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The influence of the predominant French philosophy appears throughout Beccarias treatise. Human justice is based on the idea of public utility, and the object of legislation is to conduct men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery. The vein of dissatisfaction with life and of disbelief in human virtue is a marked feature of Beccarias philosophy. To him life is a desert, in which a few physical pleasures lie scattered here and there;[5] his own country is only a place of exile, save for the presence of a few friends engaged like himself in a war with ignorance. Human ideas of morality and virtue have only been produced in the course of many centuries and after much bloodshed, but slow and difficult as their growth has been, they are ever ready to disappear at the slightest breeze that blows against them.

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 manthat is, every man with a certain connection between his ideas and with feelings like those of other menis 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.

The lighting of a city by night at the public expense; the distribution of guards in the different quarters; simple moral discourses on religion, but only in the silent and holy quiet of churches, protected by public authority; speeches on behalf of private and public interests in national assemblies, parliaments, or wherever else the majesty of sovereignty residesall these are efficacious means for preventing the dangerous condensation of popular passions. These means are a principal branch of that magisterial vigilance which the French call police; but if this is exercised by arbitrary laws, not laid down in a code of general circulation, a door is opened to tyranny,[221] which ever surrounds all the boundaries of political liberty. I find no exception to this general axiom, that Every citizen ought to know when his actions are guilty or innocent. If censors, and arbitrary magistrates in general, are necessary in any government, it is due to the weakness of its constitution, and is foreign to the nature of a well organised government. More victims have been sacrificed to obscure tyranny by the uncertainty of their lot than by public and formal cruelty, for the latter revolts mens minds more than it abases them. The true tyrant always begins by mastering opinion, the precursor of courage; for the latter can only show itself in the clear light of truth, in the fire of passion, or in ignorance of danger.

2. When the proofs of a fact all depend equally on a single one, their number neither increases nor diminishes the probability of the fact in question, because their total value resolves itself into that of the single one on which they depend.

That Penology is still only in its experimental stage as a science, in spite of the progress it has made in recent times, is clear from the changes that are so constantly being made in every department of our penal system. We no longer mutilate nor kill our criminals, as our ancestors did in the plenitude of their wisdom; we have ceased to transport them, and our only study now is to teach them useful trades and laborious industry. Yet whether we shall better bring them to love labour by compulsory idleness or by compulsory work, whether short imprisonment or long is the most effective discipline, whether seclusion or association is least likely to demoralise them, these and similar questions have their answers in a quicksand of uncertainty. This only may experience be said to have yet definitely proved, that very little relation exists in any country between the given quantity of crime and the quantity or severity of punishment directed to its prevention. It has taken thousands of years to establish this truth, and even yet it is but partially recognised over the world. Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.

Two other fatal consequences flow from the cruelty of punishments, and are contrary to their very purpose, the prevention of crimes. The first is, that it is not so easy to preserve the essential proportion between crime and punishment, because, however much a studied cruelty may diversify its forms, none of them can go beyond the extreme limit of endurance which is a condition of the human organisation and sensibility. When once this extreme limit is attained, it would be impossible to invent such a corresponding increase of punishment for still more injurious and atrocious crimes as would be necessary to prevent them. The other consequence is, that impunity itself arises from the severity of punishments. Men are restrained within limits both in good and evil; and a sight too atrocious for humanity can only be a passing rage, not a constant system, such as the laws ought to be; if the latter are really cruel, either they are changed, or themselves give rise to a fatal impunity.

Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him?

It is remarkable that a book which has done more for law reform than any other before or since should have been written by a man who was not a lawyer by profession, who was totally unversed in legal practice, and who was only twenty-six when he attacked a system of law which had on its side all authority, living and dead. Hume was not twenty-seven when[4] he published his Treatise on Human Nature, nor was Berkeley more than twenty-six when he published his Principles of Human Knowledge. The similar precocity displayed by Beccaria is suggestive, therefore, of the inquiry, how far the greatest revolutions in the thoughts or customs of the world have been due to writers under thirty years of age.

There are, however, certain limitations even to the supposed universality of the custom. For the Roman jurists did not consider a re-conviction as a circumstance in itself which justified aggravation of punishment; and all that can be gathered from some fragments in the Pandects and Code is, that some particular cases of repeated crimes were punished more severely than a first offence. But they were crimes of the same kind; and a man whose first crime[91] was a theft and whose second was an assault would not have incurred an aggravated penalty. It is the same to-day in the Austrian, Tuscan, and a few other codes: a second crime is only punished more severely as a second crime when it is of the same kind as the first, so that it would not suffice to prove simply a previous conviction for felony irrespective of the particular sort. There is also another limitation that has sometimes been recognised, for in the Roman law the rule of an increased penalty fell to the ground, if three years elapsed without offence between the punishment for one crime and the commission of a second.[49]