Is mercy an irreversible development?

The musing by medical ethicists this week that infanticide should be permitted on the same basis as abortion has led to some lively debate, to which I don’t propose to add; I simply refer you to Norman Geras’s post on the subject, especially the final paragraph.

As some pointed out, however, there is nothing new about infanticide. Exposure was routinely practised in ancient Rome, only being made illegal in AD 374 (and the “AD” is highly relevant here, as we’ll see).

This called to mind a quotation I came across recently, flicking through a friend’s copy of The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. In an appendix, Prof Stark observes (citing E.A. Judge) that:

classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions—defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice. Therefore “mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all,” and humans must learn “to curb the impulse”; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered” (Judge 1986:107). Judge continued: “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders.”

It was therefore something of a novelty for Christianity to teach that “mercy is one of the primary virtues—that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful”.

Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christian community.

Stark quotes St Cyprian’s instructions to his flock in the third century, that:

there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well. … Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.

“This was revolutionary stuff,” Stark continues:

Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.

This all highlights a point that troubles me. Atheists object, quite properly, to the insinuation that atheism is immoral or that they are incapable of knowing right from wrong. Such suggestions are clearly nonsensical. Yet it’s hard to shake off the sense that liberal, secular humanism has inherited many of its most important values – particularly the worth of the individual and the belief in mercy and compassion – from Christianity.

Those values were far from obvious in a world in which Christian teaching had not yet been heard. It may be that the spread of those values is now permanent and irreversible, but – and I stress that I’m not making a polemical point here, but expressing a genuine concern – I still can’t shake off the sense that that is far from self-evidently the case. Which is why I find even hypothetical musings of the sort made in this past week disturbing.


4 thoughts on “Is mercy an irreversible development?”

  1. I think the point is well made; on what basis does one proclaim mercy to be a virtue? By all means, I would enjoin all people, Christian or not, to be merciful; but I think one can only truly _expect_ Christians to be merciful as a root premise of their beliefs.

    1. I think you’re pre-empting my next post. Unless (as would be par for the course) I never get round to writing it, in which case thank you for making sure the point doesn’t go un-made. 😉

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