Cesare Beccaria wrote 'On Crimes and Punishments' in the 18th century. It called for criminal justice reform and influenced the U.S. criminal justice system. This lesson explores 'On Crimes and Punishments' and the resulting rise of utilitarianism.
On Crimes and Punishments
Beccaria may not be a household name, but you know his work. He's largely responsible for the development of today's United States criminal justice system. The system would look very different without his influence.
Cesare Beccaria was an Italian philosopher and thinker who lived during the 18th century. He belonged to an intellectual circle known as The Academy of Fists. This circle focused on reforming the criminal justice system. To further that end, Beccaria wrote On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. Beccaria recognized how few studies had been conducted regarding reform.
He believed all people possess the basic qualities of free will, ability for rational thought, power to have self-interested thoughts, and manipulability. In a nutshell, Beccaria believed people commit crimes because they freely make choices in their own self-interest. These choices sometimes conflict with the interests of society. Because many of the criminal choices can be anticipated, society should take measures to manipulate and discourage those choices. Society could discourage the choices by setting criminal punishments severe enough to keep people from choosing to commit crimes.
Let's look more closely at some of the major points made through On Crimes and Punishments.
Beccaria forwarded two important philosophical theories through his text. The first is social contract. Social contract refers to the belief that the government exists solely to serve the people, and the people are the source of the government's political power. This means the people can choose to give or restrict governmental power. They make their own rules. Beccaria claimed that criminal punishment was only justified in order to further the social contract. For this reason, he classified treason as the most serious crime because it violates the social contract.
The second is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism piggybacks on the social contract theory and refers to the belief that the government should only legislate in ways that provide the greatest public good. This is an important philosophical theory that was more fully developed through the later works of Jeremy Bentham. Using utilitarianism, Beccaria claimed that criminal punishment should be practical and useful to the people. Punishment should increase the overall amount of happiness in the world and create a better society.
In Beccaria's time, criminal punishment was often based on retribution. This is a criminal punishment theory that maintains punishment is payment for harm done. Retribution is based on the old adage, 'an eye for an eye'. This theory is somewhat retaliatory and vengeful. Beccaria felt it didn't benefit society.
Instead, Beccaria promoted deterrence. Deterrence is a type of prevention meaning that the threat of punishment outweighs the urge to commit a crime. Deterrence prevents the criminal from repeating criminal behavior and also dissuades others from choosing to commit crimes. Beccaria felt that deterrence provided the most use for society.
However, in order to provide the most deterrent effect, he felt punishment must:
- Be certain
- Be swift
- Be appropriately severe
Let's look at those principles more closely.
Beccaria wrote that criminals must have a reasonable fear of a definite punishment for their acts. In other words, the probability of punishment should be certain in order to deter the criminal. Next, the punishment must be closely associated to the crime. This means the punishment must be swift, or administered promptly after the crime. Lastly, the punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed. The probability of punishment, rather than its severity, would be enough to prevent criminal behavior. To that end, the punishment need not be any more severe than what is needed to outweigh the advantages of the crime. For example, it's not useful to give life in prison for a shoplifting case when the shoplifter will be sufficiently deterred by the threat of a month in jail.
He opposed the death penalty in most cases based on this same argument. Beccaria felt capital punishment was needlessly severe. He wrote that long-term imprisonment and perpetual slavery, or banishment, were more effective deterrents.
Cesare Beccaria was an Italian philosopher and thinker who lived during the 18th century. He wrote On Crimes and Punishments in 1764. The text forwarded the idea of social contract, which is the belief that the government exists solely to serve the people, and the people are the source of the government's political power. It also promoted utilitarianism, which is the belief that the government should only legislate in ways that provide the greatest public good.
Beccaria argued against retribution, which is a criminal punishment theory that maintains punishment is payment for harm done. Instead, he promoted deterrence. This is a type of prevention where the threat of punishment outweighs the urge to commit a crime. In order to provide the most deterrent effect, he felt punishment must:
- Be certain, or highly probable
- Be swift, or prompt
- Be appropriately severe so that it discourages criminal behavior without being needlessly severe
After you've completed this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall what Cesare Beccaria believed caused people to commit crimes
- Describe Cesare Beccaria's theories of social contract and utilitarianism in his book On Crimes and Punishments
- Explain Beccaria's views on retribution and deterrence
- Identify the elements needed to effectively deter crime, according to Beccaria
- Understand why Beccaria opposed the death penalty in most cases