“Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss,” says the psalmist.  But mercy might involve remission of punishment.  Doesn’t that violate justice, which means giving each person what is due to him, honor for good, penalty for evil?

No, justice and mercy can be reconciled.  We can see how this is so by reflecting on the reasons why justice requires punishment in the first place.  Thomas Aquinas lists them as follows:

  • To correct the wrongdoer himself, “since the very fact that man endures toil and loss in sinning, is of a nature to withdraw man from sin.”
  • To correct others, “who seeing some men fall from sin to sin, are the more fearful of sinning.”
  • To relieve the person whom the wrongdoer has injured, “who is compensated by having his honor restored in the punishment of the man who has injured him.”

It follows that with although deserved punishment may not be lessened indiscriminately, it may be lessened, with no relaxation of justice, just to the degree that it does not impair these purposes.  One must never punish the wrongdoer more than he deserves – not even to correct him, to correct others, or to relieve the person whom he has injured.  But if the three conditions have been satisfied, then one may punish him less.

On the part of the human judge, then, the three conditions for mercy would seem to be as follows:

  • The judge must have well-grounded confidence that the wrongdoer has in fact been corrected.
  • He must have good reason to believe that lessening the wrongdoer’s punishment will not shock the community into carelessness about wrongdoing.
  • He must make sure that lessening the punishment will not mock the person who has been injured by treating his injury as though it did not matter.

Since mercy concerns not only the wrongdoer, but also the person whom he has injured as well as the community whose moral order he has disturbed, all three conditions must be satisfied.  The outcome may be to remit deserved punishment, remit part but not all of it, or decline to remit any of it -- depending.

When these three conditions are satisfied, then our justice and mercy can embrace.  Otherwise, we have only divorced them.

Related posts:

Have Mercy

Mean Moralists


Friedrich Nietzsche – And Why I Believe in Penance