Smart “Mercy” Type 1: Focused Summary

Kailey Houck
2 min readNov 24, 2020

Alwynne Smart addresses a topic not often mentioned in discussions of punishment, justice, and metaethics. Mercy plays a role in the discussion but is often overlooked. Smart explores the conditions where showing mercy is appropriate and circumstances where it is not.

The first section suggests that “showing mercy often turns out to be merely fitting the punishment to the crime where the law is too inflexible and unsophisticated to do so.” (349) Smart includes several examples of murder, all differing in how responsible the offender was for the death of another. In one case the driver was drunk and more to blame, and in another the driver was driving safely yet a pedestrian died as a result of a freak accident. Smart explains that each example warrants a different kind of mercy for different reasons.

The second section explains what Smart defines as “genuine mercy,” and explores situation where genuine mercy is not appropriate. Smart uses a biblical reference to describe genuine mercy, citing the quote “God have mercy upon us, miserable sinners.” (350) Genuine mercy could also be described as unconditional mercy. Smart then argues that this kind of mercy is at times immoral. She uses an example of a “habitual vicious rapist who shows no signs of repentance and reform” and argues that showing too much genuine mercy “would be immoral because it would be endangering others and would probably give the rapist the impression that his crime was not very serious after all.” (350) Following this line of argument, Smart explains that the notion of mercy is “somewhat unsatisfactory.” (352) However, she leads into the third section by stating that perhaps exercising mercy is equivalent to “showing a normal regard for morality and recognizing the legal code.” (353)

The third section combines the arguments from the first and section sections and “considers examples where mercy is justified and the kinds of reasons that make it justifiable.” (353) After combing through several examples — from a child misbehaving to a corporate disagreement — Smart concludes that there are two major views of the notion of mercy. Smart explains that “in most cases, acts of ‘mercy’ are simply measures by which we ensure that the punishment fits the crime.” (358) This view aligns with the first section’s explanation of mercy. Smart also explains that “we also think of mercy as benevolently reducing or waiving punishment.” (358) This view aligns with the second section’s explanation of genuine mercy. Smart states the her herself aligns more with the first, much more common view, and concludes that it supports a retributivist view of punishment.

Smart, Alwynne. “Mercy.” Philosophy, vol. 43, no. 166, 1968, pp. 345–359. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.