15 November, 2019 • • 40.8PhilosophyPolitics

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No Mercy

Daniel Kodsi

Malcolm Bull
On Mercy
Princeton University Press



There is, inevitably, a certain amount of apprehension that any philosopher feels in picking up a work of philosophy by a non-philosopher. The exercise is guaranteed to be thought-provoking—the question is what kind of thoughts, exactly, it will provoke. In On Mercy, Malcolm Bull, Professor of Art and the History of Ideas at Oxford, offers an intriguing and erudite defence of mercy as a ‘political virtue’. Theorists as diverse as Seneca, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Judith Shklar, and Bernard Williams populate just one chapter of Bull’s essay—or perhaps I should say, as historically diverse, since they are united by an attitude that has, following Williams, come to be known as political realism. Political realism is a notoriously tricky view to define (and hence, its critics might add, to refute), but it may be characterised, negatively, by an opposition to ideal theory and to moralism, and, positively, by its professed commitment to a realistic understanding of power and the practice of politics. 

Bull represents himself as operating within this tradition: his proposal is to conceive of political authority as flowing from the exercise of mercy, which is indeed about as realist a virtue as there is. It should also seem, however, a highly peculiar virtue to emphasise, in Williams’ phrase, “now and around here”, not least for its unattractively religious undertones. (Wasn’t the relation between justice and mercy, a topic that Bull briefly treats, a problem that disappeared along with the problem of evil?) Conceptualising politics in terms of mercy seems not unlike conceptualising sex in terms of chastity, or society in terms of honour relations. It used to be done, and I suppose can technically be done again, but surely for us to do so would be highly artificial. By all appearances, mercy, like chastity or honour, has its place in somebody else’s ethical scheme—not ours, or our grandparents’, or even our grandparents’ grandparents’. This book certainly makes an interesting effort to rehabilitate it. But I am afraid that, if it succeeds at anything, it is at demonstrating how thoroughly ill-suited mercy is to be a virtue for the modern world. 

I will cut to the chase. The lacuna in Bull’s argument shows up in a very clear form towards the end of Chapter 1, which traces a line from Seneca to Bernard Williams. According to Seneca, Bull explains, the difference between monarchy and tyranny consisted in the mercy of the ruler. Williams is claimed to have asked a similar question: “what makes the difference between war and politics within the state?”. And, having raised doubts about (what he characterises as) Williams’ answer to this question, Bull proposes that we should give the same response as Seneca:

The difference between a king and a tyrant is not their claim to royal legitimacy (that is the difference between a king and a usurper), but rather their actions. And if it is mercy that makes the difference, then any answer… cannot but be a restatement of Seneca’s original argument.

But the inference in this paragraph is simply a mistake—indeed, one to which Williams himself would have been particularly hostile. That mercy should be determinative of a state’s (il)legitimacy, when the state is a ruler, does not imply that mercy is similarly determinative under vastly different historical circumstances. A crucial aspect of the political realist programme—or at least, one of the slogans by which it defines itself—is an insistence on awareness of one’s highly particular and contingent political situation. Political realists’ demand for political theory to start with politics is not merely a demand to use distinctively political concepts—it is also a demand to use those concepts which are appropriate to the distinctive political world in which we find ourselves.

This methodological principle is moreover manifest in Williams’ formulation of what he calls the “Basic Legitimation Demand” (BLD)—a demand, he argues, that arises whenever one party claims authority over another, in the sense of claiming that the latter group would be wrong to resist coercion by the former. And for Williams, what the BLD requires, roughly, is that the state offer an explanation that makes sense to every subject over whom it claims authority. If it fails to satisfy this demand, or if enough of its subjects reject its explanation, it is illegitimate. But Williams also thought that the conditions for making sense were historically determined—in particular, that there are explanations that fail to make sense “now and around here”, but which might have made sense, at other places and other times. It was by appeal to the historical variability of the conditions on “making sense” that Williams hoped to secure two important results: first, that, now and around here, only liberal states are legitimate; even as, second, not all illiberal states—for instance, the benevolent monarchies with which Bull is concerned—have been illegitimate.

Many objections have been raised to Williams’ theory of politics. A number of these, in my view, misunderstand the way in which it isa theory, despite some of Williams’ own remarks. (What Williams repudiates is deductive theorising; his approach to understanding politics nevertheless exemplifies an abductive methodology.) At any rate, it has clear application to Bull’s proposal that “the acceptability of power derives… from the simple fact that it is not exercised to the full”, a condition that he identifies with mercy. For suppose we ask ourselves whether it would be sufficient for contemporary states to justify themselves to us by the mere fact that they have demonstrated mercy towards us (i.e., by the fact that they could have done worse than they did). This would be no justification at all; we expect, and reasonably expect, more than not to be treated as badly as possible. Of course, Bull rejects the BLD as a condition on the acceptability of power (primarily, it seems, for the somewhat strange reason that it fails to adequately draw the line between war and peace). But that Bull rejects a standard according to which his theory fails is no argument for his theory, or against that standard.

The problem with citing mercy as a legitimation of power—that is, the reason an explanation couched in terms of mercy can no longer make sense as a justification for coercion—is in fact made clear by some of the considerations that Bull introduces in the course of his discussion. Bull contrasts mercy with cruelty, the vice around which, as he mentions, Judith Shklar crafted what she called the “liberalism of fear”. Liberalism historically aspires to a certain universality: in many of its forms, it purports to be grounded in facts about human nature that obtain cross-culturally and cross-temporally. Yet this aspiration uneasily coexists with a scepticism about whether there are any such facts—the liberal also characteristically denies there is merely one way in which a person ought to lead her life. Shklar may be regarded as offering a brilliant and compelling answer to this tension: that while there might be no facts about what everyone, everywhere, desires, there are many things which are universally despised, cruelty first and foremost amongst them. Shklar’s liberalism is motivated by a firm conviction that warfare and torture, “the abuse of power and intimidation of the defenceless”, are permanent features of human life. As she strikingly put it, “[t]he liberalism of fear is a response to these undeniable actualities, and it therefore concentrates on ‘damage control'”. 

The response to the inevitable abuse of power, though, is not to hope that those who have power over others will be merciful: it is to make the abuse of power less harmful in the first place, by limiting differences in power. The liberalism of fear does not aim at a world in which those in power do not exercise their power to the full; it aims at one in which, even if they do, things would perhaps still not be that bad. To that end, its focus is necessarily institutional. “[P]ublic cruelty is not an occasional personal inclination”, Shklar writes. “It is made possible by differences in public power, and it is almost always built into the system of coercion upon which all governments have to rely to fulfil their essential functions.” 

But this is where we start to see exactly what is wrong with the focus on mercy as the solution to cruelty. So far from being the counterpoint to cruelty, conditions that encourage or require mercy are as much to be avoided as cruelty itself, since where mercy is possible, cruelty is too. As Bull correctly states, mercy “always supposes the power to do harm”. Shklar evidently held out no hope that cruelty could be eliminated: “the liberalism of fear does not dream of an end of public, coercive government”. But she would have thought that focussing on mercy disastrously elided the scope of the problem, which was and is structural. Indeed, we might ourselves wonder whether, in light of the liberalism of fear, mercy should be regarded as a political virtue at all—rather than as a personal virtue masquerading as one. And here, precisely, is the difference between our condition and Seneca’s: the distinction between personal and political virtues collapses in the case of kings and tyrants. But it does not, and cannot, for us.

On still closer inspection, Bull’s proposal has some genuinely disturbing features. Political realism tends to avoid, where it can, appeal to pre-political normative concepts. Bull takes this to an extreme, however, insisting that “[t]here is nothing moral about [the acceptability of power]: no ‘ought’ is involved, and perhaps no thought either”. Mercy is the only precondition. Yet the obvious problem—with this claim, I mean, not the writing—is that mercy is naturally understood as a ratio concept: for Bull, it is essentially defined by the equation “harm done/possible harm done”. And there are two, very different ways for this fraction to approximate zero. One, of course, is for the amount of harm done to be very small. But the other is for the possible amount of harm done to be very large. In other words, one can become more merciful by virtue of acquiring more power to do harm; if acceptability of power is grounded in mercy, this means that power may render itself acceptable by annexing new dominions. Bizarrely, Bull seems comfortable with this result; at least, in a passage in which he rather unreasonably requests that the reader suppose that a plantation of slaves share with their ‘unrelentingly cruel’ master “a belief system that justifies his domination”, Bull notes that newfound mercy by a cruel master may better alleviate his slaves’ restiveness than would an attempted legitimation of slavery by a kind one. Either Bull is making the banal point that sometimes the oppressed are grateful for a sliver of kindness from their oppressors, or he is making, well, some other one. Either way, there is no route from this observation to a mercy-first political theory.

I’ve focussed so far on the first chapter of Bull’s essay. The other three add Aristotle, Anselm, Hobbes, Hume, John Rawls, Donald Davidson, David Lewis, Derek Parfit, and Nick Bostrom to the roster of philosophers referenced. (If your favourite philosopher is missing from this list, don’t worry—Bull’s index will likely be a source of relief.) The reader is also treated to discursions on convention in the philosophy of language; paradoxes concerning mercy in philosophical theology; adjusting universal norms of justice to fit particular cases (with the English Civil War as a worked example); the ontology of persons and states; and “robotic politics”. (If your favourite philosophical topic is missing from this list, don’t worry—Bull’s index will likely be a source of relief.) Unfortunately, I am unable to adequately discuss each of these topics in this review. That said, it is not especially clear to me how far Bull managed to do so in his book, either. For instance, we are told in passing that “a theory of interpretation must be wrong if it ends up making most of the speaker’s beliefs untrue” and that “no communication can take place unless people generally abstain from disbelieving each other”. Hence, Bull boldly declares, David Lewis’s attempt to ground language in convention stands refuted by Donald Davidson; and so too, it is suggested, David Hume’s attempt to ground justice in convention stands refuted by Malcolm Bull. 

This is not the place to determine whether these semantic claims are true (they’re not). Yet it may be noticed that they touch on fundamental issues in the philosophy of language, ones which have been the subject of highly technical research for several decades. Now, Bull is only interested in the semantic questions insofar as he thinks they offer an analogy for the possibility of “radical sociability”, a social arrangement that “would involve sociability without the constraints of, or even reliance on, pre-existing social rules, codes, or agreements”. (“That’s clear enough”, Bull immediately proceeds to add. I wonder, though…). But any reader acquainted with Davidson or Lewis will wince at their use and abuse; and no unacquainted reader will find much illumination in the comparison. So, who, exactly, is the analogy for? In a similar way, Bull moves in the course of three pages from Hobbesian reflections about the nature of the state to questions like “If we accept the reductionist view of the state, what are we reducing it to? What is the state of affairs that we refer to when we refer to the state?”. Again, I’m not sure who the jargon is helping here. Because if you want to get really technical, then strictly speaking, states of affairs are expressed by sentences, not referred to by singular terms; thus, it is a category error to conflate political states and states of affairs. But surely the lay reader doesn’t want to get really technical, while the reader who might in principle be appreciative isn’t going to be impressed merely by familiarity with the term “referent”.

Actually, for all the erudition expended on this book, none of the topics which Bull sees fit to discuss concerns the possible role of mercy in contemporary politics or society. One is left wondering, not so much who this book is for—the stereotypical audience of a TED talk, I imagine, easily impressed by flashy concepts and the veneer of expertise—but why it was written. Indeed, and ironically for a political realist, Bull seems almost allergic to the actual business of politics. Mention of NGOs quickly veers into a proof that, according to mercy-first political theory, there can be “no such thing as an alien invasion”; climate change is glancingly acknowledged in order to segue into the possible dangers of “a superintelligent singleton, the unique effective decision maker at a global level”. This is particularly curious, since the intriguing promise of the book’s introduction is that mercy is somehow intimately connected with capitalism—that “the arguments for capitalism are the same as those against mercy”. Despite its prominent early billing, however, this idea fails to surface again until quite literally the last paragraph, where the suggestion sincerely seems to be that the connection is importantly primarily on the grounds that untempered capitalism would lead directly to “an AI apocalypse”.

Yet despite this rather cursory treatment, it seems to me that the relation between mercy and the ideology of capitalism is illuminating, albeit for not quite the reason that Bull might have hoped. Let’s scratch the archaic word “mercy” for a moment, then, and focus on some more familiar ones: “charity” and “compassion”. If we read him as advocating one or both of these virtues instead, we find that several of Bull’s arguments look in better shape, in particular for the necessity of mercy to social life. For example, I am not often aware of being merciful to friends or strangers, or of their being merciful to me in turn. More specifically, what kind of person would someone have to be for it to be felicitously said of her that she was merciful? The woman who drops several pounds in the crumpled hat of the man she passes on the street is not merciful (unless, perhaps, the only alternative was for her to kick him): she is charitable, compassionate, kind.

However, Bull did not write On Charity or On Compassion. He wrote On Mercy. And so it is worth remembering that much opposition to capitalism is motivated precisely by the fear that, if the lives of the disadvantaged depend on the compassion or charity of the powerful, then the disadvantaged will be at the mercy of the powerful; just as, if a wife depends on her husband’s charity, she risks being at his mercy. It might be inevitable that, in any society, there will be those who are in this way at the mercy of others: to that extent, charity and compassion are of course indispensable virtues. But being at someone’s mercy is not a state of equality. It is instead a state of supplication, insecurity, vulnerability. (Bull’s assurance that “[s]elf-abasement is not necessary” for supplication is cold comfort at best.) Hence the governing thought behind the liberalism of fear: that charity and compassion are not to be trusted, and that putting cruelty first means demanding a world in which the circumstances of one’s life are within one’s own control.


Daniel Kodsi is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College.