Research Paper

Criminal Law and Philosophy

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 67-84

First online:

Punishing Cruelly: Punishment, Cruelty, and Mercy

  • Paulo D. BarrozoAffiliated withThe Law School and the Committee on Social Studies, Harvard University Email author 

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What is cruelty? How and why does it matter? What do the legal rejection of cruelty and the requirements of mercy entail? This essay asks these questions of Lucius Seneca, who first articulated an agent-based conception of cruelty in the context of punishment. The hypothesis is submitted that the answers to these questions offered in Seneca’s De clementia constitute one of the turning points in the evolution of practical reason in law. I conclude, however, by arguing that even the mainstream punitive practices of contemporary western societies fail to meet the modest imperatives of the rejection of cruelty and the unconditionality of mercy propounded by Seneca.


Punishment Cruelty Mercy Seneca Reflectivity