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Dictionaries say merely means only, but doesn't merely have a sense of emphasizing the smallness of what the words after it says more than only?

Kindness is not merely for the sake of others.
Kindness is not only for the sake of others.

The above sentences are ambiguous but they continue and actually mean that good deeds without expecting anything in return is the way we should take. If that's the case, then "only" fits it better, doesn't it?

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Generally speaking "only" and "merely" are synonyms and can be used interchangeably.

However there is more connotation to the words that make their use slightly different.

The sentence "Kindness is not merely for the sake of others." Carries the connotation that kindness can be used for something grander or more important than just the sake of others.

The sentence "Kindness is not only for the sake of others." Can mean that the speaker has something specific in mind that kindness can also be used for. This is especially true if the emphasis of the sentence is placed on the word "only" which is usually communicated with italics in writing.

I would be careful with reading too far into this though. In many cases the writer might not have intended this additional meanings.

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