Cesare Beccaria's 'On Crimes and Punishments' and the Rise of Utilitarianism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Italian criminologist and economist, Cesare Beccaria, is given much credit for the structure of the criminal justice system in the United States. Learn how the system of courts and prisons used to enforce the law in the U.S. was influenced by Beccaria's 1764 book, On Crimes and Punishments, and his philosophies on social contract and utilitarianism, and his thoughts on deterrence. Updated: 10/09/2021

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.

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  • 0:15 On Crimes And Punishments
  • 1:35 Utilitarianism
  • 2:50 Deterrence
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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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.

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