Mercy is the option to gratuitously limit a cost, penalty, payment, or harm we are legitimately entitled to impose on another person. It can also be the option to freely give care to someone, regardless of whether the other person has a right to such care, or deserves our care. Indeed they might even definitely not deserve care or concern – they may have negative merit, and ‘deserve what’s coming to them’.
Justice can be strict or it can be merciful. In this sense, justice done is not absolute, but relative. Mercy is the margin available to an exact justice and full recompense. We can exact full payment, or we can ‘let someone off’. We are very conscious today of our rights. This is undoubtedly a reaction to the suppression of human rights in much of human history, maybe including even our own personal life story. Establishing human rights has been a long battle against historical injustice. But we are much less conscious of our option to forgo our full rights. This is mercy. Insisting on our rights may bring considerable harm to someone else. Perhaps it could bankrupt them. Or it may more mildly simply discourage or depress them. Compassion is needed for us even to realise this, to think beyond our self concern to the situation and interests of the other person in the equation.
We so easily adopt an asymmetrical approach to mercy, hoping to be treated mercifully when we are at fault, but being less inclined to show mercy to others at fault, in our debt, or in some condition of need.
There are some areas in life where we have to be exact, in science and engineering for example. Perhaps this emphasis on being exactly correct in the science and engineering of modernity has led to a tendency to think exactly in moral areas too. Moral actions become black and white. We forget about shades of grey. Newspapers scream condemnation. And in the reality TV shows which both reflect and influence current attitudes, the victims of rejection are shown no mercy. Rather we are publicly invited to celebrate their complete denouement.
In theory, though often sadly not in practice, religion is strong on the concept of mercy. Maybe the concept of mercy is something we have lost with our loss or religion, one of the babies we have thrown out with the bathwater. The religious idea was that humanity needs mercy in a generic, almost abstract sense. This derives from the ready acknowledgement of human imperfection, which needs some response, since indifference is not a practical option to morally aware and morally sentient people. The response is either vindictive, eyes for eyes leading to us all being blinded, or mercy, a limitation to the exaction of exact justice.
Mercy cooperates with other virtues – to moderate justice as shown above, with compassion which identifies situations and conditions in others’ lives calling for mercy, and with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the inner condition we adopt, mercy is the outward act. We show mercy – it is a demonstration of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is total – we either forgive an offence or we don’t. Mercy is partial – we can legitimately partially mitigate a debt, penalty, or punishment.
Forgiveness is for an act by which someone has wronged us – mercy addresses a situation a person finds themselves in without any necessary wrongdoing on their part.
Is mercy reasonable or unreasonable? It is both. It has a reason in its awareness of the actual or potential suffering of someone else which it can mitigate. But it is unreasonable, in the sense that every virtue has no reason – it is a free arbitrary choice to exercise the merciful option. And a choice to advocate and exemplify a merciful human society.