What punishments shall be ordained for the nobles, whose privileges make so great a part of the laws of nations? I do not mean to inquire whether the hereditary distinction between nobles and commoners be useful in any government, or necessary in a monarchy; or whether it be true that they form an intermediate power, of use in moderating the excess of both extremes; or whether they be not rather slaves to to their own body, and to others, confining within a very small circle the natural effects and hopes of industry, like those little fruitful spots scattered here and there in the sandy deserts of Arabia; or whether it be true that a subordination of rank and condition is inevitable or useful in society; and, if so, whether this subordination should not rather subsist between individuals than particular bodies, whether it should not rather circulate through the whole body politic than be confined to one part, and, rather than be perpetual, should it not be incessantly produced and destroyed. Be these as they may, I assert that the punishment of a nobleman should in no wise differ from that of the lowest member of society.
Every lawful distinction, either in honours or riches, supposes previous equality, founded on the laws, on which all the members of society are considered as being equally dependent. We should suppose that men, in renouncing their natural despotism, said, The wisest and most industrious among us should obtain the greatest honours, and his dignity shall descend to his posterity. The fortunate and happy may hope for greater honours, but let him not therefore be less afraid than others of violating those conditions on which he is exalted. It is true indeed that no such degrees were ever made in a general diet of mankind, but they exist in the invariable relations of things; nor do they destroy the advantages which are supposed to be produced by the class of nobles, but prevent the inconveniences; and they make the laws respectable, by destroying all hopes of impunity.
It may be objected, that the same punishment inflicted on a nobleman and a plebeian becomes really different from the difference of their education, and from the infamy it reflects on an illustrious family: but I answer, that punishments are to be estimated, not by the sensibility of the criminal, but by the injury done to society, which injury is augmented by the high rank of the offender. The precise equality of a punishment can never be more than external, as it is in proportion to the degree of sensibility which differs in every individual. The infamy of an innocent family may be easily obliterated by some public demonstration of favour from the sovereign, and forms have always more influence than reason on the gazing multitude.
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