Hello. Once again, not much to report going on at home. It seems like lately it takes the better part of the evening just to get my basic stuff done, which doesn't leave a lot of time for just relaxing ("basic stuff" = working out, taking the dog for a walk, watering the plants a bit, getting something to eat for dinner, plus laundry or any other random errands I need to accomplish). I don't know what's going on, but lately it feels like the time is just flying by faster than usual.
Has anyone else been watching these Stephen Colbert episodes that he's filming with the troops in Iraq? They've been really funny and good, and it's nice to see an entertainer who typically gets categorized as "liberal" (even though he plays a satirical character who's an egocentric right wing TV personality) going out of his way to support the troops and to remind everyone that we still have military forces who are in harm's way over there in Iraq (Colbert has repeatedly pointed out that the media seems to have all but forgotten about our troops in Iraq, having shifted their focus to other issues like Afghanistan, North Korea, and the recession). Anyway, not only is Colbert doing a good job of shining some light on this issue, but the episodes are really funny.
Now here's a weird tangent. File this under "Steanso Goes Off the Deep End":
I was just joking around with a couple of defense attorneys the other day right after I got to court, getting myself organized and ready to discuss cases, and by way of getting our work going for the morning I asked the casual (and kind of smartass) question, "Who's ready for some justice?"
One of the defense attorneys, looking at me completely straightfaced and staring me in the eye, responded, "Oh, no. We're not here for justice. We're here for mercy."
We all had a good chuckle and went on about our business, but later as I walked back to my office, that offhand comment sort of got me thinking about mercy as a philosophical concept, and what exactly it entails.
The whole idea of justice is sort of premised upon the idea that the people enforcing the law will be objective, impartial, and treat all people equally (don't get all worked up- I 'm stating an ideal here, and I know that our ideals are lived up to with varying degrees of success). Anyway, the justice system is made up of laws and appropriate punishments for breaking those laws, and in order for society to remain confidence in the integrity of the system, it's important to enforce those laws in a way which doesn't give preferential treatment to people on the basis of wealth, social status, race, religion, whether or not the accused individual happens to know the prosecutor or judge, or any other irrelevant factors. (once again- this is the ideal)
But even within our ideal system, we have this sort of nebulous concept of mercy. Mercy is a really old, longstanding concept which involves leniency in punishment for a person who is acknowledged as guilty. Webster's dictionary defines mercy as "compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power ; also : lenient or compassionate treatment."
So we've got this concept of a justice system and an understanding that punishment should be equal and more or less without exception or special treatment, but we also have this longstanding, widely accepted notion that sometimes we should give a particular person special leniency and not really treat that person in the same way as similarly situated individuals.
Some might argue that mercy is something that simply refers to the act of taking special circumstances and mitigating factors into account when deciding punishment (i.e., "I was stealing food, but only to feed my starving family," or "I assaulted that man, but only because he's been abusing me my entire life."). I don't really think that a consideration of mitigating factors constitutes mercy, though. Mitigation should, in my mind, be part of the consideration involved in determining an appropriate sentence, and therefore mitigation (at least in my mind) falls more squarely within the proper administration of justice itself (aggravating factors such as the presence of a lengthy criminal record play a roll as well). Sentences should take certain external issues into account when sentences are decided in order to reach a just result.
In my mind, mercy feels like something different. Mercy involves the situation where a person is clearly guilty and is seeking a punishment which is less severe than the person deserves, even after you've taken mitigating factors into account. (or to understand things in terms of the Webster's definition, mercy involves people who are subject to the power of the court- typically because they've broken a law- and a plea for exceptional compassion or forebearance from what might typically be considered the appropriate punishment.)
From a logic standpoint, I have a hard time with the idea of mercy. How do you know when it's appropriate? What makes it appropriate for one individual, but not another? How many times can a law enforcement official indulge in acts of mercy before the act of granting it begins to undermine the foundational principles of justice (i.e., how many exceptions can you make before people being to question your impartiality, and, therefore, the integrity of the system as a whole)? Is mercy just about letting people off the hook because you feel like it? Is a plea for mercy just an appeal to the touchy feelie side of one's emotions, or is it something that's more substantial from a logical point of view? (you can always just "go with your gut" or try to do whatever feels right, but I don't have a lot of confidence in that sort of decision making. I think that relying on emotion too often ends up resulting in disproportionate leniency for people who are wealthy, attractive, well dressed, have agreeable personalities, or people that we simply relate to as being "more like us" than people that we don't relate to as well. Many of these factors which tend to sway us emotionally shouldn't really be relevant to guilt or punishment.)
I guess part of what I can't come to terms with about the whole concept of mercy is its impact upon the people to whom mercy is not shown. How is it fair that two people commit the same crime and one person receives a lesser sentence because he or she benefits from a showing of mercy while the other individual does not? In effect, the person not shown mercy is being punished more severely for the same crime, right? How is that fair? Also, it seems like there's some kind of slippery slope argument that's appilcable when it comes to mercy. You show "mercy" to enough people, and suddenly it's not mercy anymore- it's the new standard for what constitutes a just result.
Anyway, I'm not bringing up this stuff because I have any real answers. I'm really bringing the issue up because the more that I've thought about the idea of mercy, the more it feels strange and difficult to get my head around in terms of real world application (which seems sort of important, especially when you work as a prosecutor). Mercy is a word that we're all familiar with and hear from the time of childhood, but I just don't think it's really clear what it means or what the motivation for it should be.
I mean, I don't really want to be a person who's without mercy or merciless, but on the other hand, I want to be fair to everyone, and it seems really hard to know where mercy fits into the equation.
Like I said, I don't have a lot of answers, but I think this mercy thing is an interesting question.