For writing laws, it is enough to know how to write,: for establishing them, it is only necessary to possess power. The difficulty consists in establishing good laws. Now good laws are those for which good reasons are assignable: but it is one thing to have established good laws justifiable by good reasons; another thing to have discovered those reasons, and to have presented them to view in the most advantageous light. A third problem, yet more difficult of solution, is to find a common base for all the laws; one unique and clear principle: to shew their harmony with it; to dispose them in the best order; to give them the greatest simplicity and the greatest clearness of which they are susceptible; to find an isolated reason for a law, is to do nothing, A comparative balance for and against is desirable, since we cannot rely with confidence upon a reason, unless we can be assured that there is nothing stronger to oppose to it in a contrary direction.
To the present time, reasons have been regarded as works of supererogation. We need not be astonished at this. Legislators have been hitherto directed upon the most important points by a species of instinct: they have felt an evil; they have confusedly sought for a remedy. Laws have been made nearly in the same manner as the first towns were built. To look for a plan among these heaps of ordinances, would be like searching for an order of architecture amidst the huts of a village. Will it be believed, that it has been laid down as a principle that a law ought only to bear a character of absolute authority? Lord Chancellor Bacon, the great restorer of learning, will not allow that reasons should be assigned, because it might lead to disputes concerning the law. He might, perhaps, have felt that the best reasons he could have given would have been found imperfect: he had no desire to satisfy the people; no inclination to take the pains necessary for satisfying them. Besides this, in his time the wisdom of kings scarcely differed from the divine: stet pro ratione voluntas, was their motto.
It must be acknowledged, that at the period at which Bacon lived, the notions respecting the principles of law were too imperfect to serve as the foundation of a reasonable system. He was more qualified than any one to expose the fallacy of the best reasons which could have been assigned for the greater part of the then existing laws; and therefore he might fear to expose them to a trial which they could not sustain. But this is no ground for fear, that laws founded upon reasons based in utility will be liable to be thus overthrown: when such a code shall have been accomplished, should all the lawyers in the world attack it with keenest appetites, what would be the result? They would be like vipers biting at a file.
There would have been many more codes supported by reasons, if those who have made the laws had believed themselves to be as superior in information to their fellow-men, as they felt themselves to be in power. Those who had felt themselves furnished with strength to enter upon the career, would not have renounced this more flattering part of their employment. If there had been no occasion to satisfy the people, they would have been desirous of satisfying themselves: they would have felt that it was not right to assume infallibility at the same moment that they renounced the guidance of reason. Those who are able to convince men, will treat them like men; those who only command, avow their inability to convince.
It is difficult, if not impossible, that the composition and sanction of a code of laws should proceed from the same hand. The situation in which a sovereign is placed, the kind of life to which he is accustomed, the duties he has to fulfil, absolutely exclude him from the knowledge of the details which such a work demands. Engaged in the labyrinths of jurisprudence, a Caesar, a Charlemagne, a Frederick, would appear no more than an ordinary man. It is therefore impossible that such a work should be the result of the personal knowledge of a sovereign. Suppose a perfect code framed, the sovereign who should recognise its merit, and give it his support, would rank above all other sovereigns. He would not, however, be considered the author of the reasons by which the code was attended: these would have proceeded from the hand which penned them. The compiler of the code and the sovereign would each have their parts to act before the public. ``You tell me'', might the latter say, ``that the laws you have framed are only good and wise, and it is well: subject them to the proof.'' ``Sire'', might the compiler reply, ``the laws which I have proposed are not the product of caprice; there is not a syllable which I have put there, for which there did not appear to me a good and conclusive reason; not a single regulation which did not appear to me the best that could be adopted under the present circumstances of your people. Permit me, then, to add my reasons throughout the whole of your code: by no other means can you be so completely assured of their merit, or I who have adopted or invented them, or the people who will have to obey them.''
Besides, if the name of the sovereign has most influence upon the present generation, that of the compiler will have most with the generations to come. Power, whilst living, may ally itself with the reputation of wisdom; but this union is dissolved by death.
The veneration for great talents is increased when the foibles of the individual are forgotten, and when the dread of rivalry no longer exists. The veneration which thus attaches to the man of genius who is dead, will serve to protect his labours against precipitate change.
We proceed to consider, in greater detail, the different advantages which would result from a constant and sustained application of this method. An innovation always requires to be justified: an innovation which extends to the entire system of the laws, requires the strongest reasons for its justification.
We may observe, then, in general, that if the laws were constantly accompanied with a commentary of reasons, they would better fulfil the design of the legislator in all respects: they would be more pleasantly studied, more easily known, more constantly retained, and more cordially approved. All these desirable effects are intimately connected among themselves, and the attainment of either is one step towards obtaining the others.
If the study of the law is dry, it arises much less from the nature of the subject, than from the manner in which it has been treated. That which renders books of jurisprudence so dry and wearisome, is the confusion, the want of connection, the appearance of caprice, the difficulty of discovering any reason, and the barbarous nomenclature of the mass of incoherent and contradictory laws. Compilers have made their works an exercise of patience, and have addressed them only to the memory. The laws presented under this austere form appear only to require obedience, and never lay aside their severity. Let the laws be accompanied by justificatory reasons: this will shed a portion of interest over the laws themselves, and make the study of them agreeable. In reading the laws we shall then learn to think, and shall discover the solution of many enigmas which had previously been inexplicable to us: by this means we shall enlarge and strengthen our minds; we shall be admitted into the counsels, as it were, of the philosophers and sages who have framed the laws, and shall find, in their works, a manual of philosophy and morals. The truths developed in the laws are interesting: and when they shall thus have been clearly arranged, and their connection exhibited, this study will become interesting to the young, instead of repulsive even to those who are compelled to engage in it. When it shall be shown to be connected with reason and philosophy, and shall have been rendered easy of acquisition, it will even become a disgrace not to be acquainted with it.
This exposition of reasons will render the laws more easily understood. A rule, the reason of which is unknown, takes no hold upon the understanding: those things are best comprehended, of which we know the why and the wherefore. The terms of law may be clear and familiar: add to them the reason of the law, and the light is increased; no doubt rests upon the real intention of the legislator; the mind of the reader holds immediate communion with the mind of the author.
The more clearly the laws are understood, the more easily will they be retained. The reasons annexed will serve as a kind of technical memory: they will serve as a species of cement, by which to unite all those regulations which would other wise appear as fragments and dispersed ruins.
The reasons themselves would serve as a kind of guide in those cases in which the law was unknown: it would be possible to judge beforehand what its regulations would be; and by knowing the principles of the legislator, to place oneself by imagination in his situation; to divine or conjecture his will in the same manner as we conjecture what would be the determination of a reasonable being with whom we had long lived, and with whose maxims we were well acquainted.
But the greatest advantage is that which results from conciliating the approbation of all minds, by satisfying the public judgment, and obtaining obedience to the laws; not from a passive principle of blind fear alone, but with the concurrence of the will also.
When the people are dreaded, reasons are sometimes offered to them. But this extraordinary method rarely succeeds, because it is extraordinary: the people suspect there is some intention to deceive; they are put upon their guard, and yield rather to their mistrust than to their judgment.
Without reasons, all laws may be condemned or defended with equal blindness. If we listen to innovators, the most salutary law will be designated as tyrannical. if we listen to a crowd of lawyers, the most absurd law, if its origin be unknown, will pass for wisdom itself.
Exhibit the reasons of the laws, and you disarm all cheats and fanatics; because thus you will give to all discussions respecting the laws a clear and determinate object. There is the law: there is the reason assigned for that law. Is it a good reason? is it bad? The question is reduced to this simple issue. But those who have studied the progress of political quarrels, know that the object of the heads of parties especially is to avoid this fatal shoal, this examination of utility: personalities, antiquity, law of nature, laws of nations, and a thousand other terms of this kind, have been invented as a means of preventing recourse to this short method of shortening and resolving controversies.
If the laws were founded upon reason, they would infuse themselves, so to speak, into the minds of the people: they would form part of the logic of the people; they would extend their influence over their moral nature: the code of public opinion would be formed by analogy upon the code of the laws, and by the agreement between the man and the citizen: obedience to the laws would come to be hardly distinguishable from the feeling of liberty.
The commentary of reasons would be of great utility in the application of the laws: it would be a compass for the judges and all government functionaries. The reason assigned would unceasingly direct back to the intention of the legislator, all those who wandered from it. A false interpretation would not square with this reason: unintentional errors would become almost impossible: prevarications could not be hidden: the whole course of the law would be enlightened, and the citizens would judge the judges.
In a point of view still more enlarged, the adoption of this plan is recommended by its influence upon the perfection of the law. The necessity of furnishing a sufficient reason for every law, would be a preservative against a blind routine on the one hand, and a restraint to every thing arbitrary on the other. If you are required to state your reason for each proposition, it will be necessary to think, instead of to copy; to possess clear ideas, and to admit nothing without proof. There will no longer be any opportunity for preserving in the laws fantastic distinctions, useless regulations, unnecessary restraints: inconsistencies mill become too prominent: the disproportion between good and evil will become too offensive. The most defective parts will continually tend towards amelioration upon the plan of the most perfect. Those parts which have attained the highest possible degree of perfection will never lose it: a good reason for their existence will always prove a safeguard, which will defend them against precipitate and capricious changes: a phalanx so strong will daunt the most audacious innovator. The strength of the reason will become the strength of the law: it will act as an anchor to prevent the vessel from being driven about by the force of the winds, or being insensibly drawn aside by the currents.
It may be said that the laws, and especially the most essential laws, are founded on such palpable truths, that it is unnecessary to prove them. The end of reasoning is conviction; but if complete conviction already exist, for what purpose employ reasoning to produce it?
There are truths which it is necessary to prove; not for their own sakes, because they are acknowledged, but that an opening may be made for the reception of other truths which depend upon them. It is necessary to demonstrate certain palpable truths, in order that others, which may depend upon them, may be adopted. It is in this manner we provide for the reception of first principles, which, once received, prepare the way for the admission of all other truths. All the world acknowledges that assassination is ail evil action: its punishment ought to be severe: every body is agreed again. If it is necessary to analyze the mischievous effects of assassination, it will be necessary as a step towards bringing men to acknowledge the fitness of the law which distinguishes between different species of assassination, that it may only punish them according to their respective degrees of malignity; that those actions which bear the exterior characters of assassination, but do not produce its bitter fruits, may either not be punished, or only punished in a less degree: for example, suicide, duelling, infanticide, murder after violent provocation, &c.
In the same manner it is necessary to expose the evil of theft; not that men may be led to agree that theft is an evil, but that they may be led to acknowledge a multitude of other truths which, without this demonstration, would still be neglected. It is necessary that a variety of actions may be collected together under this head of crime, which have been hitherto neglected, and for detaching others which have no sufficient relation with crimes of this class: in a word, it is necessary for the purpose of collecting all the true and genuine species, and rejecting all the spurious, in order to establish the grounds for appointing different degrees of punishment.
Why should the laws of one state be unknown in every other? They have been thrown together at hazard, without connection, and without arrangement. There is no common measure among them. Without doubt, there are cases in which diversity of situation may demand diversity of legislation; but these cases call only exist in a few instances, and those much fewer than is usually imagined. In this respect, it will be proper to distinguish between art absolute and a temporary necessity: an absolute necessity is founded upon circumstances that cannot change; a temporary necessity is founded upon accidental circumstances, which may change.
If there be one method better calculated than another to bring nations more nearly together, this which I propose, of a system of laws founded upon reasons clearly announced, is one. The free communication of knowledge will propagate this system in all directions the instant it is created: such a system of legislation will prepare for itself a universal dominion.
Since philosophers have begun to compare the laws of different nations; when they have been able to divine any reason, to observe any relation of resemblance or of contrast, it has been a species of discovery. If legislators had been guided by the principle of utility, these researches would have been without an object: the laws derived from the same principle, tending towards the same object, would no longer present systems more ingenious than solid, in which we have to seek to find any reason at all; and in which, when any one fancies be finds a reason for a law, he thinks the law is justified.
Montesquieu has often misled his readers: he employs all his mind, that is to say, a mind of the first order, in discovering, amid the chaos of laws, the reasons which may have influenced the legislators. He has been desirous of lending them a wisdom of intention in institutions the most contradictory and the most extravagant. But when we agree with him that he has discovered their true motives, at what conclusion do we arrive? They acted upon a reason; but was this a good reason? If it were good in some respects, was it the best reason? If they had made a law directly opposed to it, would they not have done better? Such is the examination which always remains to be made: such is the examination to which he scarcely ever descends.
The science of legislation, though it has made but little progress, is much more simple than one would be led to believe, after reading Montesquieu. The principle of,utility directs all reasons to a single centre: the reasons which apply to the detail of arrangements are only subordinate views of utility.
In the civil law, reasons should be drawn from four sources; that is to say, from the four objects, according to which the legislator ought to regulate his conduct in the distribution of private laws: subsistence, abundance, equality, security.
In penal laws, the reasons should be drawn from the nature of the evil of offences, and from that of the remedies of which they are susceptible. These remedies are of four kinds: preventive remedies, suppressive remedies, satisfactive remedies, penal remedies.
In the law of procedure, the reasons should equally derive their source from the different ends which ought to be kept in view: correctness of judgment, quickness, and economy.
In financial law, the reasons should be drawn from two principal objects: saving in expense, in order to avoid the evil of constraint; choice of the tax, in order to avoid its accessory inconveniences.
There are some parts of the law in which the custom of assigning reasons has been followed to a certain point; in matters of police, of finance, and political economy. Their objects are modern: it has been necessary to create every thing, nothing relating to them being found in the ancient laws. What has been done, has been not only an invention, but a positive opposition to ancient usages and prejudices. Hence it has been necessary to combat them; it has been necessary that authority should justify itself. Such was the origin of those preambles to their laws, which procured so much credit to M. Turgot and M. Neckar.
But there are much more important branches of legislation, in which it has not been customary to assign any reasons: the civil code, the penal code, the code of procedure. If it has not been done, it is not that they have not dared to do it, but because they knew not how. Lawyers have among themselves a peculiar language, technical reasons, conventional fictions, a logic current at the bar: but they have an indistinct perception that the public will not receive it with the same complacency as themselves; that they will not be satisfied with the same jargon.
If the chancellors of kings had been such men as Turgot and Neckar, they, like them, would have felt more pride in giving their reasons than in making their edicts. In making laws, it is only necessary to occupy a certain position: in order to make a reasonable law, and to give reasons for it, it is requisite that the party be worthy of that position.
But an isolated reason is a mere trifle: the reasons for the laws, if they are good, are so connected, that unless they have been prepared for the whole body, they cannot with certainty be given for any part. Hence, in order to present in the most advantageous manner the reason for a single law, it is necessary that the plan of a system of reasons for all the laws should have been formed. It is necessary previously to have laid the foundation of a reasonable system of morality, to have analyzed the principle of utility, and to have separated it from the two false principles of sympathy and antipathy.
To give a reason for a law, is to show that it is conformable to the principle of utility.
In accordance with this principle, the repugnance which a certain action inspires is not a sufficient ground for its prohibition. Such a prohibition would only be founded upon the principle of antipathy.
The satisfaction which another action affords to us, is not a sufficient ground for a law authorising its performance. Such a law would be only founded upon the principle of sympathy.
The principal business of the laws, the only business which is evidently and incontestibly necessary, is the preventing of individuals from pursuing their own happiness, by the destruction of a greater portion of the happiness of others. To impose restraints upon the individual for his own welfare, is the business of education; the duty of the old towards the young; of the keeper towards the madman: it is rarely the duty of the legislator towards the people.
It is not a merely speculative idea which is thus recommended: a system of penal laws has been thus sketched out, and accompanied with a commentary of reasons, by which even the least important regulations are justified. I am so convinced of the necessity of this exposition of reasons, that I would not dispense with one of them at any price. To confide in what is called a feeling of justice, a feeling of truth, is a source of error. I have seen, upon a thousand occasions, that the greatest mistakes are concealed in all those feelings which are not brought to the touchstone of examination. If this feeling, this first guide, the avant courier of the mind, be correct, it will always be possible to translate it into the language of reason. Pains and pleasures, as I have repeatedly shown, are the only clear sources of ideas in morals. These ideas may be rendered familiar to all the world. The catechism of reasons is worthless, if it cannot be made the catechism of the people.
I add here, as an example of this theory, the first chapter of the Penal Code. I have not, however, given the whole of it, nor inserted all the forms and references which it ought to have, if it formed a part of the code itself. This species of precision would be superfluous here. This example may also serve as a recapitulation of this essay, by showing how its principles may be put in execution, and in what manner its theories may be carried into practice.[Back to:]