The Translator has abstained from all criticism or comment of the original, less from complete agreement[vi] with all its ideas than from the conviction that annotations are more often vexatious than profitable, and are best left to the reader to make for himself. There is scarcely a sentence in the book on which a commentator might not be prolix.
There was only one offence which Paley thought the English law punished too severely, and that was the offence of privately stealing from the person. In all other cases he defended the application of the capital penalty. It was, he thought, the peculiar merit of the English law that it swept into the net every crime which under any possible circumstance might merit death, whilst it only singled out a few cases in each class of crime for actual punishment; so that whilst few really suffered death, the dread and danger of it hung over the crimes of many. The law was not cruel, for it was never meant to be indiscriminately executed, but left a large margin for the exercise of mercy. Given the necessity of the aggregation of mankind, and given the covenants which necessarily result from the very opposition of private interests, a scale of offences may be traced, beginning with those which tend directly to the destruction of society, and ending with acts of the smallest possible injustice committed against individual members of it. Between these extremes are comprised all the actions opposed to the public welfare which are called crimes, and which by imperceptible degrees decrease in enormity from the highest to the lowest. If the infinite and obscure combinations of human actions admitted of mathematical treatment, there ought to be a corresponding scale of punishments, varying from the severest to the slightest penalty. If there were an exact and universal scale of crimes and punishments, we should have an approximate and general test by which to gauge the degrees of tyranny and liberty in different governments, the relative state of the humanity or wickedness of different nations. But the wise legislator will rest satisfied with marking out the principal divisions in such a scale, so as not to invert their order, nor to affix to crimes of the first degree punishments due to those of the last.
For since the observance of some regular proportion between crime and punishment, whatever that proportion may be, constitutes the first principle of an equitable code; and since the most important thing in public morality is a fixed penal estimate for every class of crime; it is above all things desirable that the law should always adhere to such proportion and estimate, by concerning itself solely with the crime and not with the criminal. The injury to the public is precisely the same whether a criminal has broken the law for the first time or for the thousandth and first; and to punish a man more severely for his second offence than for his first, because he has been punished before, is to cast aside all regard for that due proportion between crime and punishment which is after all the chief ingredient of retributive justice, and to inflict a penalty often altogether incommensurate with the injury inflicted on the public.
It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the chief aim of every good system of legislation, which is the art of leading men to the greatest possible happiness or to the least possible misery, according to calculation of all the goods and evils of life. But the means hitherto employed for this end are for the most part false and contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the turbulent activity of men to a geometrical harmony without any irregularity or confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not prevent aberrations in the movements of the planets, so, in the infinite and contradictory attractions of pleasure and pain, disturbances and disorder cannot be prevented by human laws. Yet this is the chimera that narrow-minded men pursue, when they have power in their hands. To prohibit a number of indifferent acts is not to prevent the crimes that may arise from them, but it is to create new ones from them; it is to give capricious definitions of virtue and vice which are proclaimed as eternal and immutable in their nature. To what should we be reduced if everything had to be forbidden us which might tempt us to a crime? It would be necessary to deprive a man of the use of his senses. For one motive that drives men to commit a real crime there are a thousand that drive them to the commission of those indifferent acts which are called crimes by bad laws; and if the likelihood of crimes is proportioned to the number of motives to commit them, an increase of the field of crimes is an increase of the likelihood of their commission. The majority of laws are nothing but privileges, or a tribute paid by all to the convenience of some few.