A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

3. Chapter Three


1.         Harmonizing Justice and Mercy


Just as God’s existence cannot be proved (or disproved), so also His attributes cannot definitively be proved (or disproved). If an attribute could be proved, that to which it is attributed would of necessity also be proved. (If all attributes could be disproved, there would be no subject left.) We may however admit as conceivable attributes that have been found internally coherent and consistent with all known facts and postulates to date. (Conversely, we may reject an attribute as being incoherently conceived or as incompatible with another, more significant principle, or again as empirically doubtful.)

Among the many theological concepts that need sorting out are those of justice and mercy[1]. Justice and Mercy: what is their border and what is their relationship?

Mercy is by definition injustice – an acceptable form of injustice, said to temper justice, render it more humane and limit its excesses. But many of the things we call mercy are in fact justice. Often when we ask (or pray) for mercy, we are merely asking not to be subjected to injustice, i.e. to undeserved suffering or deprivation of well-being.

Justice is giving a person his due, either rewarding his virtues or punishing his vices. Asking (or praying) for either of these things is strictly-speaking not a request for mercy, but a demand for justice.

So, what is mercy? A greater reward than that due (i.e. a gift) or a lesser punishment than that due (i.e. partly or wholly forgiving or healing after punishing). In the positive case, no real harm done – provided the due rewards of others are not diminished thereby. In the negative case, no real harm done – provided there were no victims to the crime.

An excess of mercy would be injustice. Insufficient punishment of a criminal is an injustice to victim(s) of the crime. Dishing out gifts without regard to who deserves what implies an unjust system.

But in any case, this initial view of moral law is incomplete. Retribution of crime is a very imperfect form of justice. True justice is not mere punishment of criminals after the vile deed is done, but prevention of the crime. Our indignation toward God or a social/political/judicial system stems not merely from the fact that criminals often remain unpunished and their victims unavenged, but from the fact that the crime was at all allowed to be perpetrated when it could have been inhibited. In the case of the fallible and ignorant human protectors of justice, this is sometimes (though not always) inevitable, so they can be excused. But in the case of God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, this is a source of great distress and doubt to those who love justice.

There are, we usually say, two kinds of crime: those with victims and those without. The latter include crimes whose victim is the criminal himself (they are his own problem), or eventually crimes against God (who, being essentially immune to harm, and in any case quite capable of defending His own interests, need not deeply concern us here). With regard to crimes with victims, our concern is with humans or animals wrongfully hurt in some way. The harm may be direct/personal (physical and/or mental – or in relation to relatives or property, which ultimately signify mental and/or physical harm to self) or indirect/impersonal (on the environment or on society – but these too ultimately signify an impact on people or animals).

A truly just world system would require God’s prevention of all crime with innocent victims, at least – which He does not in fact do, judging by all empirical evidence, which is why many people honestly doubt His justice or His existence. To say (as some people do) that the failure to prevent undeserved harm of innocents is mercy towards the criminals, giving them a chance to repent, is a very unsatisfying response. It doesn’t sound so nice when you consider that it was ‘unmerciful’ (i.e. unjust) to the victims: they were given no chance. Perhaps, then, if not in a context of prevention, the concept of mercy has some place in the context of ex post facto non-retribution.

Avenging the victims of crime seems like a rather useless, emotional response – too late, if the victim is irreversibly harmed (maimed, killed, etc.). If the victim were not irreversibly harmed, his restoration and compensation would seem the most important thing, preferably at the expense of the criminal. But we know that vengeance also to some degree serves preventive purpose: discouraging similar acts by other potential criminals (raising the eventual price of crime for them) or educating actual criminals (so they hopefully do not repeat their misdeeds). To be ‘merciful’ to actual criminals with victims is therefore not merely to abstain from a useless emotional response, but to participate in eventual repetitions, of similar crimes by the same criminal or others like him.

It must be stressed that taking into account extenuating circumstances is not an act of mercy, but definitely an act of justice. Not to take into account the full context in formulating a judgment is stupidity and injustice. Perhaps the concept of mercy was constructed only to combat imperfectly constructed judicial systems, incapable of distinguishing between nuances of motive and forces. The law says so and so without making distinctions and is to be applied blindly without variation – therefore, ‘mercy’, an apparently ‘irrational’ exception to the law, is necessary! It would not be necessary if the law were more precisely and realistically formulated. Thusly, as well for allegedly Divine law systems as for admittedly human law systems. If the system and those who apply it are narrow-minded and inhumane, of course you need ‘mercy’ – but otherwise, not.

Another way the concept of mercy is used is in wish or prayer. We hope that the ‘powers that be’ (Divine or human) will indeed give us our due, rewarding our good efforts or preventing or punishing our enemies’ evil deeds, even though this is not always the case in this imperfect world. Such calls to mercy are a form of realpolitik – they are not really calls for injustice, but calls for justice clothed in humble words designed to avoid a more fundamental and explicit criticism the failure of true justice of the powers-that-be. Again, if absolute justice were instituted, there would be no need for such appeals to ‘mercy’; the right would be automatically done. Well, human justice is inevitably deficient: even with the best of intention and will, people are neither omniscient nor infallible, so uncertainty and even error are inevitable, and in such context ‘mercy’ is perhaps a useful concept.

But in the case of God, what excuses can we give? How can we justify for Him the imperfection of the world? We try to do so with reference to freewill – justice presupposes responsibility, which presupposes freedom of choice. But this argument is not fully convincing, for we can dig deeper and say: if the world couldn’t be made just, why was it made at all? Or if it had to be made, why not a world of universal and unvarying bliss – who ever said that freewill was required? For this question there seems to be no answer, and it is the ultimate basis of the complaint of theodicy. The counter-claims of ultimate justice – causes of seemingly unjust reward or punishment invisible to humans, balancing of accounts later or in a reincarnation or in an afterlife – seem lame too. If justice is invisible it is also unjust, and justice later is too late since for the intervening time injustice is allowed to exist. So we are left perplex.

Even when we see two equally good men unequally treated, one rewarded as he deserves and the other given better than he deserves, or two equally bad men unequally mistreated, our sense of justice is piqued. All the more so when the one with more free gifts is less deserving than the one with less free gifts. And all the more so still when the bad is not only not punished but given gifts and the good not only not rewarded but mistreated. For then all effort toward the good and away from the bad is devaluated and rendered vain. If there is no logic in the system of payment, then what incentives have we? Certainly, the resultant effect is not to marvel at the love and mercy of the payer, but rather at the injustice and lack of love that such chaotic distribution implies.

Perhaps then we should ask – what is good and what is bad? Perhaps it is our misconception of these things that gives us a false sense that injustice roams the world. The way to answer that is to turn the question around, and ask: should we construct our concepts of good and bad empirically, by simply judging as good all actions which seem to result in rewards and bad all actions which seem to result in punishment (the ‘market’ value of good or bad.)? Such a pragmatic approach (which some people find convenient, until they bear the brunt of it themselves) is surely contrary to humanity’s intuitions. For in such case, criminals become defenders of justice (justiciers) and victimization should always be a source of rejoicing for us. This is the antithesis of morality, which is based on human compassion towards those who suffer indignities and indignation towards those who commit indecencies. These intuitions must be respected and supported, against all claims of religion or ideology or special interests.

Some say there are no innocent victims – implying (for example) that even those who perished in the Holocaust must have been guilty of some commensurate crime, in a previous lifetime if not in the current one. Some say there are no culprits – for instance, many Buddhists apparently hold this view, with reference to karmic law. These propositions are two sides of the same coin. As soon as you have a doctrine of perfect justice, divine or natural, you stumble into this pitfall. Only by admitting the imperfection of justice in the world can we become sensitive to the undeserved sufferings of people (others’ or one’s own).


2.         Feelings of Emptiness


There is another sense of the term “emptiness” to consider, one not unrelated to the senses previously discussed. We all have some experience of emotional emptiness.

One of the most interesting and impressive contributions to psychology by Buddhism, in my view, is its emphasis on the vague enervations we commonly feel, such as discomfort, restlessness or doubt, as important motives of human action. Something seems to be wanting, missing, urging us to do something about it.

These negative emotions, which I label feelings of emptiness, are a cause or expression of samsaric states of mind. This pejorative sense of “emptiness” is not to be confused with the contrary “emptiness” identified with nirvana. However, they may be related, in that the emotions in question may be essentially a sort of vertigo upon glimpsing the void.[2]

Most people often feel this “hole” inside themselves, an unpleasant inner vacuity or hunger, and pass much of their time desperately trying to shake it off, frantically looking for palliatives. At worst, they may feel like “a non-entity”, devoid of personal identity. Different people (or a person at different times) may respond to this lack of identity, or moments of boredom, impatience, dissatisfaction or uncertainty, in different ways. (Other factors come into play, which determine just which way.)

Many look for useless distractions, calling it “killing time”; others indulge in self-destructive activities. Some get the munchies; others smoke cigarettes, drink liquor or take drugs. Some watch TV; others talk a lot and say nothing; others still, prefer shopping or shoplifting. Some get angry, and pick a quarrel with their spouse or neighbors, just to have something to do, something to rant and rave about; others get into political violence or start a war. Some get melancholic, and complain of loneliness or unhappiness; others speak of failure, depression or anxiety. Some masturbate; others have sex with everyone; others rape someone. Some start worrying about their physical health; others go to a psychiatrist. Some become sports fanatics; others get entangled in consuming psychological, philosophical, spiritual or religious pursuits. Some become workaholics; others sleep all day or try to sink into oblivion somehow. And so on.

As this partial and disorderly catalogue shows, everything we consider stupidity or sin, all the ills of our psyche and society, or most or many, could be attributed to this vague, often “subconsciously” experienced, negative emotion of emptiness and our urge to “cure” it however we can. We stir up desires, antipathies or anxieties, compulsions, obsessions or depression, in a bid to comprehend and smother this suffering of felt emptiness. We furnish our time with thoughts like: “I think I am falling in love” or “this guy really bugs me” or “what am I going to do about this or that?” or “I have to do (or not to do) so and so”. It is all indeed “much ado about nothing”.

If we generalize from many such momentary feelings, we may come to the conclusion that “life has no meaning”. That, to quote William Shakespeare:


Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Macbeth (act V, scene 5).


Of course, we can and often do also react more positively, and give our life more constructive meaning. I believe this becomes possible once we are able to recognize this internal vacuum when we feel it, and make sure we do not react to it in any of the negative ways we unconsciously tend to react. Once we understand that this feeling of emptiness cannot be overcome by such foolish means, we can begin to look for ways to enjoy life, through personal growth, healthy activities, helping others, learning, creativity, productiveness, and so forth.

Regular meditation is a good remedy. Sitting quietly for long periods daily makes it easier to become and remain aware of emotional emptiness when it appears. Putting such recurring bad feelings into perspective gradually frees us from them. They just seem fleeting, weak and irrelevant. Life then becomes a celebration of time: we profit from the little time we have in it to make something nice out of it.


Drawn from Phenomenology (2003), Chapter 9.4 and Appendix 2.



[1]          This essay was written in 1997, save for some minor editing today. Reading it now, a few years later, I find it unnecessarily aggressive in tone. I was obviously angry for personal reasons at the time of its writing. Nevertheless, I see no point in toning it down today.

[2]          These emotions are classified as forms of “suffering” (dukkha) and “delusion” (moha). According to Buddhist commentators, instead of floating with natural confidence on the “original ground” of consciousness as it appears, a sort panic occurs giving rise to efforts to establish more concrete foundations. To achieve this end, we resort to sensory, sensual, sentimental or even sensational pursuits.

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