Review of On Mercy by Malcolm Bull

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 4 ('This Life'). 

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On Mercy

by Malcolm Bull (Princeton University Press)

reviewed by Chiara T. Ricciardone

Be Kinder Than Necessary. That bumper sticker might be the sloganized version of Malcolm Bull’s new book, On Mercy. Of course, Bull’s book is considerably more subtle, scholarly, and interesting than any bumper sticker. His argument – that mercy organizes our social world and should too our political world – follows from an astonishing reversal of assumptions. While most political theorists take war as the problem and exception to be explained, Bull’s starting position is that peace rather than war is what needs to be understood. He reminds us that in fact it is a great mystery why, every single day, so many

people do far less harm than they are able. This daily miracle of doing-less-harm is what Bull calls mercy. He sees it as both a necessary and sufficient condition of politics (see especially ch. 1), and also as enabling a new and liberatory politics (see especially ch. 4).  

The foundation of Bull’s argument, as outlined in the introduction, is an expansive definition of mercy. “You act mercifully towards someone if you intentionally and successfully do them less harm than you might” (4). In late medieval and early modern Europe, the royal power of clemency was a legitimizing force that helped maintain order. Bull shows how mercy continues to be an unacknowledged condition of politics in the modern era, but one of his first interesting moves is to transfer mercy from the top to the bottom of society, or from a hierarchical flow to a more horizontal distribution (ch. 2). Whereas traditional authors like Seneca and Montesquieu focus on the mercy that sovereigns show to their subjects, Bull sketches a more complex and contemporary picture of multiple, intersecting relations of power and vulnerability. In this scene, countless acts of mercy are the foundation of communication and social life, as simple as two strangers avoiding bumping into each other in the street (86) or a charitable interpretation of someone’s words (91). Thus, Bull argues, contra Hume and Rawls, that mercy rather than justice is the precondition of sociability, as we actually experience it. 


Along with his “horizontal” approach to mercy, Bull presents an unusual revision of economic-intellectual history. He argues that in the 18th century, as people came to believe that economic self-interest also promotes the public interest, political life became more rationalized, and justice became the supreme political virtue. Clemency, which had been understood as redressing the passions of hate and cruelty, lost its justification, and even became a threat to the maximization of self-interest (14-18). Bull’s account seeks to redress this reversal by developing mercy into a “thick” ethical concept: one that both describes the world and also prescribes a course of action in it (ch. 3). 


If Bull’s historical revision is thought-provoking, so too is his foray into futurism. In his fourth and final chapter, he draws on but departs from Hobbes to make the case for a “dispersed form of dominion,” in which multiple, overlapping acts of mercy replace the need for the sovereign to bring about a respite from the war of all against all: that is, the possibility that Hobbes mentions as “peace without subjection.” 

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 4 ('This Life'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

Book Cover.jpg

On this foundation, Bull outlines three scenarios made possible by a merciful politics. The first is a revolutionary politics in which overpowering those in power is largely legitimate. In a Socratic sort of move, Bull reasons that the powerful are obligated to show mercy to the weak, but, since power-over is harmful to the holder, the weak act mercifully if they reduce it. The second possibility Bull raises is a “spongiform state,” or a political situation that may include non-citizens, non-human animals, and even past and future generations in relations of power and mercy – an argument that bears directly on the problem of climate change. Bull’s third scenario is a “robotic politics,” in which a single super-intelligent AI comes to dominate all global decision making. In this future, he argues compellingly, we will need the revolutionary political morality outlined in the first scenario: the despotic AI ought to be programmed to show us mercy, while we should not constrain our own ability to overpower it. 

If we heed Bull, mercy will replace justice as the central focus of politics and political theory. In his book, mercy becomes a concept that can illuminate our history, our present, and the dilemmas on the horizon. It is traditional to close a book review with the reviewer’s judicious criticisms. In the spirit of generous mercy which Bull’s book so powerfully extends, I omit this unpleasant task and simply encourage the reader to explore the book – since I surely have not done it justice. 

​Chiara Ricciardone is the Klemens von Klemperer Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center of Bard College, and co-founder of the Activist Graduate SchoolFrom 2020, she will be U.S. commissioning editor of The Philosopher