A piece of heavy machinery lifts a heart. Cartoon-style.

Like most girls who dyed their hair black and wore Dr Martens in the 1990s, I love Nick Cave. I love his voice and his swagger but mostly, I love his Old Testament approach to life. It seems a strange love for an atheist but I think I’ve worked out what we have in common: an enduring obsession with mercy.

I would argue that mercy is a primal human attribute. Interesting, then, that so little literature refers to a secular form of mercy, instead ascribing it to one or more faiths.

Is mercy a moral or ethical concept? Is secular clemency possible?

Amnesty (a word that shares its root with amnesia) dates back to the year 410 when the Greek military commander Thrasybulus took the unprecedented step of offering an amnesty to 30 tyrants who he had defeated. This not only stopped violent payback from the victorious countrymen but also paved the way for a democratic second half of the first century, which was a crucial time for what was then a pretty radical idea.

Civilization needs forgiveness

University of Georgia sociology professor Barry Schwartz argues that without forgiveness, “society would be rent by perpetual animosity and grudge”.

Interestingly, he also argues that our need for retribution is natural.

“If fairness requires that benefits be returned in kind, then it must also demand, in the absence of some kind of restitution, that harm be returned to those who do injury to us,” he wrote.

The trouble with retribution, however, is that the cycle never ends. Mercy is the only answer, he says.

The psychology of retribution

In his book Harsh Justice, James Q Whitman says our desire for retribution springs from our need to diminish people who have wronged us.

“American law shows a much stronger tendency than continental law to surrender to the degrading aspects of punishment. We tend to take all offenders down a peg, not just high-status ones,” he wrote.

“Punishing moral offenses had, in (justice researcher Emile Durkheim’s) view, a peculiar capacity to mobilize popular solidarity: such practices as … the stoning of adulteresses tended to cement communal ties, as people joined in the collective merriment and savagery.”

One could argue not much has changed in the US justice system since then.

Even those with the privilege to dispense mercy do it unevenly, it seems, with a report released last year showing judges were less likely to grant parole when they were hungry.

Mercy and the law

Sometimes, a culture will decide there should be leeway in dealing with people who have been convicted of a crime. Clemency (in the UK, actually called the Royal prerogative of mercy) is sometimes given by the head of state, who by no coincidence is also the head of the Church of England.

The United States, bless it, has an Office of the Pardon Attorney whose job it is to give clemency on behalf of the President but can only do so in federal cases.

In Canada, you can apply for a pardon for the princely sum of $631.

George Washington famously used his last days as President to pardon those involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, which was a strangely merciful move for a man with little to gain from expunging the records of those who most people called traitors.

Perhaps he could see the future of a United States in which the west would become an economic powerhouse. Or perhaps he felt guilty for quelling a rebellion – that prima facie seemed completely reasonable – for a united nation.

Either way, it was a rare move that set a precedent for US presidents ever since.

In my home state of California, a pardon has to be earned. A criminal must prove they have led a useful, productive and law-abiding life following conviction, and even if pardoned, their convictions are still part of their record.

In Europe, the law often goes one step further and actually removes your conviction entirely.

The Christian rite

Schwartz says that while forgiveness was an important tenant forming Christian culture, early Roman Catholicism (the basis for all subsequent doctrines) stressed forgiveness “as a generalized obligation emanating from mankind’s debt to Christ”.

“In turn, divine grace was abundantly available in exchange for diverse forms of penance,” he wrote.

But even in the secular world, forgiveness was “an intrinsically noble thing”, he said.

That does not stop people saying mercy is the exclusive property of their Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, and that we don’t have the capacity or right to give it.

Godly mercy pops up frequently in common parlance in most of the world. The common Arabic phrase Insha’Allah means God willing, and most languages use a variant of this. Most of us who speak English probably don’t even recognize saying “bless you” when someone sneezes is a prayer for mercy. In 1997, Pope John Paul II warned against the rise of secularism and its move away from what he called the source of all mercy – a Christian God. 

Yet, there is evidence that our human capacity for mercy comes from somewhere more primal than religious faith. It may be more base than civilization itself.

Austin Sarat writes in his legal deconstruction Merciful Judgments and Contemporary Society that mercy exists in a “morally imperfect world” but it helps knit us together.

“(Mercy) expresses a confidence in our own strength that allows us to act out of humility rather than arrogance, reflectiveness rather than dogmatism, and a commitment to one another,” he wrote.

Mercy in the modern world

If you watch current affairs television, it seems our patience for each other has run out but the research shows there is hope for humankind.

A study covered on NPR last week showed when a computer annoys us, we are more – not less – likely to summon the patience to help it find its way. The University of Canterbury researcher Christoph Bartneck discovered that we can extend our gift of mercy to machines, provided they have a personality.

In the study, people were asked to interact with a robot cat, then directed to turn the robot off, knowing that its memories, behavior, and personality would be wiped. While they contemplated this, the robot cat started to beg them not to do it.

“People actually start to have dialogues with the robot about this; for example, say – you know – ‘no, I really have to do it now’; ‘I’m sorry – you know – it has to be done’. But they still wouldn’t do it. They would still hesitate,” Bartneck told NPR.

“What we found is that – let’s say a smart and agreeable robot, the participant would approximately take 35 seconds before they would have completed the switching-off procedure.”

Big acts on a small scale

Not a day goes by when I don’t pick up a piece of garbage off the street – usually a plastic straw or cup – and walk it to the nearest bin. It’s not my responsibility to clean the streets and doing it annoys me but I feel like I have to do something to help.

It annoys my fiance to no end, and I realize my actions are unlikely to singlehandedly save our ecosystems from destruction, but I figure the least I can do is offer a little mercy.