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Even if we assume that death is absolutely the severest penalty devisable by the law, and that as a punishment for murder it is not too severe, it remains certain, that, relatively to the circumstances of a trial[40] for murder, to the reluctance of judges or juries to pass an irretrievable sentence, to their fear of error, to their conscientious regard for human life, it is really a much less terrible danger for a malefactor to face than a penalty which would justify fewer hopes of impunity.

The necessity of remedying the disorders caused by the physical despotism of each man singly produced the first laws and the first magistrates; this was the end and object of the institution of societies, and this end has always been maintained, either in reality or appearance, at the head of all codes, even of those that operated otherwise. But the closer contact of men with one another and the progress of their knowledge brought about an endless series of mutual actions and needs, which ever lay beyond the foresight of the laws and below the actual power of individuals. From this epoch began the despotism of opinion, which afforded the only means for obtaining from others those benefits and averting those evils, for which the laws failed to provide. It is this opinion that is the trouble equally of the wise man and the fool; that has raised the semblance of virtue to higher credit than virtue itself; that even makes the rascal turn missionary, because he finds his own[211] interest therein. Hence the favour of men became not only useful but necessary, if a man would not fall below the general level. Hence, not only does the ambitious man seek after such favour as useful to himself, and the vain man go begging for it as a proof of his merit, but the man of honour also may be seen to require it as a necessity. This honour is a condition that very many men attach to their own existence. Born after the formation of society, it could not be placed in the general deposit; it is rather a momentary return to the state of nature, a momentary withdrawal of ones self from the dominion of those laws which, under the circumstances, fail to afford the sufficient defence required of them. Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.

Whosoever disturbs the public peace, or obeys not the laws, that is, the conditions under which men bear with and defend one another, ought to be excluded from society, that is, to be banished from it. The good faith of contracts and the security of commerce compel the legislator to assure to creditors the persons of insolvent debtors. But I think it important to distinguish the fraudulent from the innocent bankrupt, the former of whom should receive the same punishment as that assigned to false coiners, since it is no greater crime to falsify a piece of coined money, the pledge of mens mutual[217] obligations, than to falsify those obligations themselves. But the innocent bankrupthe who, after a searching inquiry, has proved before his judges that the wickedness or misfortune of some one else, or the inevitable vicissitudes of human prudence, have despoiled him of his substancefor what barbarous reason ought such an one to be thrown into prison, and deprived of the only poor benefit that remains to him, a barren liberty, in order to suffer the agonies of the really guilty, and, in despair at his ruined honesty, to repent perhaps of that innocence, by which he lived peacefully under the protection of those laws that it was not in his power not to offend against? Laws, too, dictated by the powerful by reason of their rapacity, and endured by the feeble by reason of that hope, which generally glimmers in the human heart, and leads us to believe that unfavourable contingencies are reserved for others, favourable ones for ourselves! Men left to their natural feelings love cruel laws, however much, as subject to them themselves, it might be for their individual interest that they should be mitigated; because their fear of being injured by others is greater than their desire to inflict injuries themselves.

Paley agreed with Beccaria that the certainty of punishment was of more consequence than its severity. For this reason he recommended undeviating impartiality in carrying the laws into execution; he blamed the weak timidity of juries, leading them to be over-scrupulous about the certainty of their evidence, and protested against the maxim that it was better for ten guilty men to escape than for one innocent man to perish. A man who fell by a mistaken sentence might, he argued, be considered as falling for his country, because he was the victim of a system of laws which maintained the safety of the community. Sir Robert Peel, who was the first Ministerial law reformer, succeeded in getting the death penalty repealed for several crimes which were practically obsolete, but forty kinds of forgery alone still remained capital offences. Torture, again, is employed to discover if a criminal is guilty of other crimes besides those with which he is charged. It is as if this argument were employed: Because you are guilty of one crime you may be guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs upon me: I wish to ascertain about it by my test of truth: the laws torture you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I mean you to be guilty.

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.