The Ethics Of… Mercy

Well, they shot ‘em. After months and months of diplomatic wrangling, media hyperventilating, expert analysis and popular campaigning, the entire saga of the Bali 9 ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, ended quite anti-climactically really. Bang, bang, dead, dead and we all apparently just moved on.

It’s been a strange time here in Australia, watching as two guys who conspired to import 8kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia, were elevated from a couple of minor scumbags into (depending on who you talked to) either posterboys for rehabilitation and the evils of capital punishment, or the human incarnations of Satan who can’t be executed fast enough.

For those that oppose capital punishment, Sukumaran and Chan suddenly became a convenient excuse to campaign against it, and as a result, they inevitably started to become the focal point of the campaign. Sure the two of them were clearly guilty and should definitely face consequences, but look at all the work they’ve done to rehabilitate themselves! They’ve started running art classes to help the other prisoners recover, bringing valuable resources into an impoverished legal system! They’ve turned over a new leaf! Can’t you see that, even though the death penalty is wrong even for the most evil criminals, these guys are actually reformed now? And surely that just adds extra weight to the demand that they be spared?

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Just look at that face! Could you really shoot that face in the face?

Other commentators brought Sukumaran and Chan’s families into the debate, pointing out the suffering they were going through as their brothers/sons/uncles awaited execution, encouraging us to imagine how we would feel in that situation. Still others fell back on the good old patriotism card and argued that ‘no Australian citizen should ever be executed under any circumstances!’, demanding that our governments do whatever it took to prevent the killings – so popular is this opinion that the Australian Federal Police have repeatedly been criticised for cooperating with Indonesian authorities in getting Sukumaran and Chan arrested. How could Australian authorities do that when they should have known that the death penalty was the inevitable outcome for two Australian citizens?

All of this essentially cumulated into one simple demand: have mercy.

We know they did the wrong thing, we know that your laws say they should die, we know that they were aware of that before they committed the crime, and (most of us) know that we have no real right to demand that you alter your laws because foreigners want you to.

But please; spare them anyway. Not because we want you to, or because they deserve it; have mercy because you’re better than that.

Mercy is defined as showing compassion or forgiveness to someone who it is within your power to punish. More specifically, it is forgiveness to someone who has definitely done something wrong, who you absolutely have the right to punish, but showing that person forgiveness anyway.

I’ve written here before that if you were to ask your average person ‘how do you decide what is right and what is wrong?’, 90% of the time the answer you’ll get back is a set of rules; things you should do, and thing you shouldn’t do. And when it comes to these sort of ethical codes, Mercy is generally something that rates very highly on people’s ‘Should do’ list. In fact, mercy is such a good moral quality in people that we generally don’t even expect it of each other; in the circumstances where your worst enemy is lying at your feet, finally defeated and within your power to punish them for all their wrongs, we generally accept that showing them mercy might be beyond most people – but those that can show restraint, rise above the petty mortal need for vengeance, and show forgiveness on a vanquished foe? Those are the very best of people.

This trope is littered throughout popular culture, from the tales of King Arthur and chivalry, to quite a number of religious figures, right through to pretty much every hero movie you’ve ever watched. Remember that cop show or superhero film where the guy finally caught the villain, and he was all like “Imma shoot you!”, and you were all like “Yeah! Finish him off!” and the villain was like “No please don’t do it!”, and then at the last second the cop was like, “No! I won’t do it! Because I’m better than you”, and we were all like “Woooooaaah, that’s a good dude. I totally woulda shot that guy”.

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So pretty much every one of those shows, ever.

In real life of course, we don’t expect people to be merciful, but we definitely celebrate those that do show it. If the partner you loved was ripped from you in possibly the most horrific way, raped and killed by a monster, would you be able to rise above the extremely understandable desire for vengeance? Would you use the devastating loss, not to call for the murderer’s head on a plate, but rather to encourage better understanding of why such crimes happen?

Mercy is the quality that elevates a person beyond ‘good but flawed’ to true ‘paragon of virtue status’. After all, as the saying goes

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You know what else is really note-worthy about mercy? It’s really really really stupid.

Let me ask you a question here: if you were in charge of sentencing Sukumaran and Chan, what sort of punishment would you set them? Now everyone will have a different answer for this, but we can all agree that the sentence you personally set would be the one you think most just, right? I mean it’s not like you’d determine the future of two people’s life with a list and some darts, is it? I mean, even if you did, you’d only do so because you thought that would be the best way to do it, right?

So let’s imagine you’ve come up with your sentence and you think it’s the best one available. But what if someone were now approach you and ask you to ‘have mercy’ on these criminals? Appeal to your morality and ask that, while you absolutely do have the right to judge them, and even though they are not worthy of it, to take the high road anyway and be merciful. What would you do? Ignore this heartfelt plea and continue with the punishment you think right? Or rise above, show mercy and reduce your sentence in pursuit of the great ideal of mercy?

Phrased like this, the choice of mercy can indeed seem compelling, especially when we’ve all grown up hearing of it as such a high and wonderful ideal. But consider what you’re being asked to do here: take the sentence that you’d already come up with, the best solution to the problem you could come up with in consideration of all the evidence… and discard it. To choose a lesser sentence over the most just one you could come up with.

If you do this, there are three and only three outcomes:

  1. Your original sentence was already too weak, and by showing mercy you just made it even weaker – ineffective at resolving the problem and just leaving it fester and worsen over time.
  2. Your original sentence was too harsh, and by showing mercy you have simply decreased it to a just result – which is to say the result you should have come up with if you had paid better attention to the evidence available. Or;
  3. You original sentence was just; the best solution for the problem based on the evidence available. And by showing mercy you just weakened it.

Now looking at these option it’s clear that situation 1 and 3 are not appropriate times to show mercy anyway, right? Surely it’s only when you’ve been too harsh in the first place that mercy is relevant – which is exactly the situation Sukumaran and Chan face with the death penalty; a brutal and ineffective method of solving the problem of drug smuggling. But again, consider what it is that mercy is actually asking of you – not a reconsideration of the evidence at hand, not a critique of the reasoning you used, not even an opposing idea like ‘human life is sacred’. Nah, all mercy is asking of you is a decrease in the sentence you have posed, completely without regard for anything involved.

Even in outcome number 2 where the request for mercy actually does lead to a more just outcome (and how hard would it be to make the distinction between ‘slightly too harsh’ and ‘perfectly just’ do you reckon?) then it’s still achieving this good outcome is a really really REALLY stupid way – kind of like closing your eyes while driving and by pure luck not crashing into anything. No matter how lucky you got, that sort of blind, dumb luck is not a good way to navigate. And that is exactly the case when it comes to using mercy to decide on people’s fate.

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So far so good!

Remember earlier how I said that 90% of people tend to decide on what is right and wrong using a set of rules to guide them? This stuff is good, this stuff is bad? Well our cultural love for ‘mercy’ is a damn good example of why that is generally a really bad way of doing ethics. Instead of looking at the facts in front of us and making good decision based on the best possible outcome, we hold on tightly to simple concepts that feel good, even if they lead to crappy outcomes, or don’t even make sense at all.

If you relied on mercy when it came to deciding what to do with Sukumaran and Chan, then odds are you are going to make a mistake. More than likely you’d fall into the same trap so many commentators on the topic have so far, and start to feel sorry for the two criminals simply because they had received a death sentence – a fact that you might notice had sweet bugger all to do with either their guilt or a what should have be done with them. Just because I don’t support the death penalty does not mean I support them, think they’re any less guilty or any less than terrible people for importing a deadly addictive substance purely for profit. And sure, their families may now be grieving and that is indeed very sad. But once again, you know what that has to do with the decision about what should have been done with Sukumaran and Chan? SWEET BUGGER ALL.

In the end, I do oppose the Indonesian government’s decision to execute these smugglers, but I do so purely because the evidence shows capital punishment is an ineffective and brutal method of solving crime. And while I despise the sentence, I in fact applaud the Indonesian government for not bowing to the many calls that they ‘have mercy’ on these two criminals, for such demands are as simplistic and meaningless as the same cries that were heard from different quarters, demanding that they be killed ‘as an example’ or ‘for justice’.

Justice is the process of determining and then applying the best possible solution to a problem. This is best achieved when we consider all the evidence available in front of us and apply good quality logic to it. Just like all ethics, it is a process best done coldly, not passionately. Despite what we have been brought up to believe about merciful heroes, all too often that sort of story ends up with a knife in your back (and no miraculous last-minute save to vindicate you). When it comes to deciding how to treat others, no matter what the circumstance, the question you should ask is not ‘should I be merciful’, but simply ‘what is best’.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Mercy

  1. Once again a very well written piece! I often get into arguments with people who call out for the death’s of criminals of violent crime. In some ways I can understand being upset, but not to the point where they seem to want vengeance themselves. Even though they are in no way related to the crime. Of course they simply could be imagining what they would want if a loved one of theirs was affected, but it isn’t. And so I can understand not having the capacity of mercy if someone has committed a horrible act against you or a loved one, but that really should be up to them. I don’t blame people who are deeply affect by such crimes for calling for that persons death. I don’t think it will really easy their pain, or solve any problems in the future, but it’s understandable. But it’s amazing how many people, totally unaffected, call for the gallows.

    I was initially thinking I was on the side of mercy as I read your post but in the end you convinced me that I’m not. lol Here’s why. lol I am a merciful person, but I do also believe strongly in following the rules. As a professor, mercy is a lot about bending the rules. As you say going outside what the rules call for. When you do that as a professor you get into some hot water. You risk A) People who definitely don’t deserve mercy to expect the rules be bent for them also and B) People find out you’re a pushover and walk all over you. So I stick to my rules. Now if I determine that my rules are unduly punishing people then I will adjust my rules…for next time I teach the course. I’d like to think I’m the Jean Luc Picard of professors. lol So I think when it comes to compassion and forgiveness, this is an idea we should have in our hearts when we make the rules. But once the rules are in place, we should follow them. And if we found out we were too weak or too harsh we work to change the rules. That seems the most sensible way to operate.

    • Hey Swarn, thanks for the comment! Yeah it’s kinda disturbing isn’t it when people get enraged about punishing a criminal they’ve never met, let alone understand. I think a lot of it comes down to our tendency to think of things as good versus evil – good is rewarded, evil is punished. As we’ve discussed before, these concepts are simplistic to say the least, and ignore all the many reasons people do terrible thing, but the nice black & whiteness of good and evil is very compelling, especially if you’re upset.

      I agree with what you say about have consistent rules and improving those rules rather than bending them, but honestly I reckon you can ethically bend rules as well – I just think that the decision to do so should be based on whether it will lead to a superior outcome, rather than whether you feel sorry for someone, or are worried about how it will make them feel.

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