Julian Baggini: Clemency still has its place

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It might seem frivolous, indeed distasteful, to talk about a woman blinded by an acid attack in Tehran in the same breath as a fortunate batsman at a cricket match in Nottingham. But not only is it fruitful to do so, it is precisely the juxtaposition of the trivial and the grave that makes the comparison so apt.

In Tehran, Ameneh Bahrami has just granted a last-minute pardon to the man who blinded her in an acid attack. He was just hours away from being medically administered the same fate in a literal case of eye-for-an-eye retributive justice. Nothing Bahrami has said suggests this is a case of the superior virtue of forgiveness triumphing over the primitive urge for revenge, as many culturally Christian commentators have suggested. She has merely pardoned him, which is a very different act of mercy. What her decision rather exemplifies is a willingness to waive her right to claim her full entitlement under the letter of the law and instead make a humane judgement call about what is best in this particular case.

Over at Trent Bridge, we saw the rather less significant matter of the Indian cricket captain, Mahendra Dhoni, revoking a decision to give the England batsman Ian Bell out, following what was a clear misunderstanding. The specifics of the situation could hardly be more different, but it was again an instance of someone forfeiting benefits conferred by the rules and instead being led by a more rounded understanding of what is just.

These events captured the headlines because sportsmanship has become rare and clemency unusual. What links them is the same underlying cultural trend: our interactions with others are being increasingly regulated by a sense of our own entitlements under the rules rather than by a truly empathetic, co-operative understanding of what makes for fair and decent human relations.

You see it in the culture of litigation, where an accident is not so much a misfortune as an opportunity to wring out compensation. You see it in pre-nuptial agreements. You even saw it in the parliamentary expenses scandal, when many MPs responded with a baffled insistence that since they had broken no rules, they had done nothing wrong.

It is this equation between following the rules and being in the right that corrodes our deeper moral sense. And the reason why cricket and acid attacks can and should be discussed in the same context is that the corrosion is all the more powerful because it happens at the quotidian as well as the momentous level. The fact that everyday interactions have become contractual and legalistic normalises a certain mindset which is then carried over to the bigger things in life.

The sources of the corrosion are numerous and varied. In sport, we can point to the financial stakes that have made sportsmanship look like an expensive luxury. When Sharia is applied too rigidly or the Bible interpreted too literally, we can see how fundamentalist religion provides clear certainties that many prefer to the ambiguities found in Koranic injunctions to be merciful or Christ's plea for forgiveness. In western societies rules and regulations give us a simple way of regulating our interactions with others now the personal relationships provided by community are no longer up to the job.

For all its inadequacies, the narrative of the Big Society at least recognises that the legalistic, contractual mindset lies at the heart of much of our societal unease. And mere recognition of a problem often takes you halfway to the solution. As both Bahrami and Dhoni showed in very different ways, once you can see that you don't have to take something just because you're entitled to it and there is a higher virtue open, simple human compassion and understanding are perfectly able to step in and achieve more than strictly following even the most detailed moral code ever could.

Julian Baggini's most recent book is 'The Ego Trick', published by Granta

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