish the wicked for their evil. There is no need to protect the poor and lowly. Equal opportunity is not necessary to individuals if there is not a desire for compassionate treatment for those in distress. Without mercy, justice serves no purpose save efficiency, thus mercy is not only necessary to justice, but above it in meaning to mankind and the individual. Justice facilitates the exercising of mercy, but mercy is the value at the core of the moral system of justice.

The contradiction of justice and mercy is that justice is conceived to be good for society, and mercy is seen to be good for the individual. Thus to be merciful can be conceived as going against the public good, and acting in justice can be conceived as going against the individual’s good. One seems to cost the other. Justice is necessary to society. A society without justice will fall to corruption and disorder. If all thieves were shown mercy after their thefts and forborne any punishment, the judicial system would have no power to enforce a law against stealing. Mercy saves infallible bodies from doom and inescapable unhappiness. If a single thief is caught stealing and punished mercifully instead of justly, (that is, in a proportion that is compassionate to the thief versus what the thief justly deserves for his actions) that individual thief is given the chance to correct his behavior without his life being stolen from him by jail or the loss of his hands. As another example: a child who is shown only justice, and never mercy, would be incredibly lucky to grow to a healthy adult. It is very common that a child is shown mercy; it is by the growth in learning from these mercies that a child is able to become an adult functioning in the means of justice. Justice is the conduit through which beings are able to give one another mercy.

To present a scenario: imagine an impoverished child who takes ten dollars into a shop in hopes of buying a coat to wear to school. The cheapest coat in the shop is twenty five dollars. The shop owner does rather well at his trade and is a well respected man. Under Aristotle’s definition of justice the two persons are unequal. The child is also unequal to the average paying customer. Thus, the child is to be treated unequally in proportion to his relevant differences. Acting justly becomes very obscure, if not ambiguous. Since the child is below the status of the well to do merchant and unable to pay as an average customer should he be refused the sale? Is it just to send the boy off without a coat? Yes. It is just by Aristotle because the two parties are on different levels, and justice holds no obligation towards compassion from the shopkeeper to the boy.

The golden rule says justice “is doing to others as one would have them do to oneself and giving equal turn for benefit received.” Under this definition the shop owner would expect to pay full price for the coat, and since the child cannot give equal turn for benefit received if the owner shaves off fifteen dollars of the price, it is also just in this case to turn the child away. Here again justice lacks compassion, leaving neither the boy nor the shopkeeper in any better position than which they started.
By Thrsayamachus, justice is what is advantageous to the strong. Not only should the boy not be able to buy the coat, but the shop owner is entitled to take the boys money because the owner is stronger and it is advantageous to him to have more monetary funds. None of the presented definitions are satisfactory for this situation because they do not account for mercy and pathos. Justice is a “passionless reason” as Aristotle says, and will rarely suffice to bring about the best possible situation. Absolute justice is too rigid to be fair and good in all occasions. Hence, guidelines are better than laws, and mercy supersedes justice in terms of fair and good.

Epicurus held a broader conception of justice, viewing it as a tool of man’s pleasure and means to a prudent moral life. While he admits that “The just man is most free from trouble, the unjust most full of trouble” (Principal Doctrines XVII), he also states that “justice never is anything in itself, but in the dealings of men with one another in any place whatever and at any time it is a kind of compact” (XXXIII.) He proceeds farther in thought to say “Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which attaches to the apprehension of being unable to escape those appointed to punish such actions” (XXXIII.) Injustice is a creation of the justice system. It is not always a moral issue to be just, but to avoid the repercussions of the system of justice one is just. Justice is a system of society, and the laws cannot be hard and fast between diverse individuals and situations. Here Epicurus highlights this sentiment: “In its general aspect justice is the same for all, for it is a kind of mutual advantage in the dealing of men with one another: but with reference to the individual peculiarities of a country or any other circumstances the same thing does not turn out to be just for all” (XXXVI.) Thus, acting justly becomes consequential. Justice is a system man created, not an intrinsic value of man. So because of the system of justice society has adopted, it is just for the man to turn away the child seeking the coat; it is an injustice for him to sell or give the coat because it threatens the system of justice and economics.

The stoics perspective holds a view of natural law wherein all men carry a spark of the divine, and should “bear and forebear,” accepting life for what it is. Their motto can be summed up as such: “Don’t seek for things to happen as you wish, but wish for things to happen as they do, and you will get on well.” (Enchiridion 8.) Justice becomes a value above man, given from the heavens. Epictetus says this about the gods: “they exist, that they run the world well and justly; and you have been appointed to obey them and to resign yourself to whatever happens and to follow willingly because you are led by the best judgment” (Enchiridion 31.) Thus forbearance overrules justice and the stoics urge that: “Whenever someone treats you badly or says bad things about you, remember that he does it or says it thinking that he is doing the right thing. Now it is not possible for him to adhere to your conception of the right, but only his own. Whence it follows that if he has a wrong view of things, he, being deceived, is the one who is hurt” (Enchiridion 42.) Justice becomes less of an obligation, and an individual is allowed to follow the divine spark within and treat all men as “brothers under one Father, God” (Classics 363.) Thus, under the stoic philosophy, just action is not required in the case of the boy and the coat, but one could forebear the injustice of receiving less money then the coat is worth (giving mercy), and act virtuously in helping a brother of humanity, acting so as to create harmony.

The neo-Platonist philosophy “hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by participating in the Ideal Form” (Ennead I.6 sec 2.) Justice in this view is neither a purpose nor function of man, but is in part associated with the Ideal Form. Justice becomes more synonymous with virtuous, for “things become beautiful by participating in the thought that flows from the Divine” (Ennead I.6 sec 2.) Now, theology is a debatable topic, but through the doctrine of Grace, it is assumed that justice is not the dominate quality of the Divine Ideal Form. Indeed, Grace in the divine coincides with mercy in man. God gives a greater gift to man when His Grace gives salvation than when his justice gives order. In the hierarchy of God’s gifts to man, mercy is above justice.
When creating the hierarchy of forms, Plato placed beauty, truth, and goodness at the pinnacle. In the next category are harmony, justice, order, symmetry, and love. This hierarchy worships structure, valuing the logical above the creative. Yet, the Divine is referred to as the Creator, implying the impact of such an act. To be reasonable, structured, and ordered, such is the natural creation of the divine; but this order cannot exist without creation, the higher attribute. If man strives to reach the Ideal Form, or the Form of the Good, if man is created in the image of God, then structure is not to be worshipped. The organization of justice is not to be valued above the grace of mercy. Without the mercy of the divine, without His benevolent act of creation, there would be no beauty, truth, nor goodness in the human sense. By mercy it is that mankind experiences beauty, is able to search for the truth, and is able to grapple after the intangible goodness of the image of their creation. In the hierarchy of forms there is a level above beauty, truth, and goodness; above justice and order, and in this level is mercy presiding.

It is in mercy that the child is given the coat for less then the just price which the merchant asks. It is mercy that improves the condition of the child, and lightens the heart of the shop owner. It is mercy that inspires the heart to give of itself, to refrain from just punishment, to forgive, to treat the oppressed and distressed with compassion and love. It is by mercy that we are made better! Justice is survival, efficiency, an acceptable level of being, but mercy transcends this.

Consider another situation in light of justice and mercy: a child steals for the first time. What should be done here? Should the child be tried and convicted of the crime? Should the crime be ignored and passed on? No, justice requires that something be done. Mercy requires that whatever that something is, it is a compassionate treatment of the child. Make the child return the stolen item, taking personal responsibility in being a just person. Teach the child compassionately that justice… that honesty, is a good and valuable virtue to hold. Have mercy in the punishment. Abstain from destroying an opportunity to teach. Give the mercy, forebear in punishment. Bring the child gently to understanding, and bring the lesson to permanence in the child’s heart.

Justice and mercy serve in coexistence to heighten the value of one another. Justice is the doctrine of law and fairness, mercy is treatment in compassion and grace. Justice is the hard fire, mercy the soft wind, and together they serve to warm the human condition. Following law by itself is empty and consequential. Pursuit of justice alone leaves man unfulfilled and creates materialist opportunism. But justice administered with ‘compassionate treatment of those in distress’ (with mercy) is a good and noble goal that assists human progress in becoming ‘beautiful by participating in the thought that flows from the Divine.’ Mercy and justice must exist together within the society of man for that society to function as a benefit to both the individual and to mankind.

For Aquinas there are different levels of law: eternal, natural, human, and divine. In this view the function of law is directing mankind toward their telos, or end goal. Eternal law is that all is governed by Divine Reason, thus eternal laws are the conceptions of God. Natural law is the overlay of eternal law on the conduct of man, believing that “all things share somewhat of the eternal law… from its being imprinted on them” (Stumpf 178.5.) Natural law is the sum of inclinations that lead humanity to follow after its final purpose. As Aquinas states: “natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” Human law is the justice of society and the laws established by governments. In order to be a just law, to participate in justness, human laws need to align with natural and eternal law, and if “in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.” Laws which contradict natural or eternal law should not be obeyed, but instead “we ought to obey God rather than human beings” (Stumpf 179.7.)

Divine law is that which directs humanity towards its sublime goal vested in the race by God at creation. It is through revelation that divine law is given. By Aquinas, it is a gift of God, an act of His mercy, that humanity was given a tool (divine law) to reach their higher purpose. Divine law is the instrument through which humanity may learn to progress in the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage and prudence; and divine law is given in mercy to the human race that does not justly deserve it.

If humanity really were created in the image of God, mercy would be the gift that brings about justice. Mercy is the prerequisite to true virtue. The golden rule of “do on to others as one would have them do to oneself and giving equal turn for benefit received” turns into an eye for an eye without the concept of mercy, the compassion to forebear punishment even when justice demands it, that is introduced by Christ when he says simply “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take you coat, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:39-40.)

Our calling is not to a strict adherence to justice, we are not called simply to be fair and treat our brothers equally. We are called to love, to show compassion, and bestow mercy on our fellow men. It is as Zachariah speaks the word of the Lord in Zachariah 7:9-10: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other,” but give the mercy and compassion that is our natural right to give!
Justice is how humanity creates ordered, structured, and livable societies. In these societies man is allowed to flourish, to pursue noble goals and deeds and reach farther towards the telos of his creation. Justice is the conduit, the cable, through which the electric flow of mercy moves, and that mercy is accessed through plugging into the outlet that is divine and eternal law, by reaching towards the light that God is. There is no shame, nor lack of virtue in being just. It is good and well that societies have systems of justice. But there is a virtue above justice, a law above the law of man, and that law contains the essence of mercy and has full power to override, supersede, or even nullify justice. By justice we are allowed to become virtuous and happy. But it is not by justice that we become either virtuous or happy; those ends are meant by reaching towards our divine telos given by God in creation. Justice, in the sense of man acting towards man, can be defined as the equal proportion to be taken from or given to an individual in regards to their actions, but justice in the sense of the eternal and divine law is allowing for the divine spark to shine as intended by the Creator.

Works Cited
Justice. (1999). In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Vol. 2, p. 456). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Justice. (1967). In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Vol. 4, p. 298-301). New York, NY: Macmillan Company and the Free Press.
Justice. (1995). In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Vol. 1, p. 433-434). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Law, History of the Philosophy of. (1995). In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Vol. 1, p. 465-473). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Natural Law. (1999). In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Vol. 2, p. 599-600). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Natural Law. (1995). In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Vol. 1, p. 599-600). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Pojman, L. (2003). Classics of Philosophy: Second Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Stumpf, S., & Fieser, J. (Eds.). (2003). Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


holding dustin age 3

We are lucky “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) We can’t stay as innocent as we were as children. Ironically the most innocent of us are those who die young, and that doesn’t seem like logical justice…


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