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Reason, Morality, and LawThe Philosophy of John Finnis$
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John Keown and Robert P. George

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199675500

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675500.001.0001

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‘Lawful Mercy’ in Measure for Measure

‘Lawful Mercy’ in Measure for Measure

(p.219) 14 ‘Lawful Mercy’ in Measure for Measure
Reason, Morality, and Law

Jacqueline Tasioulas

John Tasioulas

Oxford University Press

John Finnis' writings on punishment are characterized by a retributivist pluralism: retributive justice is essential and fundamental to the justification of punishment, but other values also play an important justificatory role, both with regard to the institution in general and to particular decisions made within it, such as sentences passed by judges. Although mercy is widely supposed to be a value that tempers retributive justice in deliberation about punishment, it does not receive any sustained treatment in Finnis' writings. However, taking Finnis' own philosophical engagement with Shakespeare as an inspiration, this chapter investigates the understanding of justice and mercy in Measure for Measure. The play reveals that the question of when to apply the law strictly and when to exercise leniency is often highly complex, and that a satisfactory response to it transcends both the rigour of the ‘precise’ Angelo and the laxity of the self-indulgent Duke. Instead, it is Isabella who offers the most compelling portrayal of ‘lawful mercy’ as a compassionate departure from the strict application of law, a departure that is nonetheless guided by reason.

Keywords:   Finnis, Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, punishment, justice, mercy, retribution, leniency, equity

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