The Modern Survival Guide #112
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And if there’s one thing I have learned in this life, it’s that nothing good is ever safe. Not one single good thing survives on its own; everything — and I do mean everything — has an enemy. The tree in the park has an enemy. The soup kitchen down the street has an enemy. Your favorite ice cream brand has an enemy. All things strive, but sometimes they strive in opposite directions. Nothing is ever safe.
This will become relevant to this article very, very quickly, because today we’re talking about one of the most reviled concepts in modern America — the need for mercy. We should chat for a minute on why mercy is important, and what we need to do to protect it.
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.
The primary function of mercy in human society is that it helps people who have fallen down get back up. To err is human; therefore we will all fall down. Eventually the rich man or his family will lose the money. Eventually we will all get sick, or injured. Eventually we will all suffer some sort of life tragedy. Eventually we will all meet a challenge we cannot overcome. It is as inevitable as the tide. So — it behooves us to have a society in which someone is helping us get back up, because there’s a very real possibility we will not be able to do so on our own.
The benefits of mercy as a defining feature of society and personal morality are far-reaching, but they focus on a few key points:
- Mercy is morally good. To have a good society, you must have at least some good people in it. To be a good person, you must be a merciful person, within reason.
- 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.”
Now for the bit that concerns you: mercy is absolutely, positively necessary for the survival of each and every human being on the planet. That includes you. Without some degree of mercy, we will all wither and die.
All of us. Let me say that again for the people in the back: ALL OF US.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter how much power you have. Doesn’t matter if you have a good job, or good insurance. At some point in your life, you will live or die based on the mercy of another human being.
If you’re poor, sick, or disabled, you are likely dependent on the mercy of others right now. You’re at the mercy of your family, your friends, the government, your insurance company (if you’re lucky enough to have insurance), and your employer. If any of these groups of people decide not to render aid when you need it, your quality of life immediately drops (and possibly ends).
If you’re healthy, rich, or powerful, you should remember three things:
First, we are all only temporarily able-bodied. Someday, possibly someday quite soon, you too will be sick, injured, or weakened. It is not a matter of “if,” it is a matter of “when,” and you need to encourage a society in which you can survive these things when you lose your health. Because otherwise, there’s a good chance that you won’t survive it. When the plague hits, it’s already too late for social change.
Second, if you are wealthy or powerful you should remember that you are only able to defend your wealth and power so long as the poor and disgruntled don’t decide to eat you, which is a function of how good a job they think society is doing at protecting them. The rich exist only at the mercy of the poor. So maybe use some of that wealth and power on missions of mercy and encourage a merciful society, if only in proactive self-defense.
And third, almost all of us are only one good disaster away from being reduced to poverty. Even the super-wealthy can be brought low by a stock market crash, and the majority of Americans are unable to weather even a $1,000 shock without going into debt. It is therefore worthwhile to encourage a society in which you can survive losing your wealth.¹
This bring us to our primary point — we need mercy in society, and not as a “heroic action” like we see in so many feel-good-but-oh-shit-that-kinda-sucks-that-someone-had-to-do-that news articles. Look, people, a company rallying around their coworker because his insurance provider cancelled his cancer treatments is a good story, but it’s a story about failure at a societal level. In a well-functioning society that event never happens because the society has learned how to deal with medical costs, rather than relying on heroes to solve the problem.
I mean, we need heroic action too, don’t get me wrong. But heroes only take you so far. The bigger and more complex our society gets, the more we need mercy built in, and past generations have tried very hard to make this a feature of our society, only for current generations to tear it down.
Which takes us back to the opening paragraph: everything has enemies, especially the merciful. And we desperately need to defend mercy in our society.
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.
But the biggest one, the most serious, the most common by far is to propose a different distribution of resources.
Why? Simple. There are a limited number of evil bastards wandering around at any given moment, they’re reasonably easy to spot, and it’s pretty simple to rally people against them. Evil is a continual problem, but it’s limited.
But everyone — EVERYONE — has a stake in resource distribution.
And mercy, fundamentally, is the act of extending resources of one form or another to someone who needs them. Those resources come from somewhere, and there’s always someone who thinks they should go to someplace else.
Everything and everyone on this planet have enemies for this exact reason. There are people who do not think your grandmother should get her Social Security check — not because they know her, or hate her, or even think that she’s using the money badly, but because they feel that Social Security in general is a poor use of resources. There are people who want to close your local soup kitchen — not because they dislike the idea of soup kitchens in general, but because it’s a drag on property values in their area. There are people who are perfectly happy to defund any given charity, simply because they believe another charity is a better beneficiary of the money.
Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re acting for the best of reasons. But most of the time, they’re not. As a general rule, if you see someone speaking against a merciful system or merciful act, it’s because they don’t want to spend their own resources on it.
Modern America is a case study in this phenomenon. The merciful aspects of our society have come under direct and sustained assault for more than twenty years, and the rallying cry of the opposing side has consistently been that they either do not want to spend money on something so wasteful as helping other people, or they don’t want to be forced to help people. Consequently, the merciful institutions of America are collapsing like rotten support timbers.
And this shows us the problem: we need mercy in society, but every act of mercy is a dollar out of someone’s pocket or some time out of their life. Any attempt to create a merciful institution will be met by an argument against it — those people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to have pride, or they don’t deserve our money because they are lazy, or it’s really a function of capitalism that they’re poor, or it’s God’s will that some are rich/healthy and some are not, or we really need that money for (insert alternate use here). Everyone has enemies, and the person who wants a merciful society has more than most.
But we need mercy to survive, or at least to survive over the long term, so we must defend those parts of our society which promote and extend mercy. This is not really a choice, it’s an obligation.
How do we do that? Well, at the core of the thing, it comes down to voting for people who want to develop merciful institutions, supporting private organizations with merciful missions, and being merciful in our personal lives. It’s that simple.
Oh, wait, it’s not. It’s a pit of goddamn vipers, because this takes us right back into the teeth of the resource problem. You see, when I said that everything has enemies, I included YOU. And me. On both sides of that statement. There are only so many resources to go around; not every charity is going to get them equally, nor should they. Not every government agency is going to be funded at the level it would like to be, nor should it be. None of us has endless personal resources to throw at any given problem.
That makes us all, inevitably, the enemy of some merciful act, somewhere. By giving money to one charity you doom another. By advocating one social policy, you defund another. By giving your time to one cause, you deprive another of a volunteer. We find ourselves back in a zero-sum game.
Welcome to the war for mercy. We all fight it, whether we realize it or not, so we may as well do so mindfully.
Firstly, we must decide what is important to us. Is it helping other people? Or is it helping other persons? Those are different things, by the way — the difference between giving resources to a homeless shelter and helping a stranger change their tire by the side of the road. Or is it both? Some people have the resources and strength of will to help others in general and in particular; some do not. It’s not a slur to say that I prefer to give money rather than time to my local homeless shelter.
Next, we must decide how much we can afford to give — in time and money both. Some of us are comfortable giving large amounts of money; some would prefer to give large amounts of time. Some can do both, if they are set for life and don’t have to work.
Then, we must decide how resources should be split. There are some things that the government should do, for example, and some things that might be better left to private charities. Then there are things that only we can do ourselves, to be merciful in our personal lives.
Finally, we must support those decisions in our lives and actions. Vote for the people who promote the merciful policies. Support the charity you think is best suited to accomplish the merciful goal. Do your best to extend the merciful hand in your own life. That’s the best we can do. We will still, inevitably, make ourselves the enemies of other people and other groups who would prefer that our time and resources go to them. That’s just how life is.
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:
- Everyone deserves mercy as much as everyone else. To be human is to deserve mercy. It just might be the case that some people deserve justice more. Forgiveness is not necessarily an obligation.
- 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.
A merciful society is on its way to being a good society. A merciful person is on their way to being a good person. These are necessary steps on the path, not sufficient goals in their own right. Like most other good things, it is not easy, it requires struggle, and we should do it anyway.
Make no mistake, we should be merciful, both as a society and as individuals. The benefits are immense, and desirable. The risks are significant, but manageable. Yes, a merciful person and a merciful society expend resources on people who cannot immediately pay them back, and in some cases will never pay them back. But the goals of society and our personal lives are not about resources, or at least they shouldn’t be. They’re about survival first, and living in a way that promotes the best of our qualities as a close second. Resources are a part of that, but as a tool, not an intrinsic goal.
So please, be merciful to others. Help the needy. Support the downtrodden. Make time for the people in your life who need assistance. Extend your hand to others, and with just a little bit of luck, we can all promote a world where someone will take our hand when we are in need.
¹There is a fascinating thought experiment called the “Original Position,” which was originally proposed by political scientist John Rawls, and which imagines a scenario in which people have to invent the rules of society without knowing which position they will occupy in that society. It’s a technique for attempting to develop equitable social rules, since if you don’t know if you’ll be a prince or pauper, you’re most likely to develop a society in which even the paupers are generally pretty well off.
²It never hurts to take a critical look at your board of directors, if you have one. Their whole job is to preach the organization’s success and secure new funding. If they aren’t doing this, they need to be replaced. Sometimes that can mean getting involved in office politics; sometimes it means quitting and starting a new organization. Try to avoid having a board comprised solely of old, retried men. Men get lazy and entitled in their old age, and there’s a risk they will see this as simply an opportunity for socialization, a hobby, or a sop to their dwindling ego.