Mercy and justice, oil and water (Part 1)

Theology usually gets into trouble when it claims that God is perfect in some particular quality. As you add such qualities, they begin to conflict with each other. Perhaps the most discussed combination is omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence. The problem with these was spotted at least as early as the third century B.C., when Epicurus (one of my philosophical heroes) said the following

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

In this post I’d like to discuss a lesser known conflict between perfect qualities, namely mercy and justice. The problem is as follows. If God is perfectly merciful, then he forgives us our sins. But if God is perfectly just, then he metes out the precise punishment we deserve for our sins, according to the law.

Clearly it is not possible to do both.

Perhaps we should think about the definitions of mercy and justice before moving on. I’m going to do quick experiment. I’m going to give my own definitions of mercy and justice, and then I’m going to pop on over to dictionary.com and see what it says. So, here goes.

My definitions:

Mercy. To show mercy is to decide against causing harm to someone you believe deserves to be harmed.

Justice. The process by which those who are wronged are redressed and those who do wrong are punished. We tip the scales, justice rights them.

Under these definitions, a conflict between mercy and justice seems inevitable. If you think someone deserves to be harmed, you believe that causing such harm is the just thing to do. It is what justice demands. To refrain from causing this harm, namely to have mercy, therefore requires justice to be opposed.

Let’s see what the dictionary says.

Mercy.

1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence: Have mercy on the poor sinner.

2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing: an adversary wholly without mercy.

3. the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, especially to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.

4. an act of kindness, compassion, or favor: She has performed countless small mercies for her friends and neighbors.

5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing: It was just a mercy we had our seat belts on when it happened.

My own definition is probably closest to the third one in the dictionary. To have mercy is to pardon someone or mitigate punishment. In this sense, having mercy is incompatible with justice.

Some of the other dictionary definitions, however, appear to be compatible with justice. For instance, it is possible to mete out the punishment required by justice while also treating the recipient of the punishment humanely. For instance, a judge who applies the law and sentences a murderer to life in prison may nonetheless have mercy on him by sending him to a low-security facility, if she feels that is warranted. Justice is met, but some lenience is shown in the execution thereof.

The fourth dictionary definition, in particular, is entirely compatible with justice (“an act of kindness, compassion, or favor”). Acts of kindness and compassion do not necessarily involve issues of justice.

Let us see what the dictionary says about justice.

Justice.

1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.

2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.

3. the moral principle determining just conduct.

4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.

5. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

My definition of justice corresponds to the fifth definition above: The administering of deserved punishment or reward. The other definitions are compatible with my own, but are not as specific. For instance, the second definition uses “lawfulness”, which presumably refers to a consistent application of the law. Definition three, however, is more general: Justice is a moral principle determining just conduct. Under this definition, perhaps mercy could be possible, especially if one is free to pick one’s preferred definition of mercy.

I must conclude, then, that depending on which definitions of mercy and justice you choose, the two concepts can be made compatible.

In the next post on this topic, I’ll look at the Bible’s specific stance on mercy and justice.

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