But let us return to the questions of justice, mercy and forgiveness, tackling the latter first. The willingness and ability to forgive or overlook is essential to good human relations because we are none of us angels, we all do things we should not, and some of us even have habits irritating to those closest to us (in my case that of never passing a bookshop without buying a book, which my wife finds very irritating). If we did not have the capacity to forgive, every argument would end in divorce or murder, or at any rate in some very unpleasant consequence.But it does not follow that what is necessary in some circumstances is necessary in all, any more than it follows that a medicine that is good for you in a certain does must be twice as good for you in double the dose (though I have met patients in my medical career who did believe that, often with near-disastrous consequences).In order to have the locus standi to forgive, the harm that someone does must be done, at the very least in part, to oneself. If someone robs you in the street, I have no right to forgive him; only you have that right. Moreover, even if you do forgive the robber, your forgiveness, morally grand as it might be (though it might just as well be cowardly or pusillanimous), has no claim to determine the treatment of the robber by the law, any more than your vengeful feelings, if you had them, would have done. Revenge, said Bacon, is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought to weed it out; the same might be said of forgiveness, except perhaps that wild would not be the qualifying word to use of the justice that would result from it. The law is instituted precisely to supersede the effects of incontinent emotion, whether it is of the punitive or sentimental kind.Forgiveness, then, unlike mercy, has no place in the law. A pardon is not forgiveness, it is an exceptional act which in no way lessens the guilt of the pardoned.
For myself, having worked in a prison for many years, I have a soft spot for criminals – or at least, for some criminals. I am among those who would be inclined personally (and within reason) to give them a chance, if I had jobs at my disposition. I would even be prepared to be disappointed, to find that the thief whom I had found charming and thought wanting to turn over a new leaf had actually stolen from me. I would pat myself on the back because I would think that I had performed a good and charitable act by employing him. But I would also think it the grossest act of tyranny to require my neighbour to behave in precisely the same way. I can take a risk myself that I have no right to demand that others take. It is typical of governments that they should not understand the distinction.