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Whosoever will read with a philosophical eye the codes and annals of different nations will find almost always that the names of virtue and vice, of good citizen and criminal, are changed in the course of ages, not in accordance with the changes that occur in the circumstances of a country, and consequently in conformity with the general interest, but in accordance with the passions and errors that have swayed different legislators in succession. He will observe full often, that the passions of one age form the basis of the morality of later ones; that strong passions, the offspring of fanaticism and enthusiasm, weakened and, so to speak, gnawed away by time (which reduces to a level all physical and moral phenomena) become little by little the prudence of the age, and a useful[204] instrument in the hand of the strong man and the clever. In this way the vaguest notions of honour and virtue have been produced; for they change with the changes of time, which causes names to survive things; as also with the changes of rivers and mountains, which form frequently the boundaries of moral no less than of physical geography. Why then did Pietro Verri not write it himself? The answer would seem to be, out of deference for the position and opinions of his father. It was some time later that Gabriel defended the use of torture in the Milanese Senate, and Pietro wrote a work on torture which he did not publish in his fathers lifetime. It was probably due also to the fathers position that Alessandro held his office of Protector of the Prisoners, so that there were obvious reasons which prevented either brother from undertaking the work in question.

But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madans Thoughts on Executive Justice, in which the author, adopting Beccarias principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. It was, says Romilly, a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives.

But whatever tendency might have been arising in theory or in practice about this time to mitigate the severity of our laws was destined to receive a dead check from the publication in 1784 and 1785 respectively of two books which deserve historical recollection. The first was Madans Thoughts on Executive Justice, in which the author, adopting Beccarias principle of the certainty of punishment as the best check on crime, advocated an unflinching carrying out of the laws as they stood. It was, says Romilly, a strong and vehement censure upon the judges and the ministers for their mode of administering the law, and for the frequency of the pardons which they granted. It was very much read, and certainly was followed by the sacrifice of many lives. The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.[34][53] It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.[35] It is not easy in the days of a milder administration of penal laws than a century ago the most sanguine could have dreamed of to do full justice to those who laboured, as Beccaria and his friends did, at the peril of their lives and liberties, for those very immunities which we now enjoy. We cannot conceive that it should ever have been necessary to argue against torture, or that it should have been a bold thing to do so; still less can we conceive that it should ever have had its defenders, or that men should have been contented with the sophism, that it was indeed an evil, but an evil which was necessary and inevitable.

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. Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line. The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.

In the ordinary state of society the death of a citizen is neither useful nor necessary. Our laws prohibit suggestive (leading) questions in a lawsuit: those, that is (according to the doctors of law), which, instead of applying, as they should do,[145] to the genus in the circumstances of a crime, refer to the species; those, in other words, which from their immediate connection with a crime suggest to the accused a direct answer. Questions, according to the criminal lawyers, ought, so to speak, to envelop the main fact spirally and never to attack it in a direct line. The reasons for this method are, either that an answer may not be suggested to the accused which may place him face to face with the charge against him, or perhaps because it seems unnatural for him directly to criminate himself. But, whichever of these reasons it may be, the contradiction is remarkable between the existence of such a custom and the legal authorisation of torture; for what interrogatory can be more suggestive than pain? The former reason applies to the question of torture, because pain will suggest to a strong man obstinate silence, in order that he may exchange the greater penalty for the lesser, whilst it will suggest to a weak man confession, in order that he may escape from present torment, which has more influence over him than pain which is to come. The other reason evidently applies too, for if a special question leads a man to confess against natural right, the agonies of torture will more easily do the same. But men are more governed by the difference of names than by that of things.

Six days after his arrival Beccaria writes in a similar strain: that he is in the midst of adorations and the most flattering praises, considered as the companion and colleague of the greatest men in Europe, regarded with admiration and curiosity, his company competed for; in the capital of pleasures, close to three theatres, one of them the Comdie Fran?aise, the most interesting spectacle in the world; and that yet he is unhappy and discontented, and unable to find distraction in anything. He tells his wife that he is in excellent health, but that she must say just the contrary, in order that there may be a good pretext for his return; and the better to ensure this, he sends his wife another letter which she may show to his parents, and in which, at the end of much general news about Paris, he alludes incidentally to the bad effect on his health of drinking the waters of the Seine. He regrets having to resort to this fiction; but considers that he is justified by the circumstances.

The third consequence is this: if it were proved that the severity of punishments were simply useless (to say nothing of being directly opposed to the public good and to the very object of preventing crimes), even in that case it would be contrary not only to those beneficent virtues that flow from an enlightened reason, which prefers to rule over happy human beings than over a flock of slaves, the constant victims of timid cruelty, but it would be also contrary to justice and to the nature of the social contract itself.

Although these instructions were not so much laws as suggestions of laws, it is obvious what their effect must have been when published and diffused throughout Russia. That they were translated into Latin, German, French, and Italian proves the interest that was taken in Europe by this first attempt to apply the maxims of philosophy to practical government.

Is death a penalty really useful and necessary for the security and good order of society?

It will be said, of course, that the practice of giving increased sentences where there have been previous convictions prevails all over the world and in all[90] states of civilisation. But in that very fact lies the strength of the argument against it. By the Roman law a third case of theft, however slight, exposed a man to death.[48] By the laws of St. Louis the man who stole a thing of trifling value lost an ear the first time, a foot the second, and was hung the third. By the criminal code of Sardinia in the fifteenth century, asses were condemned to lose one ear the first time they trespassed on a field not their masters, and their second ear for a second offence. But enough of such instances. The practice is undoubtedly universal; but so at one time were ordeals and tortures. May not, then, the practice be, like them, part and parcel of a crude state of law, such as was unavoidable in its emergence to better things, but such as it is worth some effort to escape from?

Divine justice and natural justice are in their essence immutable and constant, because the relation between similar things is always the same; but human or political justice, being nothing more than a relation between a given action and a given state of society, may vary according as such action becomes necessary or useful to society; nor is such justice easily discernible, save by one who analyses the complex and very changeable relations of civil combinations. When once these principles, essentially distinct, become confused, there is no more hope of sound reasoning about public matters. It appertains to the theologian to fix the boundaries between the just and the unjust, in so far as regards the intrinsic goodness or wickedness of an act; to fix the relations between the politically just and unjust appertains to the publicist; nor can the one object cause any detriment to the other, when it is obvious how the virtue that is purely political ought to give place to that immutable virtue which emanates from God.