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Even inanimate objects or animals it has been thought through many ages reasonable to punish. In Athens an axe or stone that killed anyone by accident was cast beyond the border; and the English law was only repealed in the present reign which made a cartwheel, a tree, or a beast, that killed a man, forfeit to the State for the benefit of the poor. The Jewish law condemned an ox that gored anyone to death to be stoned, just as it condemned the human murderer. And in the middle ages pigs, horses, or oxen were not only tried judicially like men, with counsel on either side and witnesses, but they were hung on gallows like men, for the better deterrence of their kind in future.[41] Such considerations as these will, perhaps, lead some day to the abolition of capital punishment. The final test of all punishment is its efficiency, not its humanity. There is often more inhumanity in a long sentence of penal servitude than in a capital sentence, for the majority of murderers deserve as little mercy as they get. The many offences which have ceased to be capital in English law yielded less to a sense of the inhumanity of the punishment as related to the crime than to the experience that such a punishment led to almost total impunity. The bankers, for instance, who petitioned Parliament to abolish capital punishment for forgery, did so, as they said, because they found by experience that the infliction of death, or the possibility of its infliction, prevented the prosecution, the conviction, and the punishment of the criminal; therefore they begged for that protection for their property which they would derive from a more lenient law.

There is no need to follow in further detail the life of Beccaria, for from this time to his death twenty-six years afterwards he never did nor wrote anything which again placed him conspicuously in the worlds eye.[16] His time was divided between the calls of his family and his country, but even as a member of the Government he never filled any very important post nor distinguished himself in any way above his colleagues. Three years before his death he became a[28] member of a committee for the reform of the civil and criminal jurisprudence, and he and his former friend Pietro Verri lived to see many of the ideals of their youth become the actualities of their manhood, themselves helping to promote their accomplishment. It is characteristic of Beccaria that on two several occasions, when the King of Naples came to visit him in his house, he absented himself purposely from the irksomeness of an interview. So he lived to the age of fifty-six, little noticed by the world, a lover of solitude rather than of society, preferring a few friends to many acquaintances, leading a quiet and useful life, but to the last true to the philosophy he had professed in his youth, that it is better to live as a spectator of the world than as one with any direct interest in the game. The credibility, therefore, of a witness must diminish in proportion to the hatred, friendship, or close connection between himself and the accused. More than one witness is necessary, because, so long as one affirms and another denies, nothing is proved, and the right which everyone has of being held innocent prevails.[140] The credibility of a witness becomes appreciably less, the greater the atrocity of the crime imputed,[66] or the improbability of the circumstances, as in charges of magic and gratuitously cruel actions. It is more likely, as regards the former accusation, that many men should lie than that such an accusation should be true, because it is easier for many men to be united in an ignorant mistake or in persecuting hatred than for one man to exercise a power which God either has not conferred or has taken away from every created being. The same reasoning holds good also of the second accusation, for man is only cruel in proportion to his interest to be so, to his hatred or[141] to his fear. Properly speaking, there is no superfluous feeling in human nature, every feeling being always in strict accordance with the impressions made upon the senses. In the same way the credibility of a witness may sometimes be lessened by the fact of his being a member of some secret society, whose purposes and principles are either not well understood or differ from those of general acceptance; for such a man has not only his own passions but those of others besides. The aim of punishment is not to torment sensitive beings.

By the same rule, in the case of theft, the value of the thing stolen, with some equivalent for the trouble of its recovery, taken from the offender or made a lien on his earnings, appears to be all that justice can demand. Sir Samuel Romilly, himself second to none as a lawyer, wrote seventy years ago: If the restitution of the property stolen, and only a few weeks or even but a few days imprisonment were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed. Yet the following sentences are taken[85] at random from authentic English sources: three months imprisonment for stealing a pipe, six months for stealing a penny, a twelvemonth for stealing an umbrella, five years penal servitude for stealing some stamps from a letter, seven years for stealing twopence. In such cases the principle of vindictiveness exceeds the limits of necessity, and therefore of justice; whilst the law loses all its dignity as the expression of unimpassioned resentment.

This, then, is the way to avoid confounding the relations and invariable nature of things, which, being unlimited by time and in ceaseless operation, confounds and overturns all narrow regulations that depart from it. It is not only the arts of taste and pleasure which have for their universal principle the faithful imitation of nature; but the art of politics itself, at least that which is true and permanent, is subject to this general maxim, since it consists in nothing else than the art of directing in the best way and to the same purposes the immutable sentiments of mankind. It would also seem to demand no great insight to perceive that a voluntary intention must be a universal attribute of a criminal action. No one would think of punishing a man who in his sleep killed another, although, if the injury to society be the measure of punishment, his crime is equivalent to intentional homicide. Yet at Athens an involuntary murderer was banished until he could, give satisfaction to the relatives of the deceased; and in China, though the penal code generally separates intentional from accidental crimes, anyone who kills a near relation by accident or commits certain kinds[72] of arson by accident undergoes different degrees of banishment and a fixed number of bamboo strokes.[40]

The success which attended Romillys Privately Stealing Bill and the failure which attended almost all his other efforts was probably due to the fact that larceny from the person without violence was, as has been said, the one single kind of offence which had Paleys sanction for ceasing to be capital. But the[61] very success of his first bill was the chief cause of the failure of his subsequent ones. For, capital punishment having been removed for mere pilfering, prosecutions became more frequent, and the opponents of reform were thus able to declare that an increase of theft had been the direct consequence of the abolition of the capital penalty. It was in vain to point out, that the apparent increase of theft was due to the greater readiness of individuals to prosecute and of juries to convict, when a verdict of guilt no longer involved death as the consequence.

But the man who sees in prospect a great number of years, or perhaps the whole of his life, to be passed in servitude and suffering before the eyes of fellow-citizens with whom he is living in freedom and friendship, the slave of those laws which had once protected him, makes a useful comparison of all these circumstances with the uncertain result of his crimes and with the shortness of the time for which he would enjoy their fruits. The ever present example of those whom he actually sees the victims of their own imprudence, impresses him much more strongly than the sight of a punishment which hardens rather than corrects him.

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.

Laws should only be considered as a means of conducting mankind to the greatest happiness.

Something, however, occurred more fatal to the reform of our penal laws than even the philosophy of Paley, and that was the French Revolution. Before 1790 there had been 115 capital offences in France; so that to alter the criminal law in England was to follow a precedent of unpleasant auspices. Reform not unnaturally savoured of revolution, and especially a reform of the penal laws. In 1808 Romilly said he would advise anyone, who desired to realise the mischievous effects of the French Revolution in England to attempt some legislative reform on humane and liberal principles. With bitterness he tells the story of a young nobleman, who, addressing him insolently at the bar of the House of Commons, informed him that he for his part was for hanging all criminals. Romilly observed that he supposed he meant punishments should be certain and the laws executed, whatever they were. No, no, was the reply, it isnt that. There is no good done by mercy. They only get worse: I would hang them all up at once. And this represented the prevalent[59] opinion. Windham, in a speech against the Shoplifting Bill, inquired, Had not the French Revolution begun with the abolition of capital punishment in every case? Was such a system as this was to be set up without consideration against that of Dr. Paley![36]