Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Necessary Three: Justice, Mercy, Humility

In The Ethics of Teaching, by Kenneth Strike and Jonas Soltis, the authors contrast consequentialist theories of ethics versus non-consequentialist theories. Ultimately, their stance is that "the distinction between consequentialist and nonconsequentialist theories... enable[s] us to ask good question about hard cases. These different questions permit us to be clearer concerning what is at stake." The chart below organizes the questions that Strike and Soltis are referring to:

Consequentialist – What has the best consequences…
Nonconsequentialist- What we should do as a matter of principle…
What are the benefits we are aiming at?
Are these benefits genuinely worthwhile?
Are there unintended consequences we should consider?
Whom do we intend to benefit?
Are there others who are affected?

Are we being consistent?
How would we feel were we to be treated in this way?
Are we respecting those with whom we are interacting?
Are the benefits distributed fairly?
Are we treating people as ends rather than means?

As I've been considering this contrast between two perspective in ethics, it occurred to me that the consequentialist view might be identified with the word "mercy." When thinking like a consequentialist, you are focused on the outcome for all those involved. You aren't constrained by the so-called letter of the law, but by the effect. As EMU Professor Michael Young has pointed out, the consequentialist is the Jean Valjean of life. He/she does not deny the existence and necessity of the law, but believes that consideration of the consequences of ones actions necessitates bending of the law- and yes, mercy. 

On the other hand, we might identify the nonconsequentialist view with the word "justice." The word justice in this case representing principles and universal moral truths. Consistency is a major concern of the nonconsequentialist, typified by Javert. The Javert's of life see ethics as a system that is fixed in the stars, unbending and inflexible- and thus fair. 

So does mercy and justice belong side by side? Are they compatible? Micah 6:8 seems to suggest so.

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy- a delicate balance that must find an essential but uneasy co-existence in this flawed world. But not just these two things, one more essential ingredient: humility. Since the balance is not a simple one, since it is fraught with conflict and tough choices, humility must be at the forefront.