The Modern Survival Guide #112

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The Need for Mercy

Mercy is one of the defining qualities of a civilized person and a civilized society. Traditionally we would define mercy as compassion or forgiveness extended towards another person in distress, or towards someone we have the ability to harm or punish.

  • Mercy is almost certainly a core requirement of your religion, if you have a religion, which means that GOD SAYS SO. Don’t take it from me.
  • Mercy is a good economic idea. You can’t contribute as effectively to the economy if you are poor, sick, permanently injured, or dead. So it is economically worthwhile over the long term for a society to have systems and attitudes in place to ensure that people don’t get totally impoverished, stay healthy, receive treatment for injuries, and live for a long time.
  • Mercy is good for relationships. Our society values family and friendship, and we instinctively feel empathy for our neighbors. Extending mercy where needed helps us to maintain our family and friendships, and keep good relations with our neighbors. It’s good for social bonds.
  • Mercy comes back around. Extending mercy to others makes it more likely that you will receive mercy yourself, over the long term. Training this behavior is a key component of establishing strong social ties of mutual support and obligation— what sociologists and political scientists call “social capital.”

The War for Mercy

There are a few things you can do that will generate an endless swarm of enemies in life. One of them is to tell the truth all the time; nobody wants to hear that. Another is to be a dick. Another is to practice the philosophy of “might makes right,” and try to impose your will on others. There are lots of ways to make enemies.

Final Thoughts on Mercy

Last but not least, there are a few final things to consider when thinking about how to be a merciful person, and I’ve listed them in no particular order:

  • Follow the previous point whenever making merciful decisions at a large scale. If you’re giving to a charity to help the homeless, do it because you want to help the homeless, and try not to worry about whether Roger is more worthy of mercy than Jeff.
  • In your personal life, extend mercy to everyone except the people who bite you for doing so. You are not obligated to be merciful to people who don’t want your charity, or who take advantage of you for offering it. But everyone deserves a chance; keep extending your hand to people, even if it’s been bitten in the past. Just don’t let the same person bite you twice.
  • Never expect approval or appreciation from those you help. That’s not how people are wired. If you get it, it’s a bonus, but it can’t be your expectation or reason for being merciful. Be merciful because it’s a good thing, not because you seek validation.
  • For any organized mission of mercy, seek allies with deep pockets to fund it and people with too much time on their hands to run it. Don’t try to do that in reverse order.
  • Be prepared to defend any organized mission of mercy, starting from day one. Keep meticulous records to fend off audits, shout your successes from the rooftops, and guard your donors like the crown jewels.²
  • And finally, beware the Iron Law of Bureaucracy: every organization, sooner or later, will become more concerned with its own survival than with accomplishing its mission. When this happens, it’s time to either reform the group or kill it off and start over.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.