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Justice vs Mercy, Part 2
Tolerance of badness isn't always mercy - it may just be injustice
One of my favourite movies, campiness and all, is 300. (Hear me out.)
In this scene (0:29), Ephialtes expresses a desire to join Leonidas’ company of 300. His heart seems to be in the right place. He really, really wants it. But Leonidas, kindly, says no:
The painful truth is that Ephialtes can’t hold his shield up high enough to be an effective part of the Spartan phalanx. This is not a failure of will. Ephialtes has good intentions, but he physically cannot do the task.
Leonidas knows that accepting Ephialtes into his ranks would not be an act of kindness. Instead, it would be an act of great injustice to the rest of his company, because Ephialtes cannot provide due protection to the man next to him.
We degenerate to the worst behaviour that we will tolerate in others
Likewise, in 12 Rules for Life, Peterson describes a situation which may elicit a bittersweet chuckle of recognition in many of us:
“Imagine the case of someone supervising an exceptional team of workers[…] But the person supervising is also responsible for someone troubled, who is performing poorly, elsewhere.
In a fit of inspiration, the well-meaning manager moves that problematic person into the midst of his stellar team, hoping to improve him by example. What happens?—and the psychological literature is clear on this point. Does the errant interloper immediately straighten up and fly right? No. Instead, the entire team degenerates.
The newcomer remains cynical, arrogant and neurotic. He complains. He shirks. He misses important meetings. His low-quality work causes delays, and must be redone by others.
He still gets paid, however, just like his teammates. The hard workers who surround him start to feel betrayed. “Why am I breaking myself into pieces striving to finish this project,” each thinks, “when my new team member never breaks a sweat?”
The same thing happens when well-meaning counsellors place a delinquent teen among comparatively civilized peers. The delinquency spreads, not the stability. Down is a lot easier than up.”
-Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life (“Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you”)
We all know that the fastest way to kill the motivation of a high-performing team is to tolerate behaviour that doesn’t meet the bar.
Likewise, the fastest way to kill somebody’s faith in the value of virtue is to make it clear that you’re willing to tolerate a lack of it.
This is not mercy. It’s a downward spiral to injustice.
Be skeptical of anything that calls itself kind
“Unlike the cruel Leonidas, who demanded that you stand, I require only that you kneel.”
-Xerxes, to Ephialtes - 300 (2006)
The shallowness of Ephialte’s “sacrifice” is revealed by the rage that he exhibits upon being turned down. Leonidas says that if he still wants to help Sparta, he could tend to the wounded. Instead, Ephialtes throws away his shield and spear in fury. His desire was never really to defend Sparta; it was entirely self-serving.
To capitalize on such angry disillusion, the world has no shortage of shady actors who are willing to swoop in and feign saviour. I’m definitely guilty of doing this myself - the moral high horse of indignation is stupidly easy to get onto. In this scene, Xerxes persuades Ephialtes to betray the Spartan army by offering him material vices - and even calls it “kindness”:
No proper implementation of a belief system can cause sustained suffering and still call itself just.
This tension between justice and mercy sits at the heart of most social, economic, religious, and political debates. The intention of conservatism, orthodox religion, or any strongly opinionated belief about what is Good is to express the following truth: systems of constraints designed to produce Goodness have been painstakingly discovered and hard-won over centuries. It’s simply not true that anything goes, or that all is matter of perspective. Some outcomes are objectively better than others, and tolerating actions which compromise those outcomes is how a society falls apart.
The problem is that in defending these constraints, many of us mistake the forest for the trees. We cling to narrow definitions of marriage, or rigid beliefs about abortion and gender roles, with blind desperation, fueled by tribal fervour. In the name of “Goodness”, we miss the suffering happening right in front of us as a result of our beliefs. This is what happens when we forget who those ideals are ultimately meant to serve: instances of real human beings. Not abstractions.
Political systems which predicate themselves on being defenders of kindness can be just as guilty of hubris. If anything, they are worse by way of their deception. One refreshing thing about speaking to traders, investment bankers, and more honest VCs is that they don’t bother pretending they are out for anybody other than themselves1. Contrast this with any political institution which has tried to claim the moral high ground by force - which is, itself, a contradiction in terms. Communism, attempts to police the political correctness of speech, militant forms of social justice...there is no shortage of banners to use in disguising self interest as goodness.
The tragedy is that you may succeed at swindling others, with deadly consequences:
“The starving people saw storage silos full of grain, but no one attempted to steal it. People sat alongside storage depots waiting for the government to release grain and crying out, “Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us!” Some people starved to death sitting next to the grain depots.”
-Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (p. 61)
If you cannot be properly merciful, then at least be just
Imagine for a second that you get to pick your parents. Would you rather have:
Harsh but fair; or
Kind but spineless?
I know what most people would pick. I’ll leave you with this hot take 🙃:
The most refreshing answer I’ve ever heard in a VC job interview, when I asked what the purpose of their fund was, was “we’re here to make money”. Unapologetic, but respectful - because we weren’t lying to each other.