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    Any action that is not included between the two above-indicated extremes can only be called a crime or punished as such by those who find their interest in so calling it. The uncertainty of these limits has produced in different nations a system of ethics contrary to the system of laws, has produced many actual systems of laws at total variance with one another, and a quantity of laws which expose even the wisest man to the severest penalties. Consequently the words virtue and vice have become of vague and variable meaning, and from the uncertainty thus surrounding individual existence, listlessness and a fatal apathy have spread over political communities. The second question is, whether it is expedient to place a reward on the head of a known criminal, and to make of every citizen an executioner by arming him against the offender. Either the criminal has fled from his country or he is still within it. In the first case the sovereign encourages the commission of a crime and exposes its author to a punishment, being thereby guilty of an injury and of an usurpation of authority in the dominions of another, and authorising other nations to do the same by himself. In the second case the sovereign displays his own weakness, for he who has the power wherewith to defend himself seeks not to purchase it. Moreover, such an edict upsets all ideas of morality and virtue,[195] which are ever ready to vanish from the human mind at the very slightest breath. Now the laws invite to treachery, and anon they punish it; with one hand the legislator tightens the bonds of the family, of kindred, and of friendship, whilst with the other he rewards whosoever violates and despises them; always in self-contradiction, he at one moment invites to confidence the suspicious natures of men, and at another scatters mistrust broadcast among them. Instead of preventing one crime, he causes a hundred. These are the resources of weak nations, whose laws are but the temporary repairs of a ruined building that totters throughout. In proportion as a nation becomes enlightened, good faith and mutual confidence become necessary, and tend ever more to identify themselves with true policy. Tricks, intrigues, dark and indirect paths, are for the most part foreseen, and the general quickness of all men collectively over-reaches and blunts that of single individuals. The very ages of ignorance, in which public morality inclines men to obey the dictates of private morality, serve as instruction and experience for the ages of enlightenment. But laws which reward treachery and stir up clandestine hostility by spreading mutual suspicion among citizens, are opposed to this union of private and public morality, a union which is so necessary, and to the observance of which individuals might owe their happiness, nations their peace, and[196] the universe a somewhat longer period of quiet and repose from the evils which at present pervade it.
    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.

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    As a matter of fact the law affords a very clear[81] proof, that its real purpose is to administer retributive justice and that punishment has no end beyond itself, by its careful apportionment of punishment to crime, by its invariable adjustment between the evil a man has done and the evil it deals out to him in return. For what purpose punish offences according to a certain scale, for what purpose stay to measure their gravity, if merely the prevention of crime is the object of punishment? Why punish a slight theft with a few months imprisonment and a burglary with as many years? The slight theft, as easier to commit, as more tempting accordingly, should surely have a harder penalty affixed to it than a crime which, as it is more difficult, is also less probable and less in need of strong counter-inducements to restrain it. That the law never reasons in this way is because it weighs offences according to their different degrees of criminality, or, in other words, because it feels that the fair retaliation for the burglary is not a fair retaliation for the theft.

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