TO THE EDITOR OP THE SPECTATOR. 11th June 1842.
Sue-The following remarks have been suggested by a passage in the Spec- tator of last Saturday, now to be quoted.
"Other secondary punishments, which might be sufficient to deter from crime if they were known to be the highest, may not have that effect ohen it is known that there is a higher. If perpetual imprisonment with privation of every comfort not necessary to support life were the highest punishment, such a prospect viewed by itself might be sufficiently forbidding, but its power to create fear is diminished so long as it is regarded as an escape from a more dreaded evil. A man might be deterred from renewing the attempt made by Oxford by the knowledge of the hopeless imprisonment to which he had been doomed, if that imprisonment were contemplated in its own terrors, who re- mains undismayed by it from having been led to look at it merely as an escape from death."
As bearing upon the question of the abolition of Death-punishment, those parts of the foregoing quotation which I have marked in Italics seem to me to contain a most important admission. Although you, Sir, have not hitherto taken a decided stand for the abolition of capital punishment, the general tenonr of your observations and reasonings on the subject have been favour- able to such a change : the above passage from the Spectator M itself an in- stance of this. Yet, Sir, you admit that, in comparison with others, the pu- nishment of death is in contemplation the most dreadful: and-notwithstand- ing what may have been advanced to the contrary-notwithstanding the appalling recklessness with which we see individuals rush to crime' with their doom fall before them-that the love of life is the first law of our being, who can successfully controvert? Now, it does seem a little paradoxical, that an argument for the propriety, it may be, of the abolition of capital punishment should be constructed upon' such a foundation. You very properly disclaim the cant of humanity in regard to the treatment of criminals, which, to the disgrace of modern sentiment, absorbs all considerations of tenderness for the helpless victims of crime. Your main object, in punishment, is to prevent a recurrence of crime. Why, then, seek to remove the wholesome restraint of the fear of death, to replace that mode of punishment by another, which, to many, may have no terror at all ? For, unless the proposed substitute of per- petual imprisonment were to be accompanied by such circumstances as would offend much more against humanity than the punishment of death, I cannot see what would prevent abandoned wretches-all whose faculties seem to be repressed and overborne by the predominance of the lowest and worst of animal propensities-from acts of guilt : nay, there may be even an incentive to the commission of them afforded by the prospect of a punishment throughout the continuance of which their lives would be protected and sustained without any care or labour of their own. But this is not all.
It may be presumption in me, but I must say there appears to me an ab- sence of your usual perspicacity when you say, in effect, that, supposing death- punishment to be abolished, and another-say perpetual imprisonment-to be placed at the head of the category, that, by being thus placed, it would become invested with a new attribute of terror, and be more effectual in preventing crime than when viewed simply as a secondary punishment. I do think there is something unsound in thus regarding punishments as relative, and not in their own nature and absolute. For observe to what a conclusion such a mode of arguing might lead. Might not the principle be applied downwards through the whole range of punishment ; and thus, by a curious inversion, the higher degrees being abrogated, the slightest infliction of punishment might come to be looked upon as the only proper and most efficacious preventive of crime?, 'To offenders this may be palatable enough. It proceeds upon the principle of abolishing punishment, leaving crime to follow at its own leisure: we may rest assured it would be in no haste. to-
There is something highly important in your remarks, in a subsequent part of the article above quoted, upon that species of madness which urges to crime, but which at the same time leaves the criminal the full power of contemplating both the nature and consequences of his actions. It is in an awful degree characteristic of the present day, and may be regarded as a phienomenon in the workings of human passion, that crimes having such an origin have become so prevalent. And, although to the merely philosophical inquirer this may pre- sent a subject for speculation nearly inscrutable, surely the spread of intelli- gence, and the active philanthropy of our times, may be hoped to do much in the way of checking propensities so fearful ; propensities which, in the case of individuals impelled neither by a sense of want, nor danger, nor restriction in the gratification of any innocent emotion, are almost daily seen to issue in the perpetration of the most revolting crimes. I remain, Sir, yours most respectfully,
[The passage quoted from the Spectator contains no such admission as our- Correspondent infers from it. No opinion is there expressed as to what kind of punishment is most likely to strike terror into offenders : the object of that passage was to call attention to the fact that the amount of apprehension a punishment is naturally capable of exciting may be diminished by the manner in which it is presented to the understanding. Men may be made to entertain undue terrors of some kinds of pain, and to undervalue others, by the manner in which they hear them habitually talked of in society. Our fears are but in part the growth of our own minds ; the greater part of them are gathered from the conversation of others.
In the sentences quoted by DISCIPULUS, we wished to point out the neces- sity of attending to this peculiarity of the human mind in penal legislation. DISCIPOLUS must feel that he has caricatured this opinion when he speaks of
our merely "regarding punishments as relative." He means "comparative,' and must be aware that only positive qualities can be compared.
Into the question of the necessity of death-punishment we did not then enter, nor do we intend to do so at present. We would suggest, however, one consideration to our correspondent-whom we respect, because we believe that he argues only to arrive at truth. Leaving out of view that there are own consti- tutionally indifferent to life, experience teaches us that the mere slaves of ani- mal propensities are the least capable of being deterred by the prospect of death. The savage braves it more recklessly than the man of cultivated intellect-the low degraded ruffian than the accomplished scholar. The cause of this is obvious : the mere animal. man (savage or uneducated ruffian) is capable ouly of being affected by the prospect of immediate pain or pleasure : he cannot reason himself into the belief that the more distant and less distinctly seen ad- vantage is really greater than that which makes more impression upon him be- cause nearer at hand. The same deficiency in the power of reasoning leads him to desire ouly enjoyment, not life for the purpose of enjoyment. Like the brutes, he gorges himself with present pleasure, and sinks into a plethoric sleep regardless of the future. The scholar, the man of cultivated taste and intellect, on the contrary, values life-desires to preserve it, because he is aware that it may be (must be) filled up with many pleasures, of which he has at the moment no conception. It is precisely to the class of minds capable of Wing kept from crime by other motives that the punishment of death presents the most appalling prospect ; and on this account they are apt to overrate its in- fluence upon rude minds. To such, death suggests merely the idea of privation, while the apprehension of positive suffering alone can frighten them. Our correspondent will do well to inquire whether he has not thus been led to ex- aggerate the deterring power of death-punishment. We believe he agrees with us, that if death is to be inflicted at all, it is only absolute necessity that can justify its infliction.-En.]