Ned Markosian has a new paper about mercy in the latest issue of The Philosophical Quarterly. I was struck by several things about the paper. I'll discuss one of those things in this post. A few near-future posts will discuss other points.
Here's the first thing that struck me. I was surprised that, though he seems to give a pretty complete account as to what all the important views are viz a viz the analysis of mercy, not one of them explicitly takes the agent's own beliefs or intentions into account. For example, one account he calls the Rights Account of Mercy goes like this:
RAM: x is merciful to y at t =def there are two alternative acts, A and B, available x at t such that (i) x performs A, (ii) x's performing B would have resulted in more harm to y than x's performing A, (iii) x is motivated by compassion for y to choose A over B, and (iv) x had a right to perform B.
(Basically this is saying an act is merciful if the person performing the act had a right to act more severely but chose not to out of compassion.)
If I had tried to come up with an account of mercy prior to reading this paper, it would have been along the lines of RAM. But I would have thought it necessary to formulate the account, not in terms of whether B really does result in more harm, or whether x really does have a right to perform B, but rather, in terms of whether x thinks B would result in more harm and whether x thinks he has a right to perform B. In other words, it appears my first inclination is toward a kind of "internalism" about mercy.
To illustrate, let's take one of the cases discussed in the paper:
Case 1: A judge is sentencing a convicted thief. The law calls for anywhere from five to ten years in prison. The judge, moved by compassion for the thief, sentences her to five years.
Most people call Case 1 an instance of mercy, as do I. But change the scenario a bit:
Case 1a: A judge is sentencing a convicted thief. The law calls for a sentence of exactly five years. However, the judge believes the law calls for a sentence of anywhere from five to ten years. The judge, moved by compassion for the thief, sentences her to five years.
In Case 1a, I would have said the judge's decision is a merciful one. But on every account given in the paper, it would appear that the decision is not merciful, because the judge actually was not allowed to give a harsher sentence. I am a little surprised by this.
Markosian makes a remark near the beginning of his paper to the effect that he's analyzing the mercifulness of actions, not mercifulness as a character trait. Maybe it could be suggested that I'm mistaking my evaluation of the judge's character with an evaluation of the judge's action. But I don't think so—I don't just claim that the judge is a merciful person. I evaluate that the action itself as a successfully merciful act. Certainly the judge's intentions are part of what leads me to evaluate the act as merciful, but that does not make it any less an evaluation of the act.
Having said this, however, I do suspect that thinking about what it means for a person (as opposed to an action) to be merciful may push us into an account of merciful actions which differs from that offered by Markosian or any of the authors he discusses. But that is for a near-future post. For the moment I'm interested in what people think about my claim that agent intentions must figure into an account of merciful action, and I'm also interested to find out whether there are such accounts on the books already. Markosian's article doesn't seem to mention any, but are there others? Or is the question of agent intention covered in the discussion Markosian is alluding to, but simply lies outside the scope of the point he himself is trying to make?