‘Mercy’ by Alwynne Smart

Bryn Horner
3 min readNov 25, 2020

When should mercy be given? There are cases in which, according to Smart, that mercy should be taken in to consideration. However, there are also cases where it is not appropriate to give mercy to an offender. The example Smart gives in this case is relating to murder. According to our criminal justice system today, some types of murder are more wrong than others. A murder that is premeditated and calculated is very morally wrong, whereas a murder in which the situation involved a heat of the moment response may deserve mercy. To treat both of these situations with the same penalty “would be a great injustice, one into which the crudeness of the law would force us if there was no provision for mercy rider” (346). Smart continues on to state that there are many other instances that may change the severity of a crime. One may include the time one took to plan the crime, and how much time they had to understand the morality of their actions. Another may include where someone is from and to what extent they understood their action to be criminal. If an immigrant comes from a country that murder is a lesser offense, it would be unjust for him to be held to the same penalty as someone from a country that held the same legal penalty and standards and knew they’re wrongfulness. On a different note, Smart argues with the punishment of manslaughter. One man who gets in his car drunkenly, speeds, and knows his brakes aren’t working properly, and kills someone, should be held to a higher punishment than a sober man who accidentally did not stop when a child was running across the road. Our legal system still requires a minimum jail time, but Smart sees this as unjust because the circumstances were completely different. Mercy should be given to offenders that committed a crime but did not have evil intentions to do so. The law sometimes does not justly punish those under extreme circumstances, and Smart believes that punishment should be different for similar crimes under different circumstances.

In the second part Smart talks about genuine mercy and how we should not condone mercy. By condoning mercy, one is acting as if the crime did not matter and does not deserve punishment. By exercising mercy however, one is acknowledging the crime and providing a just punishment lesser than what is known for the reason of circumstances. Mercy according to Smart should be given “and might reasonably expect that the privilege of merciful treatment should be an extra reason why the man shouldn’t commit the same offence again in the future” (350). However, in some cases genuine mercy is inappropriate. An example of this is a case in which a habitual rapist shows no remorse. To show someone of this nature genuine mercy “would be immoral because it would be endangering others and would probably give the rapist the impression that his crime was not so very serious after all” (350). Granting mercy is good when necessary and logical, however, the system should not be merciful “at the cost of others” (350). Granting mercy is to cause the least amount of harm, and granting mercy to those who do not understand and feel remorse for their crime do not deserve mercy because they may continue to act out.

In the last section Smart focuses on what types of acts deserve mercy. He states that when taking parts one and two into consideration, “the number ofjustifiable instances diminishes considerably” (353). To begin, in a case in which the offender has innocent loved ones, there will always be harm caused. This is not a primary reason to grant mercy, however, in a case in which a fine given to the offender will cause great financial burden on his wife and children, it would be just to grant mercy. In another case, a new step father may grant mercy to his new son who did something bad, to avoid tarnishing their relationship. Overall, Smart focuses on the point that the punishment should always fit the crime. The punishment should always take into consideration what is just, and not just to punish. Smart takes up a utilitarian point of view to state that people should always advocate for whatever causes the least amount of harm. He also seems to reject the retributivist theory of “pointless suffering” (357). As long as the offender in question has shown remorse and understanding in what they have done, acknowledges their wrongdoing, and goes on to lead an innocent life, it would be just and acceptable to grant mercy in order to provide the most just punishment.

Smart, Alwynne. “Mercy.” Philosophy, vol. 43, no. 166, 1968, pp. 346–357., doi:10.1017/s0031819100062872.

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