Cesare Beccaria Classical Theory Explained


Cesare Beccaria offered a classical theory on criminality. He often reflected on ideas like free will, rationalization, and manipulation. According to Beccaria, free will enables an individual to make their own choices. That ability to make a choice requires rationalization in order for the best possible choice to be achieved. People could then be manipulated within this rationalization process to make choices against their best interests by changing the perceived facts that are being examined.

In the Cesare Beccaria classical theory, law exists for one reason: to benefit society. Laws are able to preserve social contracts, but at the expense of the best interests of people at times. When this conflict arrives, whether through personal rationalization or through manipulation, then crime occurs.

Beccaria theorized that this meant a majority of crime that exists occurs because the criminal is acting out of their own real or perceived self-interest.

How Does Classical Theory Address Crime?

The justice system in the United States has been created around ideas that follow or are taken directly from Beccaria’s classical theory. According to the theory, people could be dissuaded from committing a crime if their rationalization process could be changed by the justice system. If a punishment resulted in a greater negative than the positives that a crime could provide, then it would make crime become an illogical choice.

At the time, Beccaria felt that the justice system was “barbaric.” He believed that criminals and their families deserved to have rights, such as much as the victims of crime deserved to have rights as well. Under his theory, he believed that crime could be prevented by reversing the manipulations that were placed onto people who had rationalized the benefit of crime for one reason or another.

It was this idea that led him to publish On Crimes and Punishments in 1764 anonymously. Beccaria feared a political response to his ideas, but when the founding fathers of the US accepted his ideas and attempted to implement them, he republished the work again under his own name.

What Have We Gotten from Beccaria’s Classical Theory?

There are several ideas that are currently in use still today that originated from Beccaria’s classical theory. The right to have a quick trial when accused of a crime was put into the Constitution as a result of Beccaria’s work. It is also used as a foundation for the truth-in-sentencing laws that have been implemented in some jurisdictions and those who argue against the abolishment of the death penalty often use this theory as well.

Yet many of the items that are either implemented or under debate in the modern justice system are components that Beccaria expressly condemned within his work. On Crime and Punishments is ruthless in its criticism of the use of torture, especially when it is used to gain a confession. Beccaria believed that secret accusations had no place in a civilized society. He also advocated for a reduction of the use of capital punishment, even when considering serious crimes.

The classical theory is one of the first that was widely accepted which took the utilitarian approach to criminality. In the past, the idea of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was often the foundation of punishment. This type of justice system is retributive, which means it essentially creates the opportunity for a victim to take revenge on their perpetrator. The utilitarian model promotes punishment contributing to the general “happiness” of the world, encouraging rehabilitation whenever possible to stop repetitive crime.

How to Maximize Punishment in the Classical Theory

Beccaria believed that many justice systems were inadequate because the punishment occurred well-after the crime, if it would even be enforced. He felt that a punishment for a crime should be implemented as quickly as possible so that the law could have a maximum level of deterrence. This creates a connection between criminal behavior and the resulting punishment, which Beccaria believed would reduce the value seen in committing a crime.

The classical theory also promoted punishments in degrees of severity based on the crime. According to Beccaria, murder wasn’t the worst crime that could be committed. It was treason, because it “harms the social contract.” Beccaria believed that crimes against property should always be punished by fines.

One of the most overlooked ideas that Cesare Beccaria promoted, however, was the idea of education. If people could be educated properly, then crime could be lessened because opportunities could be equalized. The classical theory is still actively used today, which shows how influential it has been and will likely continue to be.