NYU Stern


“When one man harms another by theft or violence and the damage is extensive, the indemnity he pays to the injured party should be large, but smaller if the damage is comparatively trivial. The cardinal rule should be that in every case the sum is to vary in proportion to the damage done, so that the loss is made good. And each offender is to pay an additional penalty appropriate to his crime, to encourage him to reform. *** This additional penalty is to be inflicted not because of the crime – for what has been done will never be undone – but for the sake of the future: so that the offender himself, and those that observe his punishment, will hate the wrongful conduct altogether or at any rate refrain in large part from such conduct.” Plato, Laws 933E – 934B

“When anyone commits an act of injustice, great or small, the law will teach and compel him in every way either never again to dare voluntarily to do such a thing, or to do it very much less.” Plato, Laws 862D

“[T]he love of pleasure … is a bridle by which the passions of the individuals might always be directed to the public good. *** [T]he great art of the legislator is that of separating them [pleasure from wrongful conduct], and making no proportion between the advantage the villain can receive from his crime, and the pain to which he exposes himself [in punishment].” Helvetius, De L’Esprit Essay III, chapter 16

“That a punishment may produce the effect required, it is sufficient that the evil it occasions should exceed the good expected from the crime, including in the calculation the certainty of the punishment, and the privation of the expected advantage. All severity beyond this, is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical.” Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, chapter XVII

“It is not only the common interest of mankind, that crimes should not be committed, but that crimes of every kind should be less frequent in proportion to the evil they produce to society. Therefore, the means made use of by the legislature to prevent crimes, should be more powerful in proportion as they [crimes] are destructive of the public safety and happiness, and as the inducements to commit them are stronger. Therefore there ought to be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.” Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, chapter VI

“From the foregoing considerations it is evident, that the intent of punishments, is not to torment a sensible being, nor to undo a crime already committed.***The end of punishment, therefore, is no other, than to prevent the criminal from doing further injury to society, and to prevent others from committing the like offence. Such punishments, therefore, and such a mode of inflicting them, ought to be chosen, as will make the strongest and most lasting impressions on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal.” Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, chapter XII

“The immediate principal end of punishment is to control action. This action is either that of the offender, or of others: that of the offender it controls by its influence, either on his will, in which case it is said to operate in the way of reformation; or on his physical power, in which case it is said to operate by disablement: that of others it can influence no otherwise than by its influence over their wills; in which case it is said to operate in the way of example. A kind of collateral end, which it has a natural tendency to answer, is that of affording a pleasure or [vindictive] satisfaction to the party injured [compensation]…This purpose, as far as it can be answered gratis, is a beneficial one. But no punishment ought to be allotted merely to this purpose, because (setting aside its effects in the way of control) no such pleasure is ever produced by punishment as can be equivalent to the pain.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter XIII, par. 2 footnote

“The eleventh and last of all the properties that seem to be requisite in a lot of punishment, is that of remissibility. The general presumption is, that when punishment is applied, punishment is needful: that it ought to be applied, and therefore cannot want to be remitted. But in very particular, and those always very deplorable cases, it may by accident happen otherwise. It may happen that punishment shall have been inflicted, where, according to the intention of the law itself, it ought not to have been inflicted: that is, where the sufferer is innocent of the offense. At the time of the sentence passed he appeared guilty: but since then, accident has brought his innocence to light. This being the case, so much of the destined punishment as he has suffered already, there is no help for. The business is then to free him from as much as is yet to come.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter XV, par. 25

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