Of estimating the Degree of Crimes.
The foregoing reflections authorise me to assert that
crimes are only to be measured by the injury done to society.
They err, therefore, who imagine that a crime is greater
or less according to the intention of the person by whom it is committed; for
this will depend on the actual impression of objects on the senses, and on the
previous disposition of the mind; both which will vary in different persons,
and even in the same person at different times according to the succession of
ideas, passions, and circumstances. Upon that system it would be necessary to
form, not only a particular code for every individual, but a new penal law for
every crime. Men, often with the best intention, do the greatest injury to
society, and, with the worst, do it the most essential services.
Others have estimated crimes rather by the dignity of the
person offended than by their consequences to society. If this were the true
standard, the smallest irreverence to the Divine Being ought to be punished
with infinitely more severity than the assassination of a monarch.
In short, others have imagined, that the greatness of the
sin should aggravate the crime. But the fallacy of this opinion will appear on
the slightest consideration of the relations between man and man, and between
God and man. The relations between man and man are relations of equality.
Necessity alone hath produced, from the opposition of private passions and
interests, the idea of public utility, which is the foundation of human
justice. The other are relations of dependence, between an imperfect creature
and his Creator, the most perfect of beings, who has reserved to himself the
sole right of being both lawgiver and judge; for he alone can, without
injustice, be, at the same time, both one and the other. If he hath decreed
eternal punishments for those who disobey his will, shall an insect dare to put
himself in the place of divine justice, or pretend to punish for the Almighty,
who is himself all sufficient, who cannot receive impressions of pleasure or
pain, and who alone, of all other beings, acts without being acted upon? The
degree of sin depends on the malignity of the heart, which is impenetrable to
finite beings. How then can the degree of sin serve as a standard to determine
the degree of crimes? If that were admitted, men may punish when God pardons,
and pardon when God condemns; and thus act in opposition to the Supreme Being.
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