Judith Shklar and Materialist Mercy
Religious people, and Christians in particular, are generally
supposed to be outstandingly merciful is all things, as is
their God. True, there is a range of behavior which falls
within the definition of mercy. For Saint Augustine, writing
after the sack of Rome, the greatest act of mercy he could
think of was that the Christian tribes who torched the city
spared people seeking sanctuary in Churches. As for the fate
of the non-Christians in Rome who were either slaughtered or
raped, Augustine was entirely unconcerned. What did bother
him was that a few Christians were subjected to the same fate.
Still, he reassured himself by recalling that many of those
Christians were too attached to worldly goods and possessions
and deserved to be punished. A few others, meanwhile,
probably hankered after world possessions, even if they did
not have them, and these too deserved the same fate. Finally,
the ones who were free of sin and envy would be going to
heaven, so why should they complain?
In a space of only about four hundred years after the death of
Christ, this is what had become of Christian mercy. The
transformation raises the question: is there such a thing as
Christian mercy at all? In other words, does a religious
ethic make a person substantially more merciful than other
people? The opinion that it does is so widespread as to seem
almost self-evident. In this essay, however, I will argue
that religious belief does not lead one to mercy and is, in
fact, an ally of cruelty.
I’m not the first person to make this claim. The political
theorist Judith Shklar, in a famous essay on cruelty, pointed
out that two of her heroes, Montaigne and Montesquieu, were
both led away from the Christian faith by the unspeakable
cruelty to which they were witness. In particular, they were
horrified by the atrocities being committed by Christians in
the New World, and were hard pressed not to believe that the
violence had something to do with the proselytizing faith
which animated it.
Shklar did not believe that religion prevented cruelty. While
religious ethics may or may not urge against it, there is
something in these ethics which will always downplay cruelty.
The Seven Deadly Sins of the Catholic faith, for instance,
have nothing to do with action and everything to do with
feeling. Immanuel Kant, possibly the founder of modern
Christian moral philosophy, felt that the real test of
morality was to go against one’s own feelings in order to do
something virtuous. Therefore, someone who by nature is
benevolent is not acting morally when she contributes to human
happiness. It is only the selfish person who is made virtuous
by doing these things.
In these ethics, cruelty may seem immoral, but only because it
is born of negative feelings. The causing of pain and
suffering is not listed anywhere among the Seven Deadly Sins.
Wrath is among them, but it is difficult to escape the
conclusion that if one were to commit violent acts without
feeling any wrath, one would still be in the clear. The real
test of virtue is the state of one’s soul, gauged by the
emotions it feels. Compared with all of eternity, this
hapless life is but a poor shadow anyway, so what truly
matters is a personal, one on one relationship with God.
Where this ultimately leads is only too clear. If appeasing
God is what matters most, then our relations with one another
seem insignificant at best.
Materialists are often faulted for having a mechanistic
understanding of human beings: for rating them as little
better than machines. One of the greatest single arguments
for Christian morality and mercy is that a religious ethic
accepts the individual worth of the soul. Once human beings
are granted a soul, it becomes difficult to cause them pain,
or so the argument runs. If we all have a certain spiritual
worth and essence, then it becomes impossible to justify the
violation of our human rights.
Is this true? Does a belief in a soul lead us to respect human
On closer inspection, nothing could be further from the truth.
Historically, it has always been materialists, atheists, and
humanists who are most concerned with human suffering and most
devoted to human rights. The very concept of the rights of
man and citizen (unfortunately, women were not yet included)
was developed by deists very much at odds with the established
Church. Voltaire was faulted as immoral and wicked, but the
entire animating purpose of his life was a deep hatred of
cruelty and human suffering. Religious institutions,
meanwhile, opposed human rights every step of the way. Even
into the twentieth century, the Catholic Church was uniformly
supportive of right-wing dictators and autocrats in Catholic
nations, and stood firmly on the side of the powerful and
against the principles of democracy and human rights. From
Trujillo in the Dominican Republic to Franco in Spain and
Mussolini in Italy, some of the last century’s worst dictators
enjoyed the full support of the Catholic hierarchy.
This historical situation cannot be pure chance or historical
accident. Materialism must be better for human rights in the
long run. But why should this be the case?
Materialism asserts that we are nothing more than what we
appear to be: a collection of matter. This does not make
consciousness an illusion or pain unreal. It simply asserts
that there is no reason to believe we have a spiritual
existence outside of our bodies, outside of our selves, or
outside of this life. And when there is no reason to believe
something, we do not believe it, unless some reason is
discovered. The only logical conclusion of all of this is
that the most important thing in this world is the elimination
of suffering. Materialism therefore leads us to human rights.
Because we are a self-contained bundle of wiring and cells,
the greatest evil which can befall us is cruelty, pain, and
unnecessary suffering. We all have a right, therefore, to be
free of such suffering, to the extent that this is possible,
and to enjoy happiness.
Christian ethics object to this profoundly. If we are nothing
more than wiring and cells, how are we different in any way
from the animals? We might as well get down on all fours and
allow ourselves to be kicked and maltreated like dogs and
A materialist would agree that people ought not to be treated
the way we treat animals. However, she would extend the line
of reasoning to say that animals ought to enjoy a similar
right. It is not the soul which gives human beings the right
not to suffer, but simply their capacity for suffering. If
pain and cruelty are real and may be eliminated to a large
extent, we have a duty to one another to attempt to do so.
Animals, therefore, are also pain-accumulating beings that can
suffer and bleed, and the ethic extends to them.
Materialism, then, may provide a profound argument for the
worth and dignity of life and the right not to suffer. What
is more, it recognizes both pain and consciousness, so it is
not only physical suffering which we have a right to avoid,
but mental torment as well, especially humiliating and
A belief in a soul does not contribute to a human rights
ethic. In fact, it shatters it completely. As seen before,
to the extent that cruelty is seen as immoral in religious
ethics, it is a question of one’s standing in God’s eyes.
This overlooks the fact that to the victim, the one bearing
the brunt of the cruelty, it makes little difference what the
perpetrator is feeling, whether or not she is wrathful,
whether God is angry or pleased, etc. What concerns the
victim is the suffering she is enduring.
A belief in a soul takes the matter out of this world and
places it in the next. The cruelty with which we treat one
another is insignificant when weighed against the glories of
the world to come, so it hardly matters whom we abuse and what
pain we cause. If we accept that people have an immortal soul
rather than an earthly, pain-accumulating body, we accept that
cruelty can really do no damage whatsoever to our spiritual
essence. The soul outlasts the body and ascends to heaven,
from which vantage point it will have no concern for the
cruelties endured by its body. Suffering therefore seems
insignificant, because it is so fleeting.
Finally, a religious ethic encourages Stoicism in the face of
grave catastrophes. Voltaire was horrified by the Lisbon
earthquake and the suffering it wrought, but what horrified
him even more was the belief of many religious people that
these sufferings were God’s just punishment for immorality and
licentiousness. Even today, members of the religious right
are heard to make very similar arguments regarding Hurricane
Katrina. If nature’s cruelties are just and fitting, it is a
small step to believing that human cruelties are just as well.
If whatever befalls us is contrived by God, we have no right
to complain of our suffering or to insist that it end.
Religious ethics differ from humanist ethics in their
insistence on “higher” virtues than mere happiness. Whether
one accepts these ethics or not is a matter of personal taste,
but one thing should be clear to everyone: it is only an ethic
based on happiness which is ultimately good for human rights
and human justice. Materialism encourages the belief that
every person, and even every creature, has the right to
happiness and the right to escape cruelty; an ethic based on
something besides happiness, such as “spiritual purity,” does
not justify human rights and tends, as Bertrand Russell
pointed out, to amount to little more than power worship.
There is one final point to be made about the religious ethic:
it often includes an element of divine punishment, including
eternal torment in Hell. Not only is eternal torture and
damnation seen as the inevitable fate of the vast majority of
human beings, these are also seen as just and fitting by many
The idea that some people ought to be subjected to Hell is a
great failing of human sympathy and imagination. No earthly
ideology ever came up with anything so grotesque or so lacking
in compassion. Once people reconcile themselves to the idea
of Hell and its justice, it seems difficult to believe that
they should be particularly concerned about the violation of
human rights and human dignity here on Earth. What does it
matter if people suffer in this life if earthly torments pale
in comparison to God’s wrath?
The belief in Hell makes a mockery of the very concept of
“Christian mercy” and reveals the religious ethic to be an
enemy of decency and kindness. A great deal of religious
education has to do with removing the barriers of sympathy and
human feeling which make it difficult for most people to
accept the idea of Hell and eternal punishment. Children, for
instance, generally don’t have the level of callousness which
adults are able to cultivate; when most are told about Hell,
if they are unfortunate enough to undergo such an education,
they rarely find comfort in the idea that only “the wicked”
shall suffer. This is called empathy and is an expression of
the materialist ethic. The religious ethic, on the other
hand, cannot survive too much empathy without breaking down.
In order to accept the idea of Hell, religious people have to
cultivate a shell of cruelty.
It is therefore not hard to see how Saint Augustine was able
to so completely distort the idea of Christian mercy. His
mercy is a cruel mercy indeed, and seems, bizarrely enough, to
sanction as much injustice as human beings can muster.
A materialist ethic, meanwhile, does not accept that human
beings are naturally wicked or that the cruelties which befall
us are divinely sanctioned. It encourages a genuine mercy.
Not a mercy intended to impress the eyes of a wrathful God,
but mercy among and between human beings, who are seeking a
mutual end to injustice. Such mercy is difficult to maintain,
while Christian callousness seems to come easily to many
people. So perhaps Kant was correct: what is most difficult
is often what is right. This is my reason for preferring
materialist mercy to Christian callousness.