I’ll often read people speaking of how they desire “peace and justice.” This always strikes me as peculiar, because usually these people are angry about something and I wonder at their conflation of those two concepts. Not to say that peace is never just or that justice never entails a return to peace, but I generally conceive of justice, quite simply, as people getting what they deserve. (Today, we’ll leave aside the philosophical hassle of determining who decides what people deserve.) Sometimes this includes great rewards. Sometimes it involves punishment. So, a thief receiving justice would receive what he deserves: some sort of punishment. Many argue that rather than punishment in prison, the thief should receive counseling, job training, and other such things in order to reduce the risk of recidivism and give him a better chance in life. I agree with this. The same people will then argue that this is true justice.
There, I must take issue. This is not justice, it’s mercy. Mercy is grace; it’s given but undeserved. Thief does not deserve our help, but it sure is corking of us to provide it to him anyway. Mercy may be the most practical decision; I think mercy is often is a better choice than vengeance-centered justice. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s still mercy, and therefore undeserved.
Since I generally agree with the recommendations of those who call mercy justice, why am I picking a semantic argument? After all, it’s human nature to use words without philosophical precision. I do it on this blog, I’m sure. But I generally recommend against such imprecision in these sorts of philosophical debates, and I include non-academic discussions in the public forum in this recommendation.
The reason is that people will use the same word as shorthand for related but different concepts and then, in an unconscious verbal sleight-of-hand, will treat the concepts as identical. This gives the new definition the appeal of the old definition (because it’s the same word), while totally changing the meaning. It also leads to awkward protests insisting on “justice” rather than punishment for criminals and dictators, when really mercy is what the protester desires to see implemented. I am perfectly fine debating the merits of justice vs. mercy, but I think that trying to conflate the terms ultimately has the effect of making debate impossible by silencing one side — the side which is checkmated by their opponents’ appropriation of all terms in the debate. How is one even to argue when two concepts are given the same name?