What is the difference between compassion and justice?

Following my previous posting, The amazing mind of Kenny MacAskill, I have thought further on the reasons for why many people seem to reject the concept of justice involving punishment of criminals. What really motivates people who show ‘compassion’. I can understand (if not agree with this) from a Christian, ‘turn the other cheek’, perspective, but when did society start to pity a murderer and actively go out of its way to try to release him? And more importantly, why?

I believe that blind compassion erodes the true value of genuine compassion. There are those who are deserving of compassion and those who are not. How do I define this?

To me, it’s fairly simple.

  • Those who are born into poverty, fall on hard times, or are victims of circumstances or persecution are worthy of compassion.
  • Those who have the mental capacity to understand right from wrong and choose to cause harm or death to others deserve no compassion. Poverty or other hardships do not exempt one from society’s laws. Wrongdoers should be punished to a degree befitting of their crime. An eye for an eye does not make the world blind – it is an age-old, proven and historically successful system called justice*.
  • Those who do not have the mental capacity to understand right from wrong may deserve compassion, but they should at least be confined to a place where they can do no harm to others until they are well again or expire.

The concept of unconditional compassion appears to be a relatively recent one in historical terms. I suspect that justice reformers just a few decades ago would be astounded at how ‘compassionate’ we have become towards criminals. People claim poverty as a reason to commit crime, but in today’s society people face nothing like the hardships of the Great Depression or Victorian society, let alone those of growing up in wartime and post-war Britain and society in those times had an extreme intolerance towards crime.

Just watch some of the police programmes on television. Yes, ok, you can rubbish them as trashy and sensationalist television, but unless you believe that they are ‘stage managed’, you will see clear violators of society’s laws walk away from justice. It doesn’t take a genius to see the message that sends out.

Rudi Giuliani transformed New York through ‘no tolerance’ policing and following his implementation of a ‘Fixing Broken Windows’ policy, and it has since been deployed succesfully elsewhere in the world. This is a ‘no compassion’ response to minor infractions which has been shown demonstrably to work, but we don’t need academics to tell us this. We all know it to be so.

Look, one of the reasons I don’t break the law is (in addition to the fact that I believe in conforming to widely held (non-religious in my case) morals of ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you), because I fear the repercussions of doing so. Deterrence works for me. I don’t want to go to prison or be fined, etc. However, clearly, many people in our society have no such fear of repercussions, because they are shown ‘compassion’ when they are released, uncharged by the police.

If justice is not applied rigorously and fairly, it becomes meaningless, and even great liberal minds such as Paddy Ashdown believe in justice and security above liberty, since the latter can not exist without the former – see his diary entries from his time as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

My own belief is that those who campaign for the release of convicted prisoners to show compassion believe that this gives them the moral high-ground. They hold this to be an unquestionable truth – that mercy is unconditional. I suspect that many of those who follow this line believe it gives them a pseudo-intellectual stamp of intelligence. It doesn’t. They do this, because doing precisely what society would naturally do is the worst thing to do and The ‘moral majority’ can never be right.

These same people are often those who buy into conspiracy theories, because things can not possibly be as they seem at face value and of course, politicians always lie. They also believe (and this may be particular to the UK), that the underdog in any conflict ALWAYS has the moral high-ground and deserves our support, even when the underdog has itself committed heinous atrocities.

I know this to be the case, as I used to be one of these people. It is an almost unwritten rule of becoming a student in the UK that you will question everything and usually either sit on the fence, unable to reach a decision, or go against received wisdom, just to feign some kind of intellectual position, even if such a position goes against any level of common sense. In the case of criminals, because the moral majority would happily hang terrorists, or at least incarcerate them for life, the pseudo-intellectual takes precisely the opposite point of view.

I am educated to degree level (or above) and therefore I must know better than the moral majority seems to be a common thought process.

I am not convinced (as a graduate myself) that this holds to be true. The masses have as good an understanding of human nature as academics. I would argue that they have a better understanding, since they are exposed to the real world to a greater degree than academics are.

In the case Al-Megrahi, cultures throughout time and across the world would not have given a second thought to doing away with him. Our compassionate ones now favour not only sustaining him, but releasing him back into the world. Perhaps such people should act as guarantors? How many times does Al-Megrahi have to kill 270 people until we get the message that he’s not a very nice sort of chap?

I don’t know. It’s a funny old world.

*In spite of the thousands of cases to which opponents of justice will predicatably refer as miscarriages of justice. Society gets it right most of the time, and we may, just may have to accept that that is as good as it gets, since an infallible justice system can never be guaranteed.