Alex Tuckness


principal investigator

Alex Tuckness
Associate Professor, Politics
Department of Political Science
Iowa State University

Alex Tuckness (Ph.D., Princeton, 1999) is Associate Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University. Beginning with his book Locke and the Legislative Point of View (Princeton University Press, 2002), his work has principally focused on the justifications for and limitations on the application of moral principles to political and legal judgments. His articles on toleration and legislation have appeared in such journals as the American Journal of Political Science, Nomos, and the Journal of Political Philosophy. His more recent work has focused on the various philosophical justifications for punishment and their development in early modern natural law theory; his most recent article on this subject appeared in the American Political Science Review. He has also served as Director of the Public Policy and Administration Program and as Director of Graduate Education for the Political Science department at Iowa State, and has been a Visiting Fellow in Ethics at the Harvard University Center for Ethics and the Professions and a Graduate Fellow at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. He has won university-wide recognition for excellence in teaching at Iowa State.


John M. Parrish
Associate Professor, Political Science
Loyola Marymount University

The Virtue of Mercy: Religion, Philosophy, and Politics
Alex Tuckness and John Parrish have drafted a book manuscript titled “The Death of Mercy” in which they explore the virtue of mercy and its status as a virtue in public life. Beginning from the observation that mercy, once a key term in political discourse, is rarely used as a justification for decisions in law or public policy, their wide-ranging book manuscript examines the origins of the bewildering array of definitions that philosophers have proposed for mercy and shows that there is no consensus on what mercy is, let alone whether it is virtuous in politics. These differences in meaning hold the key for understanding both why mercy has been marginalized and how it might be rehabilitated in the public square.

Their book begins in Part I by describing views of mercy in the pre-Christian west and in three distinct religious traditions: Buddhism, Islam, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In doing so they show that a standard assumption about mercy, that it involves by definition a departure from the requirements of justice, is largely absent from these other traditions.

Part II of the book looks at how the introduction of Christianity altered conceptions of mercy and how these mapped onto views about its place in politics. With Christianity the idea that retributive justice is good became more pronounced while mercy simultaneously began to be defined more frequently as treating someone better than what justice required. St. Anslem and others developed the idea that God’s justice would not allow simply forgiving sins but that payment had to be made in full. Yet these ideas by themselves did not directly lead to the marginalization of mercy. Throughout this period, belief in divine retribution meant that human beings could focus on punishing for the sake of the public good and leave ultimate retribution to God. In an age of monarchy where most people were comfortable with both hierarchy and discretionary power, mercy flourished as a virtue in principle, even if it was often ignored in practice.

In Part III, Tuckness and Parrish examine the changes in modern political theory that led to the current marginalization of mercy. The increasing stress on political equality and the rule of law in the early modern period led to a tendency to equate discretion with arbitrary power. To be “at someone’s mercy” is to be in a subordinate position and subject to whatever whims of caprice might move the person in a position of power. In both the utilitarian and Kantian traditions, this critique of discretion is central to the opposition to mercy. Tuckness and Parrish argue in the conclusion that the objections which have led to mercy’s marginalization are not insurmountable.

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