Forgiveness and mercy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K024-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

1. Forgiveness and mercy analysed

Forgiveness and mercy are typically regarded as virtues. As virtues, they represent moral demands that may not be satisfied by actions alone, but require certain motives or dispositions of character. Obligations are different; the obligation to keep a promise has been discharged when the promise is kept, whatever the motive. The virtue of mercy is not manifested merely in an act of leniency, however, but only if that act flows from a character motivated by compassion or some other appropriate motive (love of God, perhaps). The forgiving or merciful person will typically respond to others in characteristic ways, of course, and the person receiving the response might well claim to have been forgiven or shown mercy. Ordinary language is not always precise here. What has been done exemplifies a virtue, however, only if it is the product of a merciful or forgiving heart.

With respect to forgiveness, the disposition of heart may be all that is required. Bishop Butler, one of the most insightful of all philosophical writers on forgiveness, characterized the forgiving person simply as one who has, on moral or religious grounds, forsworn resentment – forsworn the very personal response of anger or sometimes even hatred that one naturally (and perhaps properly) initially feels when one believes that one has been wronged by another. The person who no longer resents will obviously avoid certain actions – namely, those without any basis other than resentment. Since grounds other than resentment may be the basis for harsh treatment of a wrongdoer, however, the demand for harsh treatment may well survive even a sincere and complete act of forgiveness. It would be consistent, for example, for a rape victim to forgive the person who has assaulted her – to harbour no resentment at all – but still demand that he be legally punished. She might make this demand not because of any residual anger or hatred that she personally feels, but rather because she believes that punishment (for reasons of crime control, perhaps) is a socially necessary response to such serious rights violations. The person truly manifesting the virtue of forgiveness is not to be confused with the unvirtuous person who is indifferent to or complicitous in wrongdoing, and who is willing to cooperate in the further corruption of the wrongdoer or of the life of the community.

Although a good case can be made that forgiveness may be understood solely in terms of such internal dispositions as the forswearing of resentment, mercy seems different in at least two important ways: first, the person in a position to bestow mercy (for example, a judge) need not have been personally wronged and thus need not have any feelings of resentment to overcome through forgiveness; and second, although mercy as a virtue necessarily involves dispositions of character (such as compassion), it also requires – in a way that forgiveness does not – a public manifestation. One can forgive another in one’s heart of hearts, but one cannot show mercy to another in one’s heart of hearts. This is because mercy has its primary life in an institutional context (typically, but not necessarily, legal) where one has the right or duty to inflict a certain level of harsh treatment on another, but refuses to do so, imposing instead a less harsh treatment or no harsh treatment at all.

Because mercy necessarily involves a mitigation or abandonment of hard treatment, it may easily be confused with mere leniency. When the fallen knight begs for mercy, he knows that the rules of chivalric combat give the victor the right to kill the vanquished and he is asking that the victor waive that right. If the victor does waive it, and spares the life of the vanquished, we may say – speaking casually – that mercy was shown, because ordinary language often allows us to confuse mercy with leniency. Surely, however, the victor reveals the virtue of mercy only if he acts from such an appropriate motive as compassion or love of God. Or consider, in a legal context, an example from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: when Isabella begs Angelo to show mercy to her brother Claudio, Angelo’s false promise to free Claudio in exchange for sexual intercourse with Isabella is an insincere offer of leniency, but no kind of an offer of mercy in any sense in which mercy may be regarded as a virtue.

But are forgiveness and mercy properly regarded as virtues? They are both responsive, in a moral or legal context, to genuine cases of wrongdoing for which the wrongdoer is responsible. In this they are unlike both excuse and justification, concepts with which they are sometimes confused. The person with a valid excuse (insanity, perhaps) is not responsible for wrongdoing. The person with a valid justification (self-defence, perhaps) establishes that, initial appearances to the contrary, there was (all things considered) no ultimate wrongdoing. In these cases there is nothing to resent and nothing for which to demand punishment or other harsh treatment, and thus the avoidance of resentment and demands for harsh treatment is obviously required by elementary rationality and justice. Forgiveness and mercy, however, get their main life in cases where there is wrongdoing for which the wrongdoer is responsible, and thus where either resentment or the demand for punishment might well seem justified. But this is what makes both forgiveness and mercy problematic candidates for moral virtues: they demand that we avoid psychological responses and actions that seem not only understandable, but perhaps actually justified by a proper respect for rights and justice.

Citing this article:
Murphy, Jeffrie G.. Forgiveness and mercy analysed. Forgiveness and mercy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K024-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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