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Even the idea of public utility as the final test and standard of morality is derived from Beccaria, and the famous expression, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, occurs, in capital letters, in the very first page of the Delitti e delle Pene.[30] Bentham himself fully acknowledged this. Priestley was the first, he says, unless it was Beccaria, who taught my lips to pronounce this sacred truth: that the[47] greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and happiness. And with reference to his idea of the measurable value of different pains and pleasures, he says: It was from Beccarias little treatise on Crimes and Punishments that I drew, as I well remember, the first hint of this principle, by which the precision and clearness and incontestableness of mathematical calculations are introduced for the first time into the field of morals.

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.A contradiction between the laws and the natural feelings of mankind arises from the oaths which are required of an accused, to the effect that he will be a truthful man when it is his greatest interest to be false; as if a man could really swear to contribute to his own destruction, or as if religion would not be silent with most men when their interest spoke on the other side. The experience of all ages has shown that men have abused religion more than any other of the precious gifts of heaven; and for what reason should criminals respect it, when men esteemed as the wisest have often violated it? Too weak, because too far removed from the senses, are[147] for the mass of people the motives which religion opposes to the tumult of fear and the love of life. The affairs of heaven are conducted by laws absolutely different from those which govern human affairs; so why compromise those by these? Why place men in the terrible dilemma of either sinning against God or concurring in their own ruin? The law, in fact, which enforces such an oath commands a man either to be a bad Christian or to be a martyr. The oath becomes gradually a mere formality, thus destroying the force of religious feelings, which for the majority of men are the only pledge of their honesty. How useless oaths are has been shown by experience, for every judge will bear me out when I say that no oath has ever yet made any criminal speak the truth; and the same thing is shown by reason, which declares all laws to be useless, and consequently injurious, which are opposed to the natural sentiments of man. Such laws incur the same fate as dams placed directly in the main stream of a river: either they are immediately thrown down and overwhelmed, or a whirlpool formed by themselves corrodes and undermines them imperceptibly.


The case of infanticide suggests similar thoughts. When we remember that both Plato and Aristotle commended as a valuable social custom that which we treat as a crime; when we recall the fact that the life of a Spartan infant depended on a committee of elders, who decided whether it should live or perish, we shall better appreciate the distance we have travelled, or, as some would say, the progress we have made, if we take up some English daily paper and read of some high-minded English judge sentencing, at least formally, some wretched woman to death, because, in order to save her child from starvation or herself from shame, she has released it from existence. Yet the feeling, of which such a sentence is the expression, is often extolled as one of the highest triumphs of civilisation; and the laws, as if there were no difference between adult and infant[76] life, glory in protecting the weakness of a child by their merciless disregard for the weakness of its mother.Laws should only be considered as a means of conducting mankind to the greatest happiness.

The most successful adoption of Beccarias principles of punishment occurred in Tuscany, under the Grand Duke Leopold. When he ascended the ducal throne, the Tuscans were the most abandoned people of all Italy. Robberies and murders were none the less frequent for all the gallows, wheels, and tortures which were employed to repress them. But Leopold in 1786 resolved to try Beccarias plan, for which purpose he published a code, proportioning punishments to crimes, abolishing mutilation and torture, reducing the number of acts of treason, lessening confiscations, destroying the right of asylum, and above all abolishing capital punishment even for murder. The result was, says a contemporary, that Tuscany, from having been the land of the greatest crimes and villanies, became the best ordered State of Europe.[22] During twenty years only five murders were committed in Tuscany, whilst at Rome, where death continued to be inflicted with great pomp, as[36] many as sixty were committed within the space of three months.[23]

Some crimes tend directly to the destruction of society or to the sovereign who represents it; others affect individual citizens, by imperilling their life, their property, or their honour; whilst others, again, are actions contrary to the positive or negative obligations which bind every individual to the public weal.These customs had doubtless their defenders, and left the world not without a struggle. It must have cost some one, whosoever first questioned the wisdom of hanging animals or murdering a criminals relations, as much ridicule as it cost Beccaria to question the efficacy of torture or the right of capital punishment. But the boldness of thought in that unknown reformer was probably lost sight of in the arrogance of his[73] profanity, and he doubtless paid with his own neck for his folly in defending the pigs.The mind of man offers more resistance to violence and to extreme but brief pains than it does to time and to incessant weariness; for whilst it can, so to speak, gather itself together for a moment to repel the former, its vigorous elasticity is insufficient to resist the long and repeated action of the latter. In the[174] case of capital punishment, each example presented of it is all that a single crime affords; in penal servitude for life, a single crime serves to present numerous and lasting warnings. And if it be important that the power of the laws should often be witnessed, there ought to be no long intervals between the examples of the death penalty; but this would presuppose the frequency of crimes, so that, to render the punishment effective, it must not make on men all the impression that it ought to make, in other words, it must be useful and not useful at the same time. And should it be objected that perpetual servitude is as painful as death, and therefore equally cruel, I will reply, that, taking into consideration all the unhappy moments of servitude, it will perhaps be even more painful than death; but whilst these moments are spread over the whole of a lifetime, death exercises all its force in a single moment. There is also this advantage in penal servitude, that it has more terrors for him who sees it than for him who suffers it, for the former thinks of the whole sum-total of unhappy moments, whilst the latter, by the unhappiness of the present moment, has his thoughts diverted from that which is to come. All evils are magnified in imagination, and every sufferer finds resources and consolations unknown to and unbelieved in by spectators, who substitute their own sensibility for the hardened soul of a criminal.

CHAPTER XXXIV. OF POLITICAL IDLENESS.In order that a punishment may attain its object, it is enough if the evil of the punishment exceeds the advantage of the crime, and in this excess of evil the certainty of punishment and the loss of the possible advantage from the crime ought to be considered as part; all beyond this is superfluous and consequently tyrannical. Men regulate their conduct by the reiterated impression of evils they know, not by reason of evils they ignore. Given two nations, in one of which, in the scale of punishments proportioned[167] to the scale of crimes, the severest penalty is perpetual servitude, and in the other the wheel; I say that the former will have as great a dread of its severest punishment as the latter will have; and if there be any reason for transporting to the former country the greater penalties of the other, the same reasoning will serve for increasing still more the penalties of this latter country, passing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slowest and most elaborate tortures, nay, even to the last refinements of that science which tyrants understand only too well.If the interpretation of laws is an evil, it is clear that their obscurity, which necessarily involves interpretation, must be an evil also, and an evil which will be at its worst where the laws are written in any other than the vernacular language of a country. For in that case the people, being unable to judge of themselves how it may fare with their liberty or their limbs, are made dependent on a small class of men; and a book, which should be sacred and open to all, becomes, by virtue of its language, a private and, so to speak, a family manual.

In the third place, there is the discharge from prison; and truly, if the prevention of crime be a main object of society, it is just when a man is released from prison that, from a social point of view, there would seem most reason to send him there. For even if, whilst in prison, he has learned no dishonest means of livelihood, how shall he, when out of it, set about obtaining an honest one? If temptation was too strong for him when all doors were open to him, is it likely to be less strong when most are closed? Will it not be something like a miracle, if, with two pounds paid to him on his discharge and his railway fare paid home, he eat for any considerable time the bread of honesty, and sleep the sleep of the just?As it, then, was necessity which constrained men to yield a part of their individual liberty, it is certain that each would only place in the general deposit the least possible portiononly so much, that is, as would suffice to induce others to defend it. The aggregate of these least possible portions constitutes the right of punishment; all that is beyond this is an abuse and not justice, a fact but not a right.[64] Punishments[124] which exceed what is necessary to preserve the deposit of the public safety are in their nature unjust; and the more just punishments are, the more sacred and inviolable is personal security, and the greater the liberty that the sovereign preserves for his subjects.


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If we consult the human heart we shall therein discover the fundamental principles of the real right of the sovereign to punish crimes.Had I to address nations still destitute of the light of religion, I would say that there is yet another considerable difference between adultery and other crimes. For it springs from the abuse of a constant and universal human impulse, an impulse anterior to, nay, the cause of the institution of society; whereas other crimes, destructive of society, derive their origin rather from momentary passions than from a natural impulse. To anyone cognisant of history and his kind, such an impulse will seem to be equivalent in the same climate to a constant quantity; and if this be so, those laws and customs which seek to diminish the sum-total will be useless or dangerous, because their effect will be to burthen one half of humanity with its own needs and those of others; but those laws, on the contrary, will be the wisest, which following, so to speak, the gentle inclination of the plain, divide the total amount, causing it to ramify into so many equal and small portions, that aridity or overflowing are equally prevented everywhere. Conjugal fidelity is always proportioned to the number and to the freedom of marriages. Where marriages are governed by hereditary prejudices, or[229] bound or loosened by parental power, there the chains are broken by secret intrigue, in despite of ordinary morality, which, whilst conniving at the causes of the offence, makes it its duty to declaim against the results. But there is no need of such reflections for the man who, living in the light of true religion, has higher motives to correct the force of natural effects. Such a crime is of so instantaneous and secret commission, so concealed by the very veil the laws have drawn round it (a veil necessary, indeed, but fragile, and one that enhances, instead of diminishing, the value of the desired object), the occasions for it are so easy, and the consequences so doubtful, that the legislator has it more in his power to prevent than to punish it. As a general rule, in every crime which by its nature must most frequently go unpunished, the penalty attached to it becomes an incentive. It is a quality of our imagination, that difficulties, if they are not insurmountable nor too difficult, relatively to the mental energy of the particular person, excite the imagination more vividly, and place the object desired in larger perspective; for they serve as it were as so many barriers to prevent an erratic and flighty fancy from quitting hold of its object; and, while they compel the imagination to consider the latter in all its bearings, it attaches itself more closely to the pleasant[230] side, to which our mind most naturally inclines, than to the painful side, which it places at a distance.Less dangerous personally than the theological criticism, but more pernicious to reform, was the hostile criticism that at once appeared from the thick phalanx of professional lawyers, the sound-thinking practical men. From whom only two short extracts need be rescued from oblivion, as illustrations of the objections once raised against ideas which have since become the common groundwork of all subsequent legislation, in America as well as in Europe. The first extract is from a work on criminal justice by a lawyer of Provence, who in 1770 wrote as follows:

The author of the book was a native of Milan, then part of the Austrian dominions, and under the governorship of Count Firmian, a worthy representative of the liberal despotism of Maria Theresa and her chief minister, Kaunitz. Under Firmians administration a period of beneficial reforms began for Lombardy. Agriculture was encouraged, museums and libraries extended, great works of public utility carried on. Even the Church was shorn of her privileges,[2] and before Firmian had been ten years in Lombardy all traces of ecclesiastical immunity had been destroyed; the jurisdiction of the Church, and her power to hold lands in mortmain were restricted, the right of asylum was abolished, and, above all, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Let these few facts suffice to indicate the spirit of the immediate political surroundings in the midst of which Beccarias work appeared.


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