I am currently reading about euthanasia and encountered the argument that mercy is a morally different category from pity. It is written there, that mercy implies a "re-establishment of equality", whereas pity does not have this implication. Instead, in the case of euthanasia, the person killed is reduced to non-existence, which is not equal to existence.

What is the semantic and moral difference between "Mercy" and "Pity"?

I provide the article here, but I want to stress that I do not want Pro or Con arguments for euthanasia, I would prefer to have an unbiased (if even possible) definition of these two terms.

Groarke,L.(2019).Consistent Liberalism Does Not Require Active Euthanasia, St. Francis Xavier University, Canada;

  • Individual authors often appropriate common words for more specialized uses, but there is no precise "definition" that can be extracted from vague common use to judge such refinements against. You can find some loose distinctions made on vocabulary sites, e.g. WikiDiff, see also more academic The Varieties of Pity by Konstan. But in the end it makes little difference how they choose to label their concepts as long as they adequately describe the substance of what is labeled.
    – Conifold
    Nov 28 '20 at 12:40
  • Yes that makes sense. I was just wondering if these terms are often referred to in philosophical discussions, and if yes, how they are usually used. Anyway thanks for your sources!
    – Klumpi
    Nov 28 '20 at 18:31
  • It seems to me that the context of euthanasia is important to your question, so you could add that to the title.
    – tkruse
    Nov 29 '20 at 13:09
  • It seems to me there are various articles online on comparisons of compassion, pity and mercy, and e.g. Kant and Nietzsche both wrote on "pity".
    – tkruse
    Nov 29 '20 at 13:59

Mercy seemingly means to recognize that someone is guilty of something, but still "have Mercy" on him anyways, and overlook the faults for purposes of giving him something, or arguing one's case in court, "pity" doesn't necessarily mean to think of someone as doing anything wrong in the first place, it implies just feeling bad for someone because of his situation and giving him things, like a homeless person to whom one doesn't know how he got there


Welcome, Klumpi

The conceptual relationship between mercy and pity is a genuine philosophical issue and it deserves investigation. Following your pointer, I shall not bring euthanasia into the discussion.

On the surface, mercy is a matter of action ('an act of mercy') while pity is an emotion. Mercy can be motivated by pity but they belong to distinct categories in the philosophy of mind and action. Let's delve a little deeper.


Mercy and supererogation

Excuse the word, 'supererogation'. I use it because it often comes into play in discussing mercy. The idea is that mercy is undeserved in the sense that if I have done something wrong without valid excuse, I am not strictly entitled to mercy. I cannot claim it as a right or an obligation. Rather, mercy is bestowed gratuitousy on me, independently of what I deserve. For instance, I might steal from a friend. My friend would be justified in reporting me to the police and bringing me to court. He or she would be morally and legally entitled to apply justice in this way. Instead, he or she forgives me, allows me to return the item and closes the matter, and in doing so shows mercy. It is not necessary for pity to enter the picture. A broad variety of motivations may explain an act of mercy.

Mercy and punitive leniency

In this case, mercy is a matter of imposing less than the deserved punishment on an offender but against a certain background. In forgiving me in the example above, my friend might have no concern to alleviate my condition or to contribute to my well-being. In this second kind of mercy, in contrast, such a concern must be present and derive from pity or compasssion for the offender.


Pity has just put in an appearance. Note that if mercy is motivated by pity, they must be conceptually distinct in some way. Mercy cannot be identical with what motivates it.

Pity covers, I think, two emotional states: pain at undeserved bad fortune and pain at deserved bad fortune. I can feel pity for someone who is (say) in prison for a crime for which they deserve (in my opinion) to be punished. While I think they have got their just deserts, I can still as a fellow human being feel pain at the deprivations they are suffering - tight restriction of movement in their cell, little access to the outside world, the roughness and bullying of prison life, etc. This would appear to me an appropriate moral emotion in the circumstances. I mean appropriate in view of our shared understanding of the nature of morality, and not as mere personal idiosyncracy.

Equally I can feel pity for someone who has done nothing wrong and in that sense does not deserve their bad fortune. I can feel pity for the young woman who develops ovarian cancer or the pensioner who has been scammed out of their life savings. In the circumstances, just as above, and free from mere personal idiosyncracy, pity would appear to me an appropriate moral emotion.

Mercy and pity

Supererogatory mercy does not require pity but we have already seen that punitive leniency precisely does: the relevant concern to alleviate my condition or to contribute to my well-being derives from pity at deserved bad fortune, bad fortune that I have brought on myself.


Shawn Floyd, 'Aquinas and the Obligations of Mercy', The Journal of Religious Ethics, Sep., 2009, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 449-471.

Kristján Kristjánsson, 'Pity: a mitigated defence', Canadian Journal of Philosophy , June–August 2014, Vol. 44, No. 3/4 (June–August 2014), pp. 343-364. (The author regards pain at undeserved bad fortune as 'compassion' and not 'pity' but I do not think ordinary usage supports this distinction.)


I am currently reading about euthanasia and encountered the argument that mercy is a morally different category from pity. It is written there, that mercy implies a "re-establishment of equality", whereas pity does not have this implication.

The main difference is that mercy means taking an action, pity does not. The action may be as weak as an act of forgiveness or an act of permission (here, the persuasive argument seems to be just to permit someone euthanasia). The nature of that action is relevant but somewhat deliberately not specified:

  • it's considered a good, but maybe optional and difficult, thing to show someone mercy
  • mercy connotes power over someone
  • mercy connotes someone did something wrong (maybe it hurts a loved one for one to undergo euthanasia which is the "something wrong")

If a political argument, the persuasive argument may be: "If you are opposed to euthanasia, I know this is hard for you, so it would be an act of mercy for you to grant permission."

If a personal argument, the persuasive argument may be: "I know it will hurt you to lose a loved one, so please show them mercy."

In either case, the author suggests pity stops short and it's better to strive for mercy.

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