One of the defining virtues of our age is compassion. Compassion for the homeless and marginalised; compassion for the sick; compassion for persecuted minorities; compassion for the gay community, the LGTBTQI+ community, the transgender community, the African-American community, and any other community that finds itself in a group that could be discriminated against, marginalised, or disadvantaged by its social position.
What we know today as compassion, as the etymology suggests, entails “suffering with” another, “feeling another’s pain,” and being disposed to alleviate the suffering of another.
Compassion is a close cousin of the Christian virtue of mercy – welcoming a spiritually, emotionally, or physically vulnerable person into one’s life as a fellow child of God, or “brother or sister in Christ,” and being prepared to unconditionally minister to their needs. Compassion, freed from this theological baggage, is the logical substitute for mercy in a secularised culture.
Mercy was considered one of the most sublime and God-like virtues in Western Christendom. For example, medieval Christians would have had a tremendous amount of admiration for a powerful person who renounces his right, under the strict rigours of the law, to punish a wrong-doer. Similarly, it would have been considered the mark of a saint in such a society, for a person who by conventional standards owes a person in need nothing, to nonetheless treat that person like his or her own kin.
One does not need to have religious faith to grasp the tremendous power and charisma of mercy. Great acts of mercy can build lasting bonds of trust and goodwill; they can attenuate the strictures of human justice with the graces of a pardon or a second chance.
A society bereft of mercy would be a society torn apart by litigiousness and a small-minded, tit-for-tat sort of justice. An unmerciful society would be a cruel place for those who are powerless and marginalised, those to whom many people feel no instinctive bond of fraternity or affection.
A society without mercy would be a society without Mother Teresa of Calcutta; a society without soup kitchens; and a society without the possibility of rehabilitation and social acceptance for those who have wandered from the “straight and narrow” or fallen into delinquency, crime, or drug addiction.
One of my favourite images of mercy is the attitude of the bishop in Les Misérables toward the thief who has just shamelessly abused his kindness to rob his silverware. The bishop, who invited the thief into his home, wakes up to find his silverware gone, along with his ungrateful guest. But a police officer discovers the delinquent and drags him before the bishop, along with the stolen silverware.
The bishop now has the thief in his power: he has it in his power to justly send him to jail and strip him of his liberty. But instead, he pardons him and – as if that was not enough – hands over all of his remaining silverware to him. The extravagance of the bishop’s merciful gesture calls to mind the iconic image of the innocent God-man, hanging on a cross to redeem the very men who have condemned him to death.
This impressive virtue of mercy, epitomised in the figure of the merciful bishop in Les Miserables, and even more paradigmatically in the Christ figure, lives on in our secular culture, but often in a strange and twisted form.
Whereas mercy in the Christian tradition was understood to be directed to the good of the whole person, considered as an infinitely valuable member of a larger community, with a complex set of physical and spiritual needs, its more “lightweight” successor, which often goes by the name “compassion,” is frequently directed in a highly selective manner at this or that subset of the needs of particular individuals or groups, considered largely in abstraction from any larger conception of a well-lived human life, or any larger notion of the prosperity and flourishing of the wider human community.
The type of second-grade mercy currently in vogue in Western societies is typically motivated by a visceral emotion such as guilt, pity or fear. This sort of mercy is highly emotive, reactive, anxiety-ridden, and one-dimensional rather than serene, creative, pondered, reflective, and open to the full weight of reality.
A virtue dripping in emotion and uncontrolled by reason is not a real virtue at all: in fact, it will tend to react slavishly to whatever plays upon the emotions or tugs at the heart-strings. Some needs of some persons will be felt as urgent and pressing, while other needs or persons will not even be noticed, just because they are not emotionally salient.
One clear example of this decadent mercy is “mercy killings” of sick and depressed patients. Here, we rationalise the termination of a human life in the name of compassion, opening the door to a society that equates the value of a human life with a person’s subjective self-esteem and sense of purpose. On this logic, the job of a psychiatrist or counselor, when confronted with a suicidal patient, should not be to bring them consolation and help them rediscover the value of life, but help them put an end to it all.
Another striking example of decadent mercy is the effort to create “safe spaces” in universities in which students are not subject to language or discourse they might find “offensive” – as though the purpose of a university education was to protect people from having their moral and political sensibilities offended, rather than prepare them to think for themselves.
Similarly, it is an unreflective, reactionary mercy that moves somebody to lock healthy populations in their homes, in the mistaken belief that this will stop people from getting sick and dying, thereby inflicting massive collateral harms on the population, such as increased depression, loneliness, and vulnerability to domestic abuse.
Each of these cases involves a shallow and misguided attempt to alleviate the suffering or needs of another, in a way that is highly selective, highly conditioned by an emotional reaction, and largely unresponsive to broad ethical and scientific considerations. I will leave it up to my readers’ imagination to think of other cases.
Those who are motivated by decadent mercy may well feel better about themselves after they have made a compassionate intervention in the life of another. But whether or not the intervention makes the world a better place, or even genuinely improves the lot of another, is largely down to chance, since serious rational reflection and a holistic assessment of the consequences of one’s actions are largely absent.
Decadent mercy derives its popular appeal from its resemblance, however imperfect, to genuine mercy. We need to be able to tell the difference between the two, if we are to limit the potential damages of misguided, harmful, and unreflective interventions in the lives of others.