Beyond Control and Responsibility: The Beauty of Mercy

Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities

ISBN: 978-0-76231-245-0, eISBN: 978-1-84950-369-3

ISSN: 1059-4337

Publication date: 15 December 2005


Punishment is essentially about the expression and establishment of power. As such, punishment always carries with it the possibility of debasement. I want to insist that the only morally legitimate purpose of punishment is to instill a respect for authority that does not demean the subordinated party (for example, as a parent might punish his or her child). In sum, my argument is that although harsh institutional punishment may be justifiable on utilitarian grounds, it is objectionable for aesthetic reasons that are ultimately far more important. As Nietzsche caustically recognized in the case of Christianity, the metaphysics of punishment is driven by the ugly feeling of ressentiment. Nevertheless, Christianity does emphasize one aspect of the question of punishment that Nietzsche would enthusiastically embrace: the attitude of forgiveness (or the act of mercy). For Nietzsche, mercy is a reflection of a beautiful strength. A new punitive paradigm, one that asserted superiority without debasing the criminal, might pave the way for a more general affirmation of life.


Heung Lee, J. (2005), "Beyond Control and Responsibility: The Beauty of Mercy", Sarat, A. (Ed.) Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 37), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 141-157.

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