False ideas of utility entertained by legislators are one source of errors and injustice. It is a false idea of utility which thinks more of the inconvenience of individuals than of the general inconvenience; which tyrannises over men’s feelings, instead of arousing them into action; which says to Reason, ‘Be thou subject.’ It is a false idea of utility which sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling drawback; which would deprive men of the use of fire because it burns or of water because it drowns; and whose only remedy for evils is the entire destruction of their causes. Of such a kind are laws prohibiting the wearing of arms, for they only disarm those who are not inclined nor resolved to commit crimes, whilst those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important in the law-code, are little likely to be induced to respect those lesser and purely arbitrary laws, which are easier to contravene with impunity; and the strict observance of which would imply the destruction of all personal liberty, (that liberty dearest to the enlightened legislator and to men generally,) subjecting the innocent to vexations which only the guilty deserve. These laws, whilst they make still worse the position of the assailed, improve that of their assailants; they increase rather than diminish the number of homicides, owing to the greater confidence with which an unarmed man may be attacked than an armed one. They are not so much preventive of crimes as fearful of them, due as they are to the excitement roused by particular facts, not to any reasoned consideration of the advantages or disadvantages of a general decree. Again, it is a false idea of utility, which would seek to impart to a multitude of intelligent beings the same symmetry and order that brute and inanimate matter admits of; which neglects present motives, the only constantly powerful influences with the generality of men, to give force to remote and future ones, the impression of which is very brief and feeble, unless a force of imagination beyond what is usual makes up, by its magnifying power, for the object’s remoteness. Lastly, it is a false idea of utility, which, sacrificing the thing to the name, distinguishes the public good from that of every individual member of the public. There is this difference between the state of society and the state of nature, that in the latter a savage only commits injuries against others with a view to benefit himself, whilst in the former state men are sometimes moved by bad laws to injure others without any corresponding benefit to themselves. The tyrant casts fear and dread into the minds of his slaves, but they return by repercussion with all the greater force to torment his own breast. The more confined fear is in its range, so much the less dangerous is it to him who makes it the instrument of his happiness; but the more public it is and the larger the number of people it agitates, so much the more likely is it that there will be some rash, some desperate, or some clever and bold man who will try to make use of others for his own purpose, by raising in them hopes, that are all the more pleasant and seductive as the risk incurred in them is spread over a greater number, and as the value attached by the wretched to their existence diminishes in proportion to their misery. This is the reason why offences ever give rise to fresh ones: that hatred is a feeling much more durable than love, inasmuch as it derives its force from the very cause that weakens the latter, namely, from the continuance of the acts that produce it.Need it be said that the House of Lords paused, as they were entreated to do, and that they paused and paused again, in a manner more suggestive of the full stop than the comma, generally out of deference to the same authority? Romilly was indignant that so many prelates voted against his bills; but could they have done otherwise, when the best legal authorities in England urged that it would be fatal to vote for them?—when they were gravely told that if a certain bill passed, they would not know whether they stood on their heads or on their feet?
Against this general uncertainty of punishment, which no severity in the law can affect or make up for, the only certainty of punishment dependent on the law is in the event of conviction. But even this certainty is of a very qualified nature, for it depends on sentiments of due proportion between a crime and its penalty, which in no two men are the same. Every increase of severity in punishment diminishes its certainty, since it holds out to a criminal fresh hopes of impunity from the clemency of his judges, prosecutors, or jury.
If blind ignorance is less pernicious than confused half-knowledge, since the latter adds to the evils of ignorance those of error, which is unavoidable in a narrow view of the limits of truth, the most precious gift that a sovereign can make to himself or to his people is an enlightened man as the trustee and guardian of the sacred laws. Accustomed to see the truth and not to fear it; independent for the most part of the demands of reputation, which are never completely satisfied and put most men’s virtue to a trial; used to consider humanity from higher points of view; such a man regards his own nation as a family of men and of brothers, and the distance between the nobles and the people seems to him so much the less as he has before his mind the larger total of the whole human species. Philosophers acquire wants and interests unknown to the generality of men, but that one above all others, of not belying in public the principles they have taught in obscurity, and they gain the habit of loving the truth for its own sake. A selection of such men makes the happiness of a people, but a happiness which is only transitory, unless good laws so increase their number as to lessen the probability, always considerable, of an unfortunate choice.
It is a great point in every good system of laws to determine exactly the credibility of witnesses and the proofs of guilt Every reasonable man—that is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other men—is capable of bearing witness. The true measure of his credibility is only the interest he has in speaking or in not speaking the truth; so that nothing can be more frivolous than to reject the evidence of women on the pretext of their feebleness, nothing more childish than to apply the results of real death to civil death as regards the testimony of the condemned, nothing more unmeaning than to insist on the mark of infamy in the infamous when they have no interest in lying.For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.
As a matter of fact the law affords a very clear proof, that its real purpose is to administer retributive justice and that punishment has no end beyond itself, by its careful apportionment of punishment to crime, by its invariable adjustment between the evil a man has done and the evil it deals out to him in return. For what purpose punish offences according to a certain scale, for what purpose stay to measure their gravity, if merely the prevention of crime is the object of punishment? Why punish a slight theft with a few months’ imprisonment and a burglary with as many years? The slight theft, as easier to commit, as more tempting accordingly, should surely have a harder penalty affixed to it than a crime which, as it is more difficult, is also less probable and less in need of strong counter-inducements to restrain it. That the law never reasons in this way is because it weighs offences according to their different degrees of criminality, or, in other words, because it feels that the fair retaliation for the burglary is not a fair retaliation for the theft.
In every criminal case a judge ought to form a complete syllogistic deduction, in which the statement of the general law constitutes the major premiss; the conformity or non-conformity of a particular action with the law, the minor premiss; and acquittal or punishment, the conclusion. When a judge is obliged, or of his own accord wishes, to make even no more than two syllogisms, the door is opened to uncertainty.
For the same reason it is of little avail to call in question, as Beccaria does, the right of society to inflict death as a punishment. There may be a distinction between the right of society and its might, but it is one of little comfort to the man who incurs its resentment. A man in a dungeon does better to amuse himself with spiders and cobwebs than with reflections on the encroachment of the law upon his liberty, or with theories about the rights of government. Whenever society has ceased to exercise any of its powers against individuals, it has not been from the acceptance of any new doctrine as to its rights, but from more enlightened views as to its real interests, and a cultivated dislike of cruelty and oppression.
If we would bring to the study of Beccaria’s treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.
Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.
Lord Kames attacked our criminal law in a still more indirect way, by tracing punishment historically to the revenge of individuals for their private injuries, and by extolling the excellence of the criminal law of the ancient Egyptians. They, he said, avoided capital punishments as much as possible, preferring others which equally prevented the recommission of crimes. Such punishments effected their end ‘with less harshness and severity than is found in the laws of any other nation, ancient or modern.’详情
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