Introduction to the Study of the Works of Jeremy Bentham, by John Hill Burton

Section III.

The Pursuit of Truth. — Fallacies. — Principles of Evidence.

Believing that falsehood was one of the main instruments of evil to mankind — that a regard for perfect truth was one of the greatest safeguards against the various means by which sinister interest could operate to the evil of society, Bentham made war against mendacity in every form in which it could raise its head. He found that the ingenuity of sinister interest had here covered society with a net-work of evil, through the meshes of which it required the most vigorous efforts of the understanding to clear a way. He found a popular notion, that it was in certain words used, and not in the act of deceiving, that the offence of falsehood consisted. The shepherd in the fable, who promised to the stag not to give information of his hiding-place, did not tell the hunters where it was, but pointed with his finger to the spot. It was the interest of persons who had done such deeds to remove the odium from the act of betrayal to that employment of false words called a lie; but in Bentham’s view, men might stumble among the ingenious intricacies of words, and he found no criterion of criminality but in the thing done through their means. Words, the simple purport of which would convey a falsehood, may be uttered in a manner and with a purpose to put the party right, and keep him from deception. On the other hand, words signifying the truth are often made a mere effectual cover to the falsehood they are intended to convey. A newspaper, the other day, wishing to show that certain operations abroad had been carried on in consequence of instructions from home, stated that such instructions had been sent out, but did not state that they had not arrived. Almost every species of commercial deception is carried on in words that are in themselves true. When emigrants are enticed to embark with their little property for a colony where they are ruined, the inducement is, in general, some perfectly correct description of luxuriant vegetation and salubrious climate, which is all deceptious, because it is not stated that there is no means of making the natural profusion available — that there is no commerce with the place — no system of inland conveyance, and no harbour. An auctioneer lately advertised an estate for sale in Canada, “containing a quantity of fine old timber,” in the hope that some one who did not know that timber in Canada is worth less than nothing, might act on the advertisement. A common method of deceiving without words is, for a man to act with a political party, in its arrangements preparatory to some great conflict, for the purpose of being counted too good a friend to be questioned, and then desert it, on the plea that he never promised to support it. All these acts have in them whatever there is of evil in a lie. It has become the practice to refer to them as the “speaking the truth, but not the whole truth,” an unsatisfactory expression, which seems to intimate that they have in them at least a portion of the virtue of truth. Let them be looked at simply in the result intended to be accomplished, and so judged, and then they will be seen clearly to be in every respect equivalent to lies.

As the effects of falsehood are of the most varied character, ranging from the highest crimes to the most paltry and unpunishable social frauds, there cannot be any measure of punishment for it, (of punishment whether as administered by the Law, or by the opinion of society,) but in taking the measure of the offence which it is made the instrument of perpetrating.* A lie producing death is the offence of murder; a lie giving an undeserved character of excellence to an article of commerce for the purpose of making it saleable, is but a petty fraud. Can it be said that these offences are equal in magnitude? Yet if the offence be in the lie, and not in the effect produced by it, the criminality of the two cases is precisely co-extensive, for the verbal falsehood is as distinct in the one as it is in the other. On this point Bentham found the laws for the punishment of judicial perjury defective. The criminality was thrown on the ceremony, with which the falsehood is decked, and not on the effect produced by it. To tell a falsehood in a court of justice cannot be, under any circumstances, other than a crime of high magnitude; but between the case of a man swearing away the life of another, and that of a man swearing five pounds away from its right owner, there is surely a greater difference than between the saying the lie with, and saying it without certain formalities. Bentham made an accurate analysis of judicial falsehoods, for the purpose of measuring the extent of their criminality by that of their respective evil effects, and he introduced the new distinction between temerarious and mendacious falsehood. Among those who looked merely at the words spoken as the offence, when it turned out that the speaker did not anticipate the meaning that would be attached to them, or would not have uttered them if he had known them to be false, he was considered innocent. But Bentham, on the principles on which he who fires a pistol into a church, or drives furiously through a crowded street, is held responsible for the mischief he may occasion, did not see any reason why the individual who maims or slaughters the person or reputation of another by rash words, should not be equally responsible.

On an examination of the various processes through which the truth, in regard to the merits of human actions, is obscured, the common practice of giving a good or bad character to motives, according to the feelings of the person who is speaking of them, presented itself as one of the most common devices of falsehood. Results are open and susceptible of examination — motives are hidden in the bosom of the actor; hence those who love darkness rather than light will more readily exercise their ingenuity in giving a character where its truth or falsehood cannot be detected, than in examining that which is spread before the world.

“It is the act, and not the motive, with which we have to do; and when the act is before us, and the motive concealed from us, it is the idlest of idling to be inquiring into that which has no influence, and forgetting that which has all the real influence upon our condition. What acts, however outrageously and extensively mischievous, but may be excused and justified, if the motives of the actor, instead of the consequences of the act, become the test of right and wrong? Perhaps there never was a group of more conscientious and well-intending men than the early inquisitors; they verily believed they were doing God service; they were under the influence of motives most religious and pious, while they were pouring out blood in rivers, and sacrificing, amidst horrid tortures, the wisest and best of their race. Motive, indeed! as if all motives were not the same — to obtain for the actor some recompense for his act, in the shape of pain averted, or pleasure secured. The motive, as far as that goes, of the vilest, is the same as the motive of the noblest — to increase his stock of happiness. The man who murders, the man who robs another, believes that the murder and the robbery will be advantageous to him — will leave to him more happiness than if he had not committed the crime. In the field of motive, however, he may make out a case as recommendatory of his conduct, as if he were the most accomplished of moralists. To say that his motives were ill-directed to his object, is to reason wisely with him; to say that his motives had not the object of obtaining for himself some advantage, is to deny the operation of cause on effect. There is — and the existence of the disposition is a striking evidence of the tendency of men towards despotic assertion — there is by far too great a willingness to turn away from the consequences of conduct in order to inquire into its sources. The inquiry is a fruitless one, and were it not fruitless it would be useless. For were motives other than they are — were they fit and proper evidence of the vice or virtue of any given action — it would not be the less true, that opinion could ultimately have no other test for judgment than the consequences of that action. A man’s motives affect nobody until they give birth to action; and it is with the action and not with the motive, that individuals or societies have any concern. Hence, in discourse, let all indications of motives be avoided. This will remove one spring of error and false judgment from the mind of the speaker, and from the minds of the hearers one source of misunderstanding.*

In a minute analysis of the subject of motives, in another part of his works, he showed that the system of appreciating motives as good or bad, even if their goodness or badness could be discovered, proceeded on a false idea of what motives really are. It is to intention with relation to acts, that merit and demerit are applicable; for motives in themselves are neither good nor bad. There is no motive that may not lead to the best or to the worst of actions. A desire to preserve his family from starving is called a praiseworthy motive, so long as it prompts a man to work honestly for his bread; but who shall say that it is a praiseworthy motive, when it directs him to the highway with a pistol? The mischievousness of his act we can clearly calculate — the mischievousness of his intention we may estimate, even if he has been unsuccessful in his attempt to put it in practice; but we shall in vain search for a just attribute to his motive.

The petty insincerities evolved in the course of casual disputes, for the purpose generally of obtaining a temporary intellectual victory, were occasionally the subject of Bentham’s reprehension. He did not consider that this habit could be compared in point of evil with many of the other sources of untruth to be found in the practice of society: but it had its sphere of mischief, and was, consequently, worthy of exposure. He says:—

Avoid all arguments that you know to be sophistical. Think not, by shutting your own eyes against the weakness of your statements, that you have thereby shut the eyes of your hearer. Your sophistry will but irritate, for sophistry is not only uncandid, but dishonest. It is an attempt to cheat, not the purse of another, but his senses and his judgment. His aversion to you will be awakened by your effort to shine at his expense; and his contempt will be roused for the folly that supposed it was able so to shine. In all argument be candid, for the sake of your comrade and for your own sake. The triumph of an argument which is known and felt to be unfair and unfounded, is a wretched exhibition of perversity. If successful, it can serve no interests but those of fraud: if unsuccessful, it brings with it the consequences of blundering and detected dishonesty. Constituted as society is, with its errors and prejudices, its narrow interests and interested passions, the pursuit of truth makes demands enough upon courageous virtue; for he who goes one step beyond the line which the world’s poor conventions have drawn around moral and political questions, must expect to meet with the thundering anathemas and obloquies of all who wish to stand well with the arbiters of opinion. Let no searcher after truth be led into the labyrinths of sophistry. He will have enough to do in order to make good his ground one step beyond that trodden by those who dogmatize about decorum, and propriety, and right and wrong.

In many established institutions Bentham found principles tending to the commission of falsehood, and to the designed obliteration of the distinction between the truth and a lie. Of these the most prominent were Oaths, in their two classes, Promissory and Assertory. A Promissory oath, such as an oath of allegiance, is an obligation taken not to know the truth; or, if it should be known, not to act upon it. It is generally imposed under the influence of bribery and intimidation — at the time when a man has the inducement of some benefit, such as the appointment to office — to harden his conscience against the iniquity. It binds the individual down to a certain line of conduct, however clearly his conscience, aided by experience and reflection, should afterwards be opened to the evil of the course. To some it is a drag, preventing them from doing what is right; for they feel that they have already registered a vow in heaven to do what is wrong. To others it is a ready excuse for the wrong they are inclined to: they have sworn to do it, and it is useless to tell them it is not right. George III. laid the responsibility of the American war, and of his resistance to the Catholic claims, on his Coronation oath: he had sworn to preserve his dominions entire: he had sworn to preserve the Church. He was the interpreter of the meaning of these oaths, and the two questions were removed from the operation of the inquiry — what is right and what wrong? The claims of mercy and justice might cry aloud — hundreds of thousands of his own subjects might suffer the frightful death that is caused by the hardships of unsuccessful war, in the vain attempt to inflict the same calamity on hundreds of thousands of unoffending foreigners — it mattered not: the cause was prejudged, a vow had been registered in heaven, and it must be fulfilled.*

But the most pernicious of all promissory oaths are subscriptions to declarations of faith — to religious tests. They are a direct bribe to perjury — perjury which is daily committed. Whether, having serious differences of opinion on the subject, the candidate for office deliberately sets his hand to that which he disbelieves, or, purposely closing his eyes to the genuine meaning of the words, he, at the same time, shuts his ears to the voice of conscience, by carelessly signing as a “matter of course,” the effect is equally pernicious in poisoning the stream of public morality — poisoning it at its very fountain, the institutions where learning, and morality, and religion are promulgated — poisoning it through the very hands of those who are under the most sacred of real obligations to keep it pure and uncontaminated. Bentham could never refer, without the most lively indignation, to that most flagitious of shapes in which this vice is practised, when the adherence to a certain array of complex doctrines is extracted from youth, purposely and avowedly before they are capable of comprehending them; the thing which is done when they are required, before they know the doctrines of the Church of England, to declare what side they will take after they do know them. With the same unconsciousness with which other youths have acted, and will act, he signed his adherence to the Thirty-nine Articles on entering himself at Oxford; and the act was one to which he could not refer down to the last days of his life without a feeling of bitter remorse.

The evil effects of assertory or judicial oaths he did not find so flagrant. He held that some formality was necessary as a sanction for truth — necessary to this extent, that the witness might, by its use, be put upon his guard that he shall be made judicially responsible if he tell a falsehood. But the effect of making this ceremony a sacred invocation he maintained to be, that the criminality of falsehood was removed to the wrong place. Instead of being centered in the mischief occasioned by the lie, it was attached to the profanation of the ceremony. Thus, judicial falsehood, instead of being like theft or forgery, a crime between man and man, was converted into an offence against God. Hence it resulted, that the real ingredient in the offence was lost sight of, and that men believed that if they could stand right on the subject of the profanation, the injury committed was no wrong. Multitudinous are the devices that were fallen upon to evade the oath; for wherever a man could persuade himself that he was not pledged to the Deity, (and in many a case the conclusion has been easily come to) he was free; for neither law nor morality said it was a crime to accomplish any object by a testimonial fraud, if it were not accompanied by a false oath. The danger of the fallacy is in this, that, as the sanction for truth is hidden with his other religious opinions in the breast of the witness, no one can tell whether it is in operation or not. It is a simple doctrine, the practical application of which can be easily calculated on, that if a witness, by the nature of his evidence, leads twelve men to convict another of murder unjustly, he is himself guilty of murder: but you must have found your way to the bottom of his soul, and must know his whole system of religion, before you are assured that he holds any given ceremony a sacred obligation made between the Deity and himself.*

The oath applied to jurymen in England, was one which Bentham held as sui generis in its absurdity and self-contradiction. Twelve men are compelled solemnly to swear that they will come to a decision according to their conscience, and they are then starved till they declare themselves all of one mind.

Since the earlier works of Bentham against oaths were published, Legislation has made rapid strides in the abolition both of the promissory and assertory class.

Bentham considered the support and perpetuation of Foundations, or Institutions for the inculcation of particular doctrines, to be most dangerous to the cause of truth;§ and he likened them to funds for paying judges to decide, not according to justice, but in favour of a specified class of clients. So long as the system shall continue, of keeping foundations “sacred,” as it is called, from the interference of the legislature acting upon them for the common good, they become so many centres of absolutism in the midst of free institutions — of absolutism, where there is not even that chance of improvement which may be afforded in the probability of occasional good men appearing in a succession of despots; for the despots who have thus transmitted their will to future ages, are gone, and neither hope nor fear — neither reason, nor the treasures of experience, can operate upon them to make them revoke their laws. Thus, every man who is possessed of wealth, by judiciously founding with it some institution properly calculated to the end in view, may place a perpetual barrier in the way of free inquiry, and tie down a portion of posterity to the amount of knowledge and the class of opinions possessed by the men of his own generation. In public national matters, legislation in some measure adapts the increased facilities to the enlarged wants of the age; systems of management make some approach to the improved habits of the time; official salaries are brought to something like a proportion, according to the state of the labour-market, with the work performed for them. But centuries pass, with their train of changes and improvements, and leave the foundation unaltered and unalterable. The legislature dare not pry into its operations, or ask what its officials are paid, or what they do; while the daily routine of the establishment, and the very costume of its inmates, proclaim it at war with improvement — a cluster of human beings, at whose gate the march of civilisation and enlightenment is arrested. The whole principle of the sacredness of foundations proceeds on a false analogy with the stability of property. Because it is good for all members of society, that a man should keep, and use for all lawful purposes while he lives, and should give to whom he pleases at his death, that which he has made, or which he is otherwise allowed to call his own — it does not follow that it is good for the community that he should be allowed to employ it in building a barrier to stop the stream of civilisation and improvement, and to keep a certain class of his fellowmen just as enlightened on a certain set of doctrines as he is himself, and no more so. The sinister interests which support the permanence and inviolability of such institutions, are founded in the wealth they give to individuals and the power of domination they confer on classes of thinkers. When they are overwhelmed by any great revolution of opinion — such as the Reformation — those portions of them which escape individual rapacity are seized upon by the strongest sect, appropriated by them to the promulgation of doctrines the reverse of those for which the property was originally destined, and are then surrounded by the same impregnable walls of sacredness and immutability, as if they were still held in terms of the original founder’s destination, and had never been wrenched from the hands of those for whom he intended them.

The “Fictions of Law,” of which the English practice is so full, were repeatedly and earnestly attacked by Bentham, both collectively and in detail. The example shown to the world, of falsehoods deliberately, and on a fixed system, told in the very workshops of justice, and by those who are employed to support truth and honesty, he looked upon as holding out a pernicious example to the public. Without any sarcastic or reprehensory qualification, a fiction of law may be defined in general as the saying something exists which does not exist, and acting as if it existed; or vice versâ. Thus, by the system of pleading anterior to the late Uniformity Act, the defendant over whom the Court of King’s Bench extended its jurisdiction, was said in the writ to have been in the custody of the Marshal of the King’s Bench Prison for an offence, though no such circumstance had taken place. The court had originally no jurisdiction over any one who was not so in custody; the lie was told that the court might have an excuse for interfering; the court would not allow the lie to be contradicted, and it assumed jurisdiction accordingly. The origin of this class of fictions was of the most sordid character — the judges and other officers of court being paid by fees, a trade competition for jurisdictions took place; each court trying to offer better terms to litigants, than the others, and adopting the fictions as a means of accomplishing this object. Of another class are the Fictions as to Common Bail, Fines and Recoveries, Docking Entails, &c. Where the object to be accomplished by the fiction is a right one, it should have been accomplished directly, and without falsehood or ambiguity, by the Legislature; where the end is a wrong one, it should not have been accomplished at all. But whether used to a good or a bad purpose, it is an assumption of arbitrary power. “A fiction of law may be defined a wilful falsehood, having for its object the stealing legislative power, by and for hands which durst not, or could not, openly claim it; and, but for the delusion thus produced, could not exercise it.”*

It is true that new fictions are not now invented — at least on any considerable scale; and that those formerly created have become a fixed part of the law, and are uniform in their operation. It is still the case, however, that from the nominal repetition of the fraud under which they were originally perpetrated, they are a cumbrous and costly method of transacting judicial business. But they have a much worse influence than this. By the obscurity and complexity with which they surround operations which might be simple and open, they afford concealment to fraud and professional chicanery; they exclude the unprofessional man from the means of knowing what the lawyer is doing among the windings of the professional labyrinth, and they show him that the law countenances palpable falsehoods. “When an action, for example, is brought against a man, how do you think they contrive to give him notice to defend himself? Sometimes he is told that he is in jail; sometimes that he is lurking up and down the country, in company with a vagabond of the name of Doe; though all the while he is sitting quietly by his own fireside: and this my Lord Chief Justice sets his hand to. At other times, they write to a man who lives in Cumberland or Cornwall, and tell him that if he does not appear in Westminster Hall on a certain day he forfeits an hundred pounds. When he comes, so far from having anything to say to him, they won’t hear him: for all they want him for, is to grease their fingers.”*

A class of chronic falsehoods had found their way into the minds of political thinkers, which Bentham, in imitation of the logicians, termed Fallacies. Of these he undertook a laborious and minute investigation and exposure; and there were none of his extensive labours to which he looked with more satisfaction than this rooting out, from the field of political thought, of the tares which the enemies of truth had sown in it. He found that they consisted, to a great extent, in an ingenious perversion of the language of praise or blame, to make it comprehend that which did not properly come within the quality expressed: and the permanent evil to truth he found to consist in the circumstance, that by habitual use and reiteration, men came to associate the good or bad quality with the thing so spoken of, without examining it. Thus the term “old,” which, as applied to men, implies the probability of superior experience and sedateness, he found used in characterizing early times, or those states of society which had not the benefit of so long a lesson of experience as later times have had.

It is singular that the persons who are most loud in magnifying the pretended advantage in point of wisdom of ancient over modern times, are the very same who are the most loud in proclaiming the superiority in the same respect of old men above young ones. What has governed them in both cases seems to have been the prejudice of names: it is certain that, if there be some reasons why the old should have advantage over the young, there are at least the same reasons for times that are called modern having it over times that are called ancient. There are more: for decrepitude as applied to persons is real: as applied to times it is imaginary. Men, as they acquire experience, lose the faculties that might enable them to turn it to account: it is not so with times: the stock of wisdom acquired by ages is a stock transmitted through a vast number of generations, from men in the perfection of their faculties to others also in the perfection of their faculties: the stock of knowledge transmitted from one period of a man’s life to another period of the same man’s life, is a stock from which, after a certain period, large defalcations are every minute making by the scythe of Time.

That the end justifies the means, is another of these fallacies. He held that both the end and the means should be weighed in the balance of good and evil. When, taken together, they afford a balance of good, then are both transactions justified; but, if more mischief be done by the means than the good produced by the end, no abstract amount of goodness can justify that end being followed.§ As a familiar example: if a man is drowning, the rescuing him is a good end in itself; but, if the method of rescuing him should involve the sacrifice of two other lives, the balance of the whole act is evil, and the end does not justify the means. “Argue not from the abuse of a thing against its use,” is another fallacy. The liability to be abused is a quality which must detract from the value of anything that can be made use of. Between two institutions, equal in value in other respects, that which has preservatives against the means of turning it to abuse, is better than that which has none. Indeed, it is in the preservatives against abuse, that whatever is valuable in political institutions has its value. The sacrifices to this principle are enormous in a constitutional country. When the business could be transacted in the Government office at a hundredth part of the expense, and in, perhaps, a fiftieth part of the time, who would have it managed in Parliament, were it not for the protection afforded by the representative system against abuse? If we were bound to put the abuses out of view, despotism would be found to be the best form of government.

Fallacies lurk in abundance under imputations and laudatory personalities. They are to be found, also, in certain fixed party expressions: such as “Order,” “Establishment,” “Matchless Constitution,” “Balance of Power,” “Glorious Revolution.” Fallacies of no small influence on society, pervade the employment of words designative of principles, as a means of indicating individuals; as where the opponents of a dominant party are called the enemies of government; and those who find fault with the doings of lawyers, are said to be in opposition to the law; terms used when there is a wish to class those they are levelled at as enemies to the preservation of property, or to the enforcement of justice. With a like object are those who attack churchmen and priestcraft called the enemies of the church, and, by inference, the enemies of religion.*

The Book of Fallacies is chiefly directed against the devices made use of on the side of corruption or arbitrary power. In a separate tract, called Anarchical Fallacies, there is an exposition of the false logic with which demagogues, and other enemies of well-ordered society, vindicate their misdeeds. His Text-Book, on this occasion, was “the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen, decreed by the Constituent Assembly in France;” and it was while the philosopher, in his retirement, was expounding the sanguinary and anti-social reasoning of this production, that the wildest flames of the Revolution burst forth, and confirmed his prophecies ere the ink had dried on the page. In the storm of that eventful period, the small still voice of one weighing the meanings of words used, and drawing the practical inference of vague generalities, was not heeded. It is true that this was but a criticism on the meaning of words; and the time was not one for theorising but for acting. Words, however, are the expression of opinions, and opinions are the source of acts. The same opinions may again gain ground more or less, and be expressed in like words, and amenable to the same criticism; and if to the mere lover of narrative, or the partisan politician raking out from the embers of the Revolution materials for modern controversy, the philosopher’s logical comment will have little interest, it will weigh much with those who have the peace and wellbeing of society really at heart. “In a play or a novel, an improper word is but a word: and the impropriety, whether noticed or not, is attended with no consequences. In a body of laws — especially of laws given as constitutional and fundamental ones — an improper word would be a national calamity: and civil war may be the consequence of it. Out of one foolish word may start a thousand daggers.” One of the expressions attacked in connexion with anarchical fallacies has already been noticed, in reference to Bentham’s abandonment of technical terms which had been vitiated by their bad use —(see p. 14.)

Bentham considered that the Legislature, in dealing with the subject of Evidence, had in its power the means of creating and applying to practical use a store of facts, covering the whole field of human action, and forming an experimental foundation, by which every description of operation, from the proceedings of the Legislature and the judicial tribunals, to the acts of the private citizen, might be beneficially regulated. As the great means of separating what is true from what is false he thought the code of judicial evidence should proceed on the most searching examination of principles, and should be most cautiously and scientifically organized. To an examination of the principles on which that code should be based, and of the aberrations of the existing law, he devoted two of the volumes now before the public;* and there is, perhaps, scarcely any other of his expositions which has been so generally adopted by all who have examined it, or which the Legislature has so decidedly (though certainly very cautiously) shown itself disposed to admit into the law of the land. The subject is divided into two great heads. The first is that which is ordinarily called Evidence — the succession of facts, from the consideration of which a belief is come to on one side or other of a statement; as in the case of a civil or criminal trial, when, from the testimony of witnesses, the conduct of persons, or the position of things, a decision is come to by those who are appointed to judge. This is called Unpreappointed evidence, because the dispute arises out of the very fact that arrangements have not been, or could not have been, made sufficient to obviate it; and the circumstances out of which the truth is finally reached were not prearranged for the purpose of exhibiting it. The other species of Evidence is called Preappointed, and consists, in general, of what are commonly called Records: authenticated statements of facts, such as are conveyed in recorded contracts, registers of births marriages and deaths, &c., reduced into a state of evidence to be applied to subsequent use, whether at the instance of the legal tribunals, or of the legislators or others, who may wish to make the facts so proved the foundation of their public or private acts.

Bringing his ruling principle to bear on the first of these great classes, he found that no species of evidence should be hidden from those who had to judge in a disputed question, unless it could be made to appear that more mischief would be done by the admission than by the exclusion. The law, instead of weighing the matter by this simple rule, has given effect to barbarous usages and prejudices, and to feelings of antipathy and vengeance. The ceremony of an oath was invented as an ordeal, at the same time with trial by battel and the ordeal of the hot plough-shares; and it so far held sway when Bentham wrote his Rationale of Evidence, that there was no exemption in criminal cases: and if a witness, from conscientious motives, or obstinacy, or evil design, refused to swear, a curtain was drawn before the light which his evidence might throw on the charge, and the accused was let loose on society, or unjustly punished, according to the side on which the deficiency might act. When large bodies of men arose with conscientious objections to oaths, the principle underwent a practical reductio ad absurdum, and society ran the risk of being dissolved; for there were thousands upon thousands of men with broad-brimmed hats, whose presence, when crimes were committed, exempted the perpetrators from punishment — and so the Legislature had to give way successively in the case of the Quakers, the Moravians, and the Separatists. On a kindred ground, a witness was rejected on account of his religious creed; and justice was injured that he might be punished by the reproach thrown upon him. A man being asked in the witness box if he believes in a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and answering “no,” is immediately rejected; his candour in admitting so very unpopular a fact, being a foundation for the inference that he cannot be depended on for speaking the truth. If he tell a falsehood, beginning his evidence by a deliberate statement of a belief in that which he does not believe, he is held an unexceptionable witness.

Another of the principles of exclusion attacked in the Rationale of Evidence is that which is founded on interest. It is admitted that preponderant interest in favour of falsehood may sway the testimony of a witness; but the question comes to be, who shall predicate of the extent to which it will sway him or whether it will sway him at all? Shall those be the judges in this matter who have the living and speaking man before them, with a statement of the circumstance liable to sway him, the power of cross-questioning him, and the means of punishing him for falsehood or prevarication? or shall the matter be prejudged by those who have never seen him, but who know human nature so much better than the judge and jury who are to see him, that they can predict precisely whether he is going to tell the truth or a lie? English practice has decided in favour of the latter alternative, and has declared that the evidence of a witness who has an interest in the question at issue must be rejected.

But the limitation of the exclusion is itself a proof of its absurdity. Interest may grow out of the whole range of human passions and feelings. Revenge, Hatred, Love, Affection, Party Spirit, may all bear strongly on the human mind, and prepare it for any description of iniquity. In vain, however, could the law attempt to measure these sources of interest, or fix a general criterion for ascertaining their existence. One species of interest only could it measure — the pecuniary; and therefore it narrowed the operation of exclusion to that ground. It thus happens that, according to the principles of English law, Damon and Pythias would not be presumed to have any such community of feeling as would endanger the strictest impartiality if one were called on to testify against the other; while, on the other hand, if Aristides could gain a farthing by swearing away an innocent man’s life, he would so undoubtedly perjare himself for the sake of the farthing, that he need not be listened to.

In favour of truth there are a multitude of tutelary motives, acting independently of the operation of the law in punishing mendacity. Indolence alone is a motive in favour of truth: to support a lie through a circumstantial history, under a battery of cross-questions, is a difficult task which a man will not enter on for nothing. Religion, morality, the respect of the world, are all in favour of truth; and why should it be presumed that the slightest — the very slightest — pecuniary interest will at once break down all these barriers? In reality there are many cases in which the inferiority of the pecuniary to some other interest is exhibited in the nature of a witness’s conduct, without legally disqualifying him. It is so where he pursues the ends of justice from a feeling of resentment, and incurs expense to gratify it. If he had that interest in the conviction which is expressed by the money he has spent to procure it, he would be disqualified; but the existence of an interest so incontrovertibly proved to be stronger does not affect him.

Another improper ground for excluding a witness is his being a criminal — a ground much narrowed by the later practice of all parts of the empire. It is where the crime imputed is that of perjury, that it founds the greatest doubt of the probable veracity of the witness; and on this ground Bentham meets it. A man has assuredly told one falsehood — does it necessarily follow that he will tell another? If the truth could be had without appealing to him, it might be well not to run the risk; but the case supposes the impracticability of getting at the truth without hearing him — for that which makes a man a witness is the necessity of having his statement to make up a full view of the facts. Is, then, the certain deception arising from defective evidence, to be incurred in preference to the risk of deception from his telling a falsehood — a risk indefinitely reduced by the chance that his falsehood, if uttered, will be disbelieved, and that his character will make his evidence be scrutinizingly examined? The law in this case stultifies itself by a counter-exclusion limiting the means by which the perjury can be proved. This must be by production of the record of conviction, and no otherwise: and if this record is kept out of the way, though there may be a thousand persons (the judge included) ready to testify that the witness was convicted of perjury, his testimony is unexceptionable.

But the most mischievous of all the exclusions is that by which a man is privileged to decline giving testimony which may injure him. It is not that the injury may not in some cases be a justifiable protection: a merchant should not have the secrets of his trade dragged to light by any interested person who can ingeniously plant a petty litigation in his vicinity. But to justify the privilege, the evil to be suffered by disclosure should be clearly predominant over the advantage of the evidence. It is in those cases where the right to this privilege is held most indisputable, that it is most pernicious in its effect — viz., where the harm which the witness may bring on himself, is punishment for an offence. The law says, that no man is bound to criminate himself; and thus, by unjust leniency founded upon a false analogy, the evidence of two crimes is purposely concealed; that of a crime which a witness may have himself committed, and that of another crime which he may have witnessed in the course of his own iniquities. If the laws which condemn a man be just laws, let them be enforced — if they be unjust, let them be amended. The various impediments which still stand in the way of the conviction of a criminal are the relics of a barbarous age, when might made right — when one class of men made cruel laws, and others tried to protect themselves from their operation by frauds and fictions. When society was in such a state, that an innocent man was as likely to be hanged as a guilty, there was some reason on the side of those who thought that every legal quibble which saved a victim from the fangs of the law was a virtuous act: but in an age when ninetenths of society are in favour of the pure administration of justice, those who encourage such impediments to their operation cast an imputation on the institutions of their country.*

It would seem, to those unaccustomed to its operation, to be an absurdity too perverse to have entered into the brain of man, to award a punishment for an offence, and then, on the plea of humanity, to take measures to prevent the criminal from betraying his guilt. It is quite true that there may be means of coming at the truth which ought to be avoided from their mischievous effects on society; but these mischievous effects can only occur in the unjust punishment of the innocent — the just punishment of the guilty cannot be an evil. Torture is a means of coming at the truth; but the objection to it is, that the innocent as well as the guilty may suffer from the operation of the test. In the case of a man criminating himself, it is the guilty, and none other, that can be affected; and society at large gains an undoubted advantage by the proof of a crime and the consequent punishment of the delinquent. The leading principle laid down by Bentham regarding the investigation of crimes, is of the clearest and most effective character; it is simply this: adopt every measure for the exposure of the guilty, which will not involve the innocent. This principle does not admit of confidential communications by criminals to their law advisers being kept inviolate, any more than their revelations to their accomplices. Confidential communications, the object of which is to defeat the law, have no better claim to secrecy than those which have in view the commission of a crime. A change of system in this respect would probably make criminals less confidential with their agents; but it is difficult to see what harm society could suffer by an alteration which would only compromise the safety of the guilty.

The above remarks bear only on a small portion of the Rationale of Evidence. An analysis of the whole work, within the compass of the present notice, would be little more than a table of contents, and could give the reader no satisfaction. On a subject which occupies a considerable proportion of the work — that of Records, some remarks will be made further on. (See p. 72.)

* See “Swear not at all,” in Works, vol. v. p. 187 et seq., vol. vi. p. 297.

See Works, vol. vi. pp. 280, 292 et seq.

* Deontology, vol. ii. p. 155-156.

Principles of Morals and Legislation, in vol. i.

Deontology, vol. ii. p. 145-146.

* See Works, vol. ii. p. 408 et seq.; v. 207, 514 et seq.

See Works, vol. x. p. 37.

In the trial of an election petition some years ago, it came out in evidence, that young lads put pieces of paper, with the number 21 marked on them, in their shoes, that they might be able to swear they were “above twenty-one.”

* See “Swear not at all.” Also, Works, vol. v. p. 454 et seq.; vi. 318 et seq.

See Works, vol. v. p. 81 et seq.

See Editor’s note to Works, vol. v. p. 188.

§ Establishments for the support and influence of a dominant sect in a civilized country, are not to be confounded with funds for appointing propagandist missions to barbarous countries, or to the destitute or uncivilized portion of a community. The former have a tendency to stop inquiry, and keep back the community in the pursuit of truth; the latter have for their object the raising less intelligent classes to the standard which has been already reached by the more civilized. Apart from questions as to the superiority of one sect of Christians over another, the religious opinions of civilized Europe cannot well be propagated in barbarous Africa, without conveying some portions of whatever, in the character of the people of Europe, is superior to that of the people of Africa. But it by no means follows, that, in the same civilized society, good will be done by giving one sect power and money to bear down another. The subject of Christian missions was not investigated in any of Bentham’s published works.

See Works, vol. ix. pp. 35, 303.

* Works, vol. i. p. 243.

* Works, vol. v. p. 234. See generally on Fictions of Law, vol. i. p. 243; v. 13; vi. 100; vii. 283 et seq.; 415 et seq.; ix. 77 et seq.

See the Book of Fallacies, vol. ii. p. 375 et seq.

Works, vol. x. p. 69.

§ Ibid. vol. ii. p. 470.

* See Works, vol. ii. p. 448; ix. 76. The references made above on the subject of fallacies are casual and unmethodical. A mere analytical view of the fallacies exposed by Bentham, would not be satisfactory, without embodying the exposure itself; and to accomplish that task more briefly than he has himself done it, would be a vain attempt.

Works, vol. ii. p. 489 et seq.

Works, vol. ii. p. 497.

* Works, vols. vi. and vii.

* From The Globe of 7th December, 1842.

“Surrey Sessions, 6th December, 1842. — Charge of Stealing a Banker’s Check.

“The jury, after a short deliberation, acquitted the prisoner; upon which

“The chairman, addressing him, said that he was very fortunate to have escaped conviction; for the court was in possession of a document of which there was little doubt he was the writer, and which, had it been received in evidence, would surely have led to a very different result from that which the trial had taken. The prisoner then bowed and left the dock.”

The question naturally suggested by the perusal of this statement is, Whether the Surrey magistrates sit for the punishment of criminals, or for the purpose of conniving at their crimes by concealing the evidence?

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31