Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 9: Duelling - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 9: Duelling - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Duelling as a punishment is absurd; because it is an equal chance, whether the punishment fall upon the offender, or the person offended. Nor is it much better as a reparation: it being difficult to explain in what the satisfaction consists, or how it tends to undo the injury, or to afford a compensation for the damage already sustained.
The truth is, it is not considered as either. A law of honour having annexed the imputation of cowardice to patience under an affront, challenges are given and accepted with no other design than to prevent or wipe off this suspicion; without malice against the adversary, generally without a wish to destroy him, or any other concern than to preserve the duellist’s own reputation and reception in the world.
The unreasonableness of this rule of manners is one consideration; the duty and conduct of individuals, while such a rule exists, is another.
As to which, the proper and single question is this, whether a regard for our own reputation is, or is not, sufficient to justify the taking away the life of another?
Murder is forbidden; and wherever human life is deliberately taken away, otherwise than by public authority, there is murder. The value and security of human life make this rule necessary; for I do not see what other idea or definition of murder can be admitted, which will not let in so much private violence, as to render society a scene of peril and bloodshed.
If unauthorised laws of honour be allowed to create exceptions to divine prohibitions, there is an end of all morality, as founded in the will of the Deity: and the obligation of every duty may, at one time or other, be discharged by the caprice and fluctuations of fashion.
“But a sense of shame is so much torture; and no relief presents itself otherwise than by an attempt upon the life of our adversary.” What then? The distress which men suffer by the want of money is oftentimes extreme, and no resource can be discovered but that of removing a life which stands between the distressed person and his inheritance. The motive in this case is as urgent, and the means much the same, as in the former: yet this case finds no advocate.
Take away the circumstance of the duellist’s exposing his own life, and it becomes assassination; add this circumstance, and what difference does it make? None but this, that fewer perhaps will imitate the example, and human life will be somewhat more safe, when it cannot be attacked without equal danger to the aggressor’s own. Experience, however, proves that there is fortitude enough in most men to undertake this hazard; and were it otherwise, the defence, at best, would be only that which a highwayman or housebreaker might plead, whose attempt had been so daring and desperate, that few were likely to repeat the same.
In expostulating with the duellist, I all along suppose his adversary to fall. Which supposition I am at liberty to make, because, if he have no right to kill his adversary, he has none to attempt it.
In return, I forbear from applying to the case of duelling the Christian principle of the forgiveness of injuries; because it is possible to suppose the injury to be forgiven, and the duellist to act entirely from a concern for his own reputation: where this is not the case, the guilt of duelling is manifest, and is greater.
In this view it seems unnecessary to distinguish between him who gives, and him who accepts, a challenge: for, on the one hand, they incur an equal hazard of destroying life; and on the other, both act upon the same persuasion, that what they do is necessary, in order to recover or preserve the good opinion of the world.
Public opinion is not easily controlled by civil institutions: for which reason I question whether any regulations can be contrived, of sufficient force to suppress or change the rule of honour, which stigmatises all scruples about duelling with the reproach of cowardice.
The insufficiency of the redress which the law of the land affords, for those injuries which chiefly affect a man in his sensibility and reputation, tempts many to redress themselves. Prosecutions for such offences, by the trifling damages that are recovered, serve only to make the sufferer more ridiculous. This ought to be remedied.
For the army, where the point of honour is cultivated with exquisite attention and refinement, I would establish a Court of Honour, with a power of awarding those submissions and acknowledgements, which it is generally the purpose of a challenge to obtain; and it might grow into a fashion, with persons of rank of all professions, to refer their quarrels to this tribunal.
Duelling, as the law now stands, can seldom be overtaken by legal punishment. The challenge, appointment, and other previous circumstances, which indicate the intention with which the combatants met, being suppressed, nothing appears to a court of justice, but the actual rencounter; and if a person be slain when actually fighting with his adversary, the law deems his death nothing more than manslaughter.