The Quality of Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Note that I have not included the full dialogue, and that I am aware of the anti-Semitic aspects of the play. I would like to restrict discussion to only the quoted passage, out of context, as I believe it stands by itself

Some hyperbole: ‘Bleeding-heart Liberals’ want to empty the prisons. After all, Society’s to blame. ‘Bloodthirsty Conservatives’ want to execute everybody. More seriously though, many people call for strict interpretations of laws and mandatory punishment. There is a current thread about a drunk driver who caused a death. There are those who are calling for harsh punishment. Others call for punishment, but accept that self-punishment will be harsh in itself. In this case, the subject made a tragic mistake. But it can be said that this ‘mistake’ was premeditated, and therefore a heinous crime. I am not taking a position on this.

I do not want this thread to be about that specific incident, and I use it only for illustration.

The question is this: Do you think that mercy should season justice? If so, how much?

This sounds like GD.

It’s kind of tricky to mix what should be a pretty emotionless, objective process (justice) with a very emotional, subjective one (mercy). Some overlap is to be expected, as humans cannot divorce themselves entirely from emotion, but I think you’re tainting the process of justice once you start using feelings to justify action or lighten punishment. It would be as wrong as using them in the opposite manner. Ideally, the facts should show you which way to go, and mercy should come into play only after guilt or innocence is determined and the sentencing process is complete.

I’m not entirely comfortable with victims speaking before sentencing for this very reason. While I understand it helps them to feel less victimized, I think it unfairly biases the outcome.

It’s been a long time since I read my Greek philosophy, but I think Plato had a hard time wrapping his head around the concept of justice and coming up with a suitable explanation of what it even is. I mean it sounds good to say, “I just want a little justice here,” but that almost always translates into some flavor of “I want the perp to suffer for what he done” as opposed to “The perp needs to compensate society for his crimes.” Personally I believe Justice is a pipe dream. A mental exercise akin to perpetual motion machines. It’s a nice concept, but completely unattainable.

As far as tempering *punishment *with mercy? It absolutely must be done. And I’d say the more the crime has offended society’s sensibilities, the greater the role mercy must play when determining the punishment. Which is not to say “more mercy for the worst offenders,” but rather, the more the perp’s actions have strayed from the norm, the greater responsibility we have to determine why they did in the first place. If I kill a baby with a safety pin over the course of several weeks and then eat parts of the corpse, then clearly there is something about me that must be understood and addressed if my sentence is to resemble anything other than blind revenge.

This brought back a lot of memories. When I first started working with homeless people someone gave me a copy of that and suggested that I read it out of context at least once a year. I spent a whole lot of time thinking about it, not in a judicial context but in the context of how best to help people that by any standards didn’t deserve it based on their antisocial behavior. I was the director and no matter what my personal feelings were I had to maintain order, make sure that everyone was safe and respect the community’s wishes that we not become a haven for illegal activity. We had rules and people had to follow them or else they faced consequences and loss of services. A hard line was called for in order to keep the place for descending into total chaos. It was easy for the staff to start to think of their jobs as being bouncers and security staff and forget that our real mission was to help our clients get off the streets. The easy way to manage things would have been to throw out all of the troublemakers that broke the rules. They were used to it - they’d been getting thrown out of places all of their lives and it was just what they expected to happen. The last thing they expected was mercy, but sometimes the best breakthroughs with the “I don’t give a shit what happens to me” crowd came when they got what they didn’t deserve and didn’t even dare to hope for. It was as if they could begin to see themselves as someone that there was hope for because someone else saw them that way first. There were always the scam artists and people that deserved nothing less than a hard line of consequences with no mercy, but things were rarely that black and white and there was some way to reach almost everyone and get them started on getting it together. These people were such a mess that it wasn’t hard to look past the rule violation of the day to see the bigger picture of what kind of help they really needed to get out of there.

I suppose that was a lot of rambling given that I can’t translate it into a legal setting, but it was great to read it again after all of these years.

Not at all, in fact I think humanity breaks down when we forget that the legal setting exists as a servant to the social one. It’s easy to enforce rules, much less so to grok the spirit behind them.

I think the largest problem here is that we are such an anonymous society. Mercy, when it exists, exists within the context of a personal relationship.

There are many reasons to sentence a convict to prison - to remove the danger he poses from society, to give him the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, and to punish him. None of these excludes mercy as a quality, but in a system that keeps more than a million inmates at any one time, mercy becomes meaningless. The convict shown mercy has no one to be grateful to, those showing mercy have no connection to the convict and suffer no consequences if he breaks the law again.

Mercy implies forgiveness, and it’s not the court’s duty to forgive. It’s ours, individually and as a whole.

But then, I’m still struggling with the idea of forgiveness as a concept and haven’t gotten a chance to move on to mercy yet.

To me mercy exists as a concept in the criminal justice context only where the justice is bing meted out by an all-powerful sovereign (like god or a king). That is, the wrongdoer is before a person that can literally do anything he wants to the wrongdoer, and in his mercy chooses to dole out a lesser punishment than would ordinarily be warranted for the crime.

However, in modern U.S. criminal justice, the judge is not an all-powerful god or king. Rather, his hands are severely tied by the punishment ranges and other considerations that are decided on by the legislature. In some circumstances, the actual punishment is set, so there’s no way for mercy to operate. Therefore, I guess what I’m saying in a nutshell is that we seem to have made a collective judgment as a society not to allow mercy to operate or to severely restrict its operation as a tool in criminal justice.

Mercy in the criminal justice system would be out of place. A judge is one who the people elect to see justice is served. Mercy is a much more of a personal thing. A gift from one to another. I have very little experience with mercy, on occasion I have given it of myself to others, always hate colors my reasoning, and makes this a difficult thing. I do know much about justice, and have given that much more freely.

This I’m sure is a topic better suited to those here that have more learning than I.

What an excellent OP.

I might venture to suggest this would make a fine GD.

GD has much more stringent standards than IMHO. I think at this stage it’s still IMHO material.

Plus GD is full of sophistic nutters

Yeah, especially when those that are meting out the justice on a constant basis are overworked and tired. I ended up disagreeing with the line “'Tis mightiest in the mightiest:”. It’s not hard to be merciful when you’re above it all and have the luxury to craft your consequences to do the most good. I thought it was far mightier in those lower down the chain that dealt directly with whatever it is that required judgment and/or mercy in the first place.

Well this is how I feel as well. I am just a man, but sometimes mercy and or a good deed at the very least is all I might have to offer. Those further up the food chain don’t have that luxury, however. It falls to them to do what society wills. It’s not always compatable with what an individual might do. If they were to do what one person might do, how might justice always be served to the good of all?

Makes me want to give further consideration when I am wronged or might otherwise drop the dime on my fellow man.

If you come down to the river
Bet you gonna find some people who live
You don’t have to worry if you got no money
People on the river are happy to give

ISTM that people who don’t have much often share what they have. And I’ve noticed that people who have a lot often want to hold onto it. I’m thinking specifically of certain posters here who begrudge health care to people who can’t afford it because they fear they will lose their ‘gold pated’ insurance that they are able to afford on their own; but it’s a common theme in literature, Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, that the rich and powerful are often uncharitable.

It’s true that it’s easy to be merciful when it costs you little. But a mighty person may as easily, or more easily, demand prosecution to the letter of the law so as to instill fear and awe into those below him. Or, a mighty person may be of such a position that whether or not a low person receives mercy just doesn’t matter to him. So a mighty person showing compassion may be seen as being ‘like God’ or as being ‘good-hearted’ when he empathises with someone whom he thinks is deserving of it.

I think the mercy in the justice system should be that convicts are confined in a safe place (with plenty of guards) with decent food and medical care, and some voluntary training for rejoining society (where applicable). I don’t think their should be mandatory minimum sentences and all factors should be considered at sentencing.

But they should do their time.

*Do you think that mercy should season justice? *

No. Mercy should have been factored in at the legislative stage. Mercy at the justice stage is another name for weakness.

I think this has been said upthread, but I agree that justice and mercy are concepts that have nobility on an individual level.

But on an institutional level, they lose meaning due to the complexities involved in the bureaucratic process. I applaud Karyn for doing what she’s doing but again that’s at her level, not at the level of the whole institution.

Isn’t this exactly why we have varying degrees of the same crime - and the punishment they deserve - in the eyes of our judicial system? For example, murder is reprehensible, but there is involuntary manslaughter, manslaughter, and anywhere from third degree to first degree murder. Each type carrries with it a sentence that is seasoned with a predetermined amount of mercy. A crime is a crime is a crime, the humanity exists in determining the punishment deserved for the same crime in different circumstances.

Well, it’s also been said (by not very nice people) that mercy is a sign of weakness. But mercy isn’t part of the legislative stage simply because that process is too far removed from its application. With each step between the moral outrage that spawns a law to that law’s actual application the judicial process becomes increasingly automated. I think it makes sense to have a heart at the very end of the process to ensure that the initial outrage is still the issue that season’s the judge’s sentence. Sort of like a quality control inspector at the end of a production line who makes sure the end product meets the planned specs.

Thanks, but I quit that job in 2000 because I was getting burned out. Politicians were driving me nuts. I could have worked with homeless people forever and I still do a lot of volunteer work but it’s mostly by serving on nonprofit boards of directors or at the individual level.

It was easy for me to be merciful because I was at the top of the chain and could bend the rules at will, but more importantly I wasn’t tired and on the front lines dealing with petty problems all day long so that I could stay focused on the big picture of what the person needed to move past PITA status. If I made a bad call they were also the ones that were going to deal with the fallout. It was so much harder for the lower level staff to be merciful that when they did I found that far ‘mightier’ than any mercy that I could show. Most of them were homeless themselves and didn’t cut other homeless people much slack when it came to behavior. None of this would be practical or appropriate in a judicial process and I doubt that it could even translate into a large institutional environment where knowing the clients personally is impossible.

I’d agree with the poster that said that people who have less appear to share more. I think that once someone has faced true hunger with no access to food, exhaustion, hypothermia and constant fear they recognize it in others and step forward to help. On the nights that there weren’t going to be enough shelter beds for those on line they organized the line themselves so that families with children, seniors, disabled people and single women were at the front. There’s a different set of priorities at survival level.

A quality control inspector does not have the discretion to decide how good the quality is, his/her job is to enforce the level of quality set forth by others at the beginning of the process.