Cucumbers and Grapes: Mercy v. Justice, 2

Mercy is something bestowed by someone in a position of power – whether divine or human:
  • The criminal court judge pronouncing sentence upon the convicted might be said to exercise mercy.
  • A soldier victorious in battle might or might not show mercy to the vanquished.
  • A person of wealth who controls resources that can make or break another’s livelihood may choose to be merciful.
Another way of saying uncompelled and unconstrained is to say the option of mercy arises from being in a position of power in relation to someone else.
Each of us finds ourselves in various positions where we can exercise what power we have to "demand our due" -- or, mercifully, let it go.

Mercy belongs to a constellation of related concepts: Mercy, compassion, forgiveness, grace. Mercy:
  • is a kind of compassion because it extends a kindness and flows out of a sense of shared pain.
  • takes the form of forgiveness when it involves forgiving a wrong rather than demanding painful restitution.
  • is a kind of grace because it is unearned and undeserved.
If something nice comes to you when you didn’t deserve it, that’s grace. If something unpleasant is lifted when you did deserve it, that’s mercy.

Mercy and justice are yin and yang, requiring balance. Too much mercy and there’s no enforcement of justice. If contracts are never enforced, no one will enter into contracts – including ultimately, the social contract – and society falls apart. If our children – or we ourselves -- were always spared any unpleasant consequences of their actions, they won’t learn – or we won’t maintain -- the skills and habits of responsibility. “Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy,” said Shakespeare in a different play.

Our impulse for fairness, though, can sometimes get a little strange.

Our ideas of fairness are rooted in being a social animal. Our brains are built to pay careful attention to the social scene. When distribution of desirable things is under social control, it behooves us to pay sharp attention to who gets what and to exert energies to get what we think of as “our share.” This has deep roots in our evolutionary past.

In one study, two monkeys were in adjacent plexiglass containers. They could see each other. They’d been trained in using a supply of little chits to buy food.

They reach through a hole, hand the human a chit, and the human will take it, and hand them back a bit of food. Sometimes they might get a bit of cucumber. Cucumber is OK. The monkeys will take the cucumber and eat it. Sometimes they get a grape. Grapes are great. The monkeys like the grapes a lot better than the cucumber. The cucumber is acceptable, but the grape is mwah!

But remember, the monkeys can see each other. If monkey A sees monkey B get a grape in exchange for a chit, and monkey A hands over a chit and only gets a bit of cucumber, there’s going to be some protest about that. They don't speak English, but it's clear what the content of the protest is: "That’s not fair! He got a grape! Where’s my grape?" The slighted monkey will become agitated and howl. I saw some video of this experiment. The monkey takes that bit of cucumber and throws it back at the human. The cucumber which a minute before had been perfectly acceptable is now despised.

The need to be treated fairly is a deep need. We can calmly accept deprivation if others are, too.

In another study, two chimps are in adjacent cages. One of them – only one -- can reach a table of food and can choose to share that food with the other chimp or not. The other chimp can’t reach the food and can’t compel sharing, but does have access to a rope attached to a table leg, and can collapse the whole table. If the first chimp doesn’t share with the second chimp, the second chimp will jump and scream and about half the time will upset the table so that neither of them get any of the food. (See: "The Bright Side of Spite Revealed")

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Mercy v. Justice"
Next: Part 3: The Unique and the Recurrent
Previous: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo credit: Keith Jensen, et al.

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