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Nothing is more dangerous than that common axiom, We must consult the spirit of the laws. It is like breaking down a dam before the torrent of opinions. This truth, which seems a paradox to ordinary minds, more struck as they are by a little present inconvenience than by the pernicious but remote consequences which flow from a false principle enrooted among a people, seems to me to be demonstrated. Our knowledge and all our ideas are reciprocally connected together; and the more complicated they are, the more numerous are the approaches to them, and the points of departure. Every man has his own point of viewa different one at different times; so that the spirit of the laws would mean the result of good or bad logic on the part of a judge, of an easy or difficult digestion; it would depend now on the violence of his passions, now on the[128] feebleness of the sufferer, on the relationship between the judge and the plaintiff, or on all those minute forces which change the appearances of everything in the fluctuating mind of man. Hence it is that we see a citizens fate change several times in his passage from one court to another; that we see the lives of wretches at the mercy of the false reasonings or of the temporary caprice of a judge, who takes as his rightful canon of interpretation the vague result of all that confused series of notions which affect his mind. Hence it is that we see the same crimes punished differently by the same court at different times, owing to its having consulted, not the constant and fixed voice of the laws, but their unstable and erring interpretations.

Penal laws are the expression of the moral sentiments of mankind, and either are as variable as the other. In Holland it was once a capital offence to kill a stork, and in England to cut down a mans cherry-tree. For a Roman lady to drink wine was as heinous a sin as adultery, for either of which she incurred the extreme sentence of the law. In Athens idleness was for a long time punishable; though to a Spartan an Athenian fined for idleness seemed to be punished for keeping up his dignity. In Mexico drunkenness was a graver crime than slander; for whilst the slanderer lost his ears or lips, the drunken man or woman was clubbed or stoned to death. 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] False ideas of utility entertained by legislators are one source of errors and injustice. It is a false idea of utility which thinks more of the inconvenience of individuals than of the general inconvenience; which tyrannises over mens feelings, instead of arousing them into action; which says to Reason, Be thou subject. It is a false idea of utility which sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling drawback; which would deprive men of the use of fire because it burns or of water because it drowns; and whose only remedy for evils is the entire destruction of their causes. Of such a kind are laws prohibiting the wearing of arms, for they only disarm those who are not inclined nor resolved to commit crimes, whilst those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important in the law-code, are little likely to be induced to respect those lesser and purely arbitrary laws, which are easier to contravene with impunity; and the strict observance of which would imply the destruction of all personal liberty, (that liberty dearest to the enlightened legislator and to men generally,) subjecting the innocent to vexations[234] which only the guilty deserve. These laws, whilst they make still worse the position of the assailed, improve that of their assailants; they increase rather than diminish the number of homicides, owing to the greater confidence with which an unarmed man may be attacked than an armed one. They are not so much preventive of crimes as fearful of them, due as they are to the excitement roused by particular facts, not to any reasoned consideration of the advantages or disadvantages of a general decree. Again, it is a false idea of utility, which would seek to impart to a multitude of intelligent beings the same symmetry and order that brute and inanimate matter admits of; which neglects present motives, the only constantly powerful influences with the generality of men, to give force to remote and future ones, the impression of which is very brief and feeble, unless a force of imagination beyond what is usual makes up, by its magnifying power, for the objects remoteness. Lastly, it is a false idea of utility, which, sacrificing the thing to the name, distinguishes the public good from that of every individual member of the public. There is this difference between the state of society and the state of nature, that in the latter a savage only commits injuries against others with a view to benefit himself, whilst in the former state men are sometimes moved by bad laws to injure others without any corresponding benefit to themselves. The tyrant casts[235] fear and dread into the minds of his slaves, but they return by repercussion with all the greater force to torment his own breast. The more confined fear is in its range, so much the less dangerous is it to him who makes it the instrument of his happiness; but the more public it is and the larger the number of people it agitates, so much the more likely is it that there will be some rash, some desperate, or some clever and bold man who will try to make use of others for his own purpose, by raising in them hopes, that are all the more pleasant and seductive as the risk incurred in them is spread over a greater number, and as the value attached by the wretched to their existence diminishes in proportion to their misery. This is the reason why offences ever give rise to fresh ones: that hatred is a feeling much more durable than love, inasmuch as it derives its force from the very cause that weakens the latter, namely, from the continuance of the acts that produce it.

But undoubtedly punishment, although in its origin and present intention vindictive, must exercise a certain preventive force against crime, and this preventive force can scarcely be estimated, for that which is prevented is, of course, not seen. But the efficiency of punishment as a deterrent is proportioned to its certainty, and there is a large element of uncertainty that can never be eliminated. For every malefactor there are two hopes: first, that he may escape detection or apprehension; secondly, that he may escape conviction. That his hopes of impunity are not without reason greater than his fears of punishment the following facts attest. Sir James Mackintosh, who succeeded Romilly as law reformer, in 1820 introduced with success six penal reform bills into the House of Commons; but the Lords assented to none of them that were of any practical importance to the country. They agreed, indeed, that it should no longer be a capital offence for an Egyptian to reside one year in the country, or for a man to be found disguised in the Mint, or to injure Westminster Bridge; but they did not agree to remove the capital penalty for such offences as wounding cattle, destroying trees, breaking down the banks of rivers, or sending threatening letters. It was feared that if the punishment were mitigated, the whole of Lincolnshire might be submerged, whole forests cut down, and whole herds destroyed. As to the Shoplifting Bill, they would not let death be abolished for stealing in shops altogether, but only where the value of the theft was under 10l. That seemed the limit of safe concession.

From the simple consideration of the truths hitherto demonstrated it is evident that the object of punishment is neither to torment and inflict a sensitive creature nor to undo a crime already committed. Can he, whose function it is, so far from acting from passion, to tranquillise the private passions of his fellows, harbour in the body politic such useless cruelty, the instrument either of furious fanatics or of weak tyrants? Shall perchance the shrieks of an unhappy wretch call back from never-receding time actions already executed? The object, therefore, of punishment is simply to prevent the criminal from injuring anew his fellow-citizens, and to deter others from committing similar injuries; and those punishments and that method of inflicting them should be preferred which, duly proportioned to the offence, will produce a more efficacious and lasting impression on the[166] minds of men and inflict the least torture on the body of a criminal. Some persons have maintained that a crime, that is, an action contrary to the laws, is punishable wherever committed, as if the character of subject[193] were indelible, or, in other words, synonymous with, nay, worse than, the character of slave; as if a man could be the subject of one kingdom and the resident of another, or as if his actions could without contradiction be subordinate to two sovereign powers and to two legal systems often contradictory. So some think that a cruel action done, say, at Constantinople is punishable at Paris, for the abstract reason that he who offends humanity deserves to have collective humanity for his enemy, and merits universal execration; as if judges were the avengers of human sensibility in general, and not rather of the covenants that bind men together. The place of punishment is the place of the crime, because there, and there only, is it a compulsory duty to injure an individual, to prevent an injury to the public. A villain, but one who has not broken the covenants of the society of which he was not a member, may be an object of fear, and for that reason be expelled and exiled by the superior power of that society; but he cannot be legally and formally punished, since it is for the laws to avenge, not the intrinsic malice of particular actions, but the violation of compacts.

Who can read history without being horror-struck at the barbarous and useless torments which men, who were called wise, in cold blood devised and executed? Who is there but must feel his blood boil, when he regards the thousands of wretches whom misery, either intended or tolerated by the laws (which have always favoured the few and outraged the many), has driven to a desperate return to the original state of nature; when he sees them either accused by men endowed with the same senses, and consequently with the same passions as themselves, of impossible crimes, the fiction of timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but fidelity to their own principles; and when he sees them lacerated by slow tortures, subject to well-contrived formalities, an agreeable sight for a fanatical multitude?