In response to the apparently imminent executions of Bali nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by the Indonesian government, the hashtag #IStandforMercy has been trending on social media. Indeed, in a rare moment of moral consensus, the majority of Australia appear to be united in condemnation of capital punishment and in their pleas for Chan and Sukumaran's lives to be spared.
However, despite the obviously praiseworthy intentions of the hashtag, and without being in any way critical of those who are using it, it is worth taking a moment to consider whether mercy ought to the basis on which to stand opposed to the death penalty.
A merciful act is one that inflicts less punishment on a person than he or she deserves, usually because of some disposition toward benevolence, or because of a belief that the merciful act will lead to better consequences in the long run. When I show mercy on a person who has betrayed me, it is precisely because he or she did not deserve to be spared punishment that my act becomes merciful.
Philosophically speaking, such acts are "supererogatory" – they go, literally, above and beyond the call of duty. We are not required to show mercy on others even though it is a good thing to do. In his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew, is called to the bed of a former Nazi SS Officer who, facing his imminent death, begs Simon for forgiveness for his crimes. The forgiveness is not forthcoming, but few would be ready to condemn Wiesenthal for refusing to forgive his former aggressor, the reason being that mercy is not a moral imperative.
This is why there emerges a tension between mercy and justice. While justice – the awarding of people what they are due – demands proportionate punishment on wrongdoing, mercy – by its very definition – overlooks justice. It invokes an entirely new kind of logic; one that transcends the principles of punitive legal systems such as ours, or Indonesia's.
This is why the plea for Indonesia to show mercy might not give voice to the strength of many Australian's opposition to Chan and Sukumaran's near-certain executions: although a person who shows mercy does something morally praiseworthy, the person who does not show mercy has not necessarily done something morally bad. Mercy is a gift that cannot ever be fairly demanded, because a person is never entitled to mercy, only to fair justice. We beg for mercy, we do not demand it.
However, many – myself included – are opposed to the execution of Chan and Sukumaran (and others, such as the case of Kelly Renee Gissendaner in Georgia) because they believe that the intentional killing of another human being for their past crimes can never be morally justifiable. That is to say that every state-sanctioned execution is a crime: murder.
For the many who appear to be sympathetic to the argument that inflicting the death penalty is contrary to the basic principle of punishment to be, at least partly, rehabilitative and absolutely contrary to the principles that define good political communities (and good human beings), the execution of prisoners is not merely a failure to show mercy, it is a moral crime, and should be labelled as such.
The executions of Chan and Sukumaran – and so many others by Indonesia, the United States, and approximately 20 other nations around the world who have executed people in the past few years – are violations of principles of justice. Chan and Sukumaran should not feel the need to plea not to be killed; it is their right as human beings to demand it. Indonesia may claim sovereignty over their legal system but morality trumps legality and, as St Augustine wrote in the fourth century, an unjust law is no law at all.
Even those who do not absolutely oppose the death penalty may feel that it is disproportionate in the case of drug trafficking. Here too we should draw recourse to justice. When a person is inflicted with a punishment that is more than they deserve, he or she has not been treated justly.
Violations of justice make criminals of the violators. This language is stronger and more accurate a depiction of the strong-arming actions displayed by President Joko Widodo. We are right to stand in opposition to capital punishment, and we are right to continue to hope and campaign that Chan and Sukumaran not be executed, but to ask for this on condition of mercy is to treat a moral travesty too lightly. There is a time to stand for mercy, but in this case it seems that we ought to stand for justice.
Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at the Centre for Faith, Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His expertise is in military and applied ethics. He can be found on Twitter at @matthewtbeard.