Pardons and Mercy

23 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2017  

Adam Perry

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 30, 2017


Pardons are part of nearly every legal system, and pardons are almost always presented by the law as acts of mercy. Here I consider whether the law's understanding of mercy is consistent with our ordinary understanding of mercy. I ask: are pardons merciful, in an ordinary or genuine sense? What distinguishes pardons from, for example, lenient judicial sentences, which aren't merciful by the law's lights? To answer these questions, I work from the general to the particular: I propose a new definition of mercy, then apply that definition to state action. Three features of my definition are noteworthy. First, almost all existing definitions say that mercy is unconstrained in a normative sense, but I argue that mercy is unconstrained in the way that arbitrary power is unconstrained. Second, although it’s often assumed that mercy must be motivated by compassion, I show that mercy only requires acting with the intention to benefit the recipient. Third, my definition says that mercy requires the giver of mercy to overcome a motivation to treat the recipient harshly. Given this definition, most but not all pardons are merciful. Few other state acts are merciful.

Keywords: Pardon, Mercy, Clemency, Arbitrary, Forgiveness

Suggested Citation

Perry, Adam, Pardons and Mercy (July 30, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Adam Perry (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

St Cross Building
St Cross Road
Oxford, OX1 3UL
United Kingdom

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