Justice, Mercy, and Definitions

Sometimes I like to think about the concept of justice. Specifically, what IS justice, really? And related to that, what is mercy? I plan to get more concrete about these ideas in application to the real world at a later point – right now I just want to keep things more conceptual.

There seems to be an idea, at least in the US, that justice = punishment. We achieve justice by punishing the people who do bad things. I grew up in a conservative christian denomination, and punishment was a VERY big thing in that. Punishment and justice were words that were used practically interchangeably. 

In more examples that I can’t find the source for because it was all from many years ago, I used to occasionally read a blog by an autistic pastor. In one blog he posted a sermon he gave regarding two values that he considered particularly important to christians – justice and mercy. The question was could they coincide simultaneously. The conclusion was they could not. What really stuck out to me when I read it was that he never actually tried to define “justice” for his audience. Instead, it was simply treated as a given that justice means punishment. It was also treated as a given that mercy means refraining from punishment. Since mercy would mean less punishment, and punishment would mean less justice, they two must be at odds.

I’ve seen the same concept come from atheists as well. Even up to one atheist declaring “Mercy is, definitionally, the suspension of justice.”

Needless to say, I find these definitions VERY limiting.

So I say, let’s go to the dictionary! What does dictionary.com have to say about justice and punishment?

Justice:

  1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness:
  2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason:
  3. the moral principle determining just conduct.
  4. conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment:
  5. just treatment of all members of society with regard to a specified public issue, including equitable distribution of resources and participation in decision-making (usually used in combination):
  6. the administering of deserved punishment or reward.

Now all of this is absolutely fascinating to me. So many definitions! And despite the fact that (in my area of the world) people treat justice as simply being punishment as a default, it doesn’t show up on the list until definition six. SIX! 

Beyond that, justice seems to be about our conduct. Our actions. Our choices. So justice might be punishing a robber. But it could just as easily be making sure that robbery never happens in the first place. This is where phrases like disability justice, health justice, environmental justice, etc come in. 

And then there’s mercy. Once again, going to the dictionary:

Mercy:

  1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence:
  2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing:
  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:
  5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing:

The mitigation of punishment miiiight be seen in definition 1, but we only see it for sure in definition 3. Otherwise, going by these definitions, mercy can be seen as acting just compassion and benevolence toward people. Maybe those who are against us, but also maybe everyone. And by that way of looking at it, we can absolutely have mercy and justice coincide.

It is both merciful AND just to create accommodations for disabled people so we have the same access to things as abled people do. 

It is both merciful AND just to create a world where no one faces the choice of stealing food or going hungry. 

I feel a little uncomfortable bringing up examples because they could be seen as “political” and I’ve generally tried to keep politics off of this blog. In this case, though, it’s necessary. This is a topic that matters to me, and how we, as a society, conceptualize justice directly impacts how we make our laws. How we structure our society. The systems we put in place, and the systems we do not. 

That is why it matters so much. Thinking about what justice is on a conceptual scale is how we decide how we implement justice in the real world. Personally, I think justice needs to begin well before we reach the point of punishment. 

3 Comments

Filed under opinion

3 responses to “Justice, Mercy, and Definitions

  1. Second attempt.

    It could – and maybe should [?] – begin at the point of impulse.

    This applies to justice and to mercy.

    I have been reading about evolution and neurology both demanding proportion in punishment.

    I too have been reading Autistic pastors, ministers and priests.

    Mercy to me is an expression and amplification of justice – as well as a motivation to use it.

    When we talk about principles – like the 3rd and 4th definition of justice that you use.

    When someone cannot act or choose they are still subject to justice.

    They can receive the kindness and favour which is characteristic of mercy.

  2. Anna

    Thank you for this post! That multiplicity of definitions — which of course dictionaries present based on real life usage — definitely shows how very differently people (English-speakers in this case) think about justice.

    I agree that mercy and justice can absolutely coincide. It seems to me that punishing wrongdoing is only one aspect of justice. I think mercy is actually another aspect of justice, another choice we have when we are in a position to respond to wrongdoing or harm — whether it’s a matter of considering what to do about an already perpetrated act, or setting up the conditions to prevent future wrongdoing and harm.

    Have you read Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”? It’s a profound meditation on these concepts, from the author’s experience as a defense attorney and human rights activist.

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