OF HUMAN ACTIONS IN GENERAL.
I. The business of government is to promote the
happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding. That part of its business
which consists in punishing, is more particularly the subject of penal law. In
proportion as an act tends to disturb that happiness, in proportion as the
tendency of it is pernicious, will be the demand it creates for punishment.
What happiness consists of we have already seen: enjoyment of pleasures,
security from pains.
II. The general tendency of an act is more or less
pernicious, according to the sum total of its consequences: that is, according
to the difference between the sum of such as are good, and the sum of such as
III. It is to be observed, that here, as well as
henceforward, wherever consequences are spoken of, such only are meant as are
material. Of the consequences of any act, the multitude and variety must
needs be infinite: but such of them only as are material are worth regarding.
Now among the consequences of an act, be they what they may, such only, by one
who views them in the capacity of a legislator, can be said to be
material, as either consist of pain or
pleasure, or have an influence in the production of pain or pleasure.
IV. It is also to be observed, that into the account of
the consequences of the act, are to be taken not such only as might have
ensued, were intention out of the question, but such also as depend upon the
connexion there may be between these first-mentioned consequences and the
intention. The connexion there is between the intention and certain
consequences is, as we shall see hereafter,
a means of producing other consequences. In this lies the difference between
rational agency and irrational.
V. Now the intention, with regard to the consequences
of an act, will depend upon two things: 1. The state of the will or intention,
with respect to the act itself. And, 2. The state of the understanding, or
perceptive faculties, with regard to the circumstances which it is, or may
appear to be, accompanied with. Now with respect to these circumstances, the
perceptive faculty is susceptible of three states: consciousness,
unconsciousness, and false consciousness. Consciousness, when the party
believes precisely those circumstances, and no others, to subsist, which really
do subsist: unconsciousness, when he fails of perceiving certain circumstances
to subsist, which, however, do subsist: false consciousness, when he believes
or imagines certain circumstances to subsist, which in truth do not subsist.
VI. In every transaction, therefore, which is examined
with a view to punishment, there are four articles to be considered: 1. The
act itself, which is done. 2. The circumstances in which it is
done. 3. The intentionality that may have accompanied it. 4. The
consciousness, unconsciousness, or false consciousness, that may have
What regards the act and the circumstances will be the subject of the
present chapter: what regards intention and consciousness, that of the two
VII. There are also two other articles on which the
general tendency of an act depends: and on that, as well as on other accounts,
the demand which it creates for punishment. These are, 1. The particular
motive or motives which gave birth to it. 2. The general
disposition which it indicates. These articles will be the subject of
two other chapters.
VIII. Acts may be distinguished in several ways, for
They may be distinguished, in the first place, into positive and
negative. By positive are meant such as consist in motion or exertion: by
negative, such as consist in keeping at rest; that is, in forbearing to move or
exert one's self in such and such circumstances. thus, to strike is a positive
act: not to strike on a certain occasion, a negative one. Positive acts are
styled also acts of commission; negative, acts of omission or
IX. Such acts, again, as are negative, may either be
absolutely so, or relatively: absolutely, when they import the
negation of all positive agency whatsoever; for instance, not to strike at all:
relatively, when they import the negation of such or such a particular mode of
agency; for instance, not to strike such a person or such a thing, or in such a
X. It is to be observed, that the nature of the act,
whether positive or negative, is not to be determined immediately by the form
of the discourse made use of to express it. An act which is positive in its
nature may be characterized by a negative expression: thus, not to be at rest,
is as much as to say to move. So also an act, which is negative in its nature,
may be characterized by a positive expression: thus, to forbear or omit to
bring food to a person in certain circumstances, is signified by the single and
positive term to starve.
XI. In the second place, acts may be distinguished into
external and internal. By external, are meant corporal acts; acts
of the body: by internal, mental acts; acts of the mind. Thus, to strike is an
external or exterior act: to intend to
strike, an internal or interior one.
XII. Acts of discourse are a sort of mixture of
the two: external acts, which are no ways material, nor attended with any
consequences, any farther than as they serve to express the existence of
internal ones. To speak to another to strike, to write to him to strike, to
make signs to him to strike, are all so many acts of discourse.
XIII. Third, acts that are external may be
distinguished into transitive and intransitive. Acts may be
called transitive, when the motion is communicated from the person of the agent
to some foreign body: that is, to such a foreign body on which the effects of
it are considered as being material; as where a man runs against you, or
throws water in your face. Acts may be called intransitive, when the motion is
communicated to no other body, on which the effects of it are regarded as
material, than some part of the same person in whom it originated, as where a
man runs, or washes himself.
XIV. An act of the transitive kind may be said to be in
its commencement, or in the first stage of its progress, while
the motion is confined to the person of the agent, and has not yet been
communicated to any foreign body, on which the effects of it can be material.
It may be said to be in its termination, or to be in the last stage of
its progress, as soon as the motion or impulse has been communicated to some
such foreign body. It may be said to be in the middle or intermediate
stage or stages of its progress, while the motion, having passed from the
person of the agent, has not yet been communicated to any such foreign body.
Thus, as soon as a man has lifted up his hand to strike, the act he performs in
striking you is in its commencement: as soon as his hand has reached you, it is
in its termination. If the act be the motion of a body which is separated from
the person of the agent before it reaches the object, it may be said, during
that interval, to be in its intermediate progress, or in gradu mediativo: as in the case where
a man throws a stone or fires a bullet at you.
XV. An act of the intransitive kind may be said to be
in its commencement, when the motion or impulse is as yet confined to the
member or organ in which it originated; and has not yet been communicated to
any member or organ that is distinguishable from the former. It may be said to
be in its termination, as soon as it has been applied to any other part of the
same person. Thus, where a man poisons himself, while he is lifting up the
poison to his mouth, the act is in its commencement: as soon as it has reached
his lips, it is in its termination.
XVI. In the third place, acts may be distinguished into
transient and continued. Thus, to strike is a transient act: to
lean, a continued one. To buy, a transient act: to keep in one's possession, a
XVII. In strictness of speech there is a difference
between a continued act and a repetition of acts. It is a
repetition of acts, when there are intervals filled up by acts of different
natures: a continued act, when there are no such intervals. Thus, to lean, is
continued act: to keep striking, a repetition of acts.
XVIII. There is a difference, again, between a
repetition of acts, and a habit or practice. The term
repetition of acts may be employed, let the acts in question be separated by
ever such short intervals, and let the sum total of them occupy ever so short a
space of time. The term habit is not employed but when the acts in question are
supposed to be separated by long-continued intervals, and the sum total of them
to occupy a considerable space of time. It is not (for instance) the drinking
ever so many times, nor ever so much at a time, in the course of the same
sitting, that will constitute a habit of drunkenness: it is necessary that such
sittings themselves be frequently repeated. Every habit is a repetition of
acts; or, to speak more strictly, when a man has frequently repeated such and
such acts after considerable intervals, he is said to have persevered in or
contracted a habit: but every repetition of acts is not a habit.
XIX. Fourth, acts may be distinguished into
indivisible and divisible. Indivisible acts are merely imaginary:
they may be easily conceived, but can never be known to be exemplified. Such as
are divisible may be so, with regard either to matter or to to motion. An act
indivisible with regard to matter, is the motion or rest of one single atom of
matter. An act indivisible, with regard to motion, is the motion of any body,
from one single atom of space to the next to it.
Fifth, acts may be distinguished into simple and complex:
simple, such as the act of striking, the act of leaning, or the act of
drinking, above instanced: complex, consisting each of a multitude of simple
acts, which, though numerous and heterogeneous, derive a sort of unity from the
relation they bear to some common design or end; such as the act of giving a
dinner, the act of maintaining a child, the act of exhibiting a triumph, the
act of bearing arms, the act of holding a court, and so forth.
XX. It has been every now and then made a question,
what it is in such a case that constitutes one act: where one act has ended,
and another act has begun: whether what has happened has been one act or
many. These questions, it is now evident,
may frequently be answered, with equal propriety, in opposite ways: and if
there be any occasions on which they can be answered only in one way, the
answer will depend upon the nature of the occasion, and the purpose for which
the question is proposed. A man is wounded in two fingers at one stroke —
Is it one wound or several? A man is beaten at 12 o'clock, and again at 8
minutes after 12 — Is it one beating or several? You beat one man, and
instantly in the same breath you beat another — Is this one beating or
several? In any of these cases it may be one, perhaps, as to some purposes, and
several as to others. These examples are given, that men may be aware of the
ambiguity of language: and neither harass themselves with unsolvable doubts,
nor one another with interminable disputes.
XXI. So much with regard to acts considered in
themselves: we come now to speak of the circumstances with which they
may have been accompanied. These must necessarily be taken into the account
before any thing can be determined relative to the consequences. What the
consequences of an act may be upon the whole can never otherwise be
ascertained: it can never be known whether it is beneficial, or indifferent, or
mischievous. In some circumstances even to kill a man may be a beneficial act:
in others, to set food before him may be a pernicious one.
XXII. Now the circumstances of an act, are, what? Any
objects whatsoever. Take any act
whatsoever, there is nothing in the nature of things that excludes any
imaginable object from being a circumstance to it. Any given object may be a
circumstance to any other.
XXIII. We have already had occasion to make mention for
a moment of the consequences of an act: these were distinguished into
material and immaterial. In like manner may the circumstances of it be
distinguished. Now materiality is a relative term: applied to the
consequences of an act, it bore relation to pain and pleasure: applied to the
circumstances, it bears relation to the consequences. A circumstance may be
said to be material, when it bears a visible relation in point of causality to
the consequences: immaterial, when it bears no such visible relation.
XXIV. The consequences of an act are events. A circumstance may be related to an event in
point of causality in any be one of four ways: 1. In the way of causation or
production. 2. In the way of derivation. 3. In the way of collateral condition.
4. In the way of conjunct influence. It may be said to be related to the event
in the way of causation. when it is of the number of those that contribute to
the production of such event: in the way of derivation, when it is of the
number of the events to the production of which that in question has been
contributory: in the way of collateral connexion, where the circumstance in
question, and the event in question, without being either of them instrumental
in the production of the other, are related, each of them, to some common
object, which has been concerned in the production of them both: in the way of
conjunct influence, when, whether related in any other way or not, they have
both of them concurred in the production of some common consequence.
XXV. An example may be of use. In the year 1628,
Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, favourite and minister of Charles I. of England,
received a wound and died. The man who gave it him was one Felton, who,
exasperated at the maladministration of which that minister was accused, went
down from London to Portsmouth, where Buckingham happened then to be, made his
way into his anti-chamber, and finding him busily engaged in conversation with
a number of people round him, got close to him, drew a knife and stabbed him.
In the effort, the assassin's hat fell off, which was found soon after, and,
upon searching him, the bloody knife. In the crown of the hat were found scraps
of paper, with sentences expressive of the purpose he was come upon. Here then,
suppose the event in question is the wound received by Buckingham: Felton's
drawing out his knife, his making his way into the chamber, his going down to
Portsmouth, his conceiving an indignation at the idea of Buckingham's
administration, that administration itself, Charles's appointing such a
minister, and so on, higher and higher without end, are so many circumstances,
related to the event of Buckingham's receiving the wound, in the way of
causation or production: the bloodiness of the knife, a circumstance related to
the same event in the way of derivation: the finding of the hat upon the
ground, the finding the sentences in the hat, and the writing them, so many
circumstances related to it in the way of collateral connexion: and the
situation and conversations of the people about Buckingham, were circumstances
related to the circumstances of Felton's making his way into the room, going
down to Portsmouth, and so forth, in the way of conjunct influence; inasmuch as
they contributed in common to the event of Buckingham's receiving the wound, by
preventing him from putting himself upon his guard upon the first appearance of
XXVI. These several relations do not all of them attach
upon an event with equal certainty. In the first place, it is plain, indeed,
that every event must have some circumstance or other, and in truth, an
indefinite multitude of circumstances, related to it in the way of production:
it must of course have a still greater multitude of circumstances related to it
in the way of collateral connexion. But it does not appear necessary that every
event should have circumstances related to it in the way of derivation: nor
therefore that it should have any related to it in the way of conjunct
influence. But of the circumstances of all kinds which actually do attach upon
an event, it is only a very small number that can be discovered by the utmost
exertion of the human faculties: it is a still smaller number that ever
actually do attract our notice: when occasion happens, more or fewer of them
will be discovered by a man in proportion to the strength, partly of his
intellectual powers, partly of his inclination. It appears therefore that the multitude and
description of such of the circumstances belonging to an act, as may appear to
be material, will be determined by two considerations: 1. By the nature of
things themselves. 2. By the strength or weakness of the faculties of those who
happen to consider them.
XXVII. Thus much it seemed necessary to premise in
general concerning acts, and their circumstances, previously to the
consideration of the particular sorts of acts with their particular
circumstances, with which we shall have to do in the body of the work. An act
of some sort or other is necessarily included in the notion of every offense.
Together with this act, under the notion of the same offense, are included
certain circumstances: which circumstances enter into the essence of the
offense, contribute by their conjunct influence to the production of its
consequences, and in conjunction with the act are brought into view by the name
by which it stands distinguished. These we shall have occasion to distinguish
hereafter by the name of criminative circumstances. Other circumstances again entering into
combination with the act and the former set of circumstances, are productive of
still farther consequences. These additional consequences, if they are of the
beneficial kind, bestow, according to the value they bear in that capacity,
upon the circumstances to which they owe their birth the appellation of
exculpative or extenuative
circumstances: if of the mischievous kind,
they bestow on them the appellation of aggravative circumstances. Of all these different sets of circumstances, the
criminative are connected with the consequences of the original offence, in the
way of production; with the act, and with one another, in the way of conjunct
influence: the consequences of the original offense with them, and with the act
respectively, in the way of derivation: the consequences of the modified
offense, with the criminative, exculpative, and extenuative circumstances
respectively, in the way also of derivation: these different sets of
circumstances, with the consequences of the modified act or offense, in the way
of production: and with one another (in respect of the consequences of the
modified act or offense) in the way of conjunct influence. Lastly, whatever
circumstances can be seen to be connected with the consequences of the offense,
whether directly in the way of derivation, or obliquely in the way of
collateral affinity (to wit, in virtue of its being connected, in the way of
derivation, with some of the circumstances with which they stand connected in
the same manner) bear a material relation to the offense in the way of
evidence, they may accordingly be styled evidentiary circumstances, and
may become of use, by being held forth upon occasion as so many proofs,
indications, or evidences of its having been committed.
1. Or of importance.
2. In certain cases the consequences of an act may be
material by serving as evidences indicating the existence of some other
material fact, which is even antecedent to the act of which they are the
consequences: but even here, they are material only because, in virtue of such
their evidentiary quality, they have an influence, at a subsequent period of
time, in the production of pain and pleasure: for example, by serving as
grounds for conviction, and thence for punishment. See tit. [Simple
Falsehoods], verbo [material].
3. See B. I. tit. [Examptions] and tit. [Extenuations].
4. The distinction between positive and negative acts
runs through the whole system of offences, and sometimes makes a material
difference with regard to their consequences. To reconcile us the better to the
extensive and, as it may appear on some occasions, the inconsistent
signification here given to the word act, it may be considered, 1. That
in many cases, where no exterior or overt act is exercised, the state which the
mind is in at the time when the supposed act is said to happen, is as truly and
directly the result of the will, as any exterior act, how plain and conspicuous
soever. The not revealing a conspiracy, for instance, may be as perfectly the
act of the will, as the joining in it. In the next place, that even though the
mind should never have had the incident in question in contemplation (insomuch
that the event of its not happening should not have been so much as obliquely
intentional) still the state the person's mind was in at the time when, if he
had so willed, the incident might have happened, is in many cases
productive of as material consequences; and not only as likely, but as fit to
call for the interposition of other agents, as the opposite one. Thus when a
tax is imposed, your not paying it is an act which at any rate must be punished
in a certain manner whether you happened to think of paying it or not.
5. An exterior act is also called by lawyers
6. The distinction is well known to the latter
grammarians: it is with them indeed that it took its rise: though by them it
has been applied rather to the names than to the things themselves. To verbs,
signifying transitive acts, as here described, they have given the name of
transitive verbs: those significative of intransitive acts they have termed
intransitive. These last are still more frequently called neuter; that
is, neither active nor passive. The appellation seems improper: since,
instead of their being neither, they are both in one.
To the class of acts that are here termed intransitive, belong those which
constitute the 3rd class in the system of offenses. See ch. xvi. [Division] and
B. I. tit. [Self regarding Offenses].
7. Or in its migration, or in transitu.
8. These distinctions will be referred to in the next
chapter: [Intentionality]: and applied in practice in B. I. tit.
9. A habit, it should seem, can hardly in strictness be
termed an aggregate of acts: acts being a sort of real archetypal entities, and
habits a kind of fictitious entities or imaginary beings, supposed to be
constituted by, or to result as it were out of, the former.
10. Distinctions like these come frequently in question
in the course of Procedure.
11. Or entities. See B. II tit. [Evidence], §
12. The etymology of the word circumstance is perfectly
characteristic of its import: circum stantia, things standing round:
objects standing round a given object. I forget what mathematician it was that
defined God to be a circle, of which the centre is every where, but the
circumference no where. In like manner the field of circumstances, belonging to
any act, may be defined a circle, of which the circumference is no where, but
of which the act in question is the centre. Now then, as any act may, for the
purpose of discourse, be considered as a centre, any other act or object
whatsoever may be considered as of the number of those that are standing round
13. See B. II tit. [Evidence], § [Facts].
14. The division may be farther illustrated and
confirmed by the more simple and particular case of animal generation. To
production corresponds paternity: to derivation, filiation: to collateral
connexion, collateral consanguinity: to conjunct influence, marriage and
If necessary, it might be again illustrated by the material image of a
chain, such as that which, according to the ingenious fiction of the ancients,
is attached to the throne of Jupiter. A section of this chain should then be
exhibited by way of specimen, in the manner of the diagram of a
pedigree. Such a figure I should accordingly have exhibited, had it not been
for the apprehension that an exhibition of this sort, while it made the subject
a small matter clearer to one man out of a hundred, might, like the
mathematical formularies we see sometimes employed for the like purpose, make
it more obscure and formidable for the other ninety-nine.
15. The more remote a connexion of this sort is, of
course the more obscure. It will often happen that a connexion, the idea of
which would at first sight appear extravagant and absurd, shall be rendered
highly probable, and indeed indisputable, merely by the suggestion of a few
At Rome, 390 years before the Christian era, a goose sets up a cackling: two
thousand years afterwards a king of France is murdered. To consider these two
events, and nothing more, what can appear more extravagant than the notion that
the former of them should have had any influence on the production of the
latter? Fill up the gap, bring to mind a few intermediate circumstances, and
nothing can appear more probable. It was the cackling of a parcel of geese, at
the time the Gauls had surprised the Capitol, that saved the Roman
commonwealth: had it not been for the ascendancy that commonwealth acquired
afterwards over most of the nations of Europe, amongst others over France, the
Christian religion, humanly speaking, could not have established itself in the
manner it did in that country. Grant then, that such a man as Henry IV. would
have existed, no man, however, would have had those motives, by which
Ravaillac, misled by a mischievous notion concerning the dictates of that
religion, was prompted to assassinate him.
16. See B. I. tit. [Crim. Circumstances].
17. See B. I. tit. [Justifications].
18. See B. I. tit. [Extenuations].
19. See B. I. tit. [Aggravations].
20. See B. I. tit. [Accessory Offences] and B. II tit.
It is evident that this analysis is equally applicable to incidents of a
purely physical nature, as to those in which moral agency is concerned. If
therefore it be just and useful here, it might be found not impossible,
perhaps, to find some use for it in natural philosophy.
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