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Cesare Beccaria and Utilitarianism

            Cesare Bonesana, Marchese Beccaria is credited as the author of an essay that forever changed the criminal justice system. Although not a criminologist, Cesare Beccaria first anonymously published Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishment) in July of 1764 and again, this time with him as the author, shortly after. His essay was widely distributed and read, which brought him widespread acclaim. Unsatisfied and wanting to “challenge the existing structure of eighteenth century Italian society”, Beccaria “based many of his ideas….on the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number” (Martin et al., 1990). This concept of ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ is known as utilitarianism. Despite the writing and recognition that Jeremy Bentham brought to identifying modern utilitarianism, it was first used by Beccaria, which later influenced Bentham’s work.

To understand why Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishment made such chaos and controversy, we have to look back at what criminal law was like in Europe during the time the essay was distributed to the public. Manheim’s book, Pioneers in Criminology, does an exceptional job at describing the criminal atmosphere in Europe during this time. Manheim (1960) stated the following:

The existent criminal law of eighteenth-century Europe was, in general, repressive, uncertain and barbaric. Its administration permitted and encouraged incredibly arbitrary and abusive practices. The agents of the criminal law, prosecutors and judges, were allowed tremendous latitude in dealing with persons accused and convicted of crime, and corruption was rampant throughout continental Europe. (p. 38)

Corruption ran rampant throughout this time. Many people were convicted of crimes on the slightest of evidence. Several crimes carried with it the death penalty and were executed in public for everyone to see. The gruesomeness of these executions became the normative throughout Europe. The abuse and physical harm these individuals went thought would make your average citizen today sick. Besides the physical abuse the criminals went thought, there were other areas that were corrupt and unethical. Becccaria was against many of these practices, so he argued against it in his essay. Also, his work was the first on penology, which is the philosophies and practices of repressing criminals. In Beccaria’s Essays on Crimes and Punishment, we can see how the ultimate goal of his work was to make decisions on the basis that it would maximize happiness and minimize punishment.

            Beccaria’s work on supreme utility was supported due to the age of enlightenment, which reflected principles of rational punishment that fit a certain crime. In order to create a fair and just criminal justice system, laws and penalties have to be clearly stated. There can be no confusion and personal discretion used in the sentencing process. Clearly stated laws state the range of punishment that goes with each criminal act. An important part of clearly stated laws that sate the range or punishment is that they have to make the penalty of the crime outweigh the benefits of committing the crime. According to Becceria, this is an important aspect of criminal law. He states that the punishment for crimes has to be harsh enough to slightly outweigh the benefits of the crime. We engage in a social contract to reframe from crime because we know the penalties associated with a crime. Beccaria describes this as “giving up a portion of our personal autonomy, for the greater good of the rest of society” (McShane & Williams III, 1997). For those hedonistic few that disregarded laws to seek pleasure, Beccecaria defends that they are innocent until proven guilty, but first, crimes and punishment has to be clear.

When it came to identifying crimes, Beccaria developed three general categories: crimes that threaten the existence of society, crimes that injure the security and property of individuals, and crimes that are disruptive of the public peace and tranquility (Martin et al., 1990). For each of these categories, Beccaria provides examples of crimes that fall under each category and the punishment that fit each crime under the categories, which will be discussed later. After the identification of crimes, there needed to be a way to measure what was and was not considered a crime. The points that distinguish the ideas expressed in the Classical School from other schools is the criteria for measuring crimes. Opposed to taking “intent” into consideration when measuring a crime, Beccaria states that it is the actions of the individual that is of upmost importance. To illustrate what Beccaria believed, if there was a murder that was committed by an individual, the measurement needed to determine if a crime was committed would solely rely on the fact that the individual indeed committed the murder and not so much on why (intent) the action was committed. As we can tell by our current criminal justice system, Beccaria’s ideas on the measurement of crime are not used today. It has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual who committed a certain crime had the intentions to imposed harm against society or another individual. We can see that although Beccaria established many influential ideas, some withhold criticism while others did not.

            According to Cote (2002), “Although the classical theories of Bentham and Beccaria helped shape criminal justice policy in Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, they did little to affect the ever-rising crime rates” (p.35). The fluctuation in crime rates and knowing what ways to decrease them is a problem today’s criminologist are still trying to find the answers to. It seems as though there is no one correct practice that is proven to keep crime rates down. For that reason, there is not much criticism that Beccaria faced after he published his idea of utilitarianism. Perhaps the reason for the lack of criticis faced by Beccaria was that his ideas and principles were so new and challenging that everyone who read his work knew of the injustice that was going on in the criminal justice system, but had no concrete material to support an opposing argument. Criticism that Beccaria could face would be in the application of his findings. For example, the categories of crimes that Beccaria identified could come under complications when enacted into policies. Still, further research would propose alternative ideas that could work but still followed the general ideas introduced by Beccaria.

            In summary, we can see the incorporations of Beccaria’s work in today’s criminal justice system. Jones (1986) stated that “Beccaria’s idealism spread to the new world and was accepted by those who shortly thereafter would become founders of a new nation the United States of America” (p.39).We have laws that specifically define what is and what is not a crime, laws that provide the necessary punishment for each criminal act, and fairness as a criminal goes through the criminal justice system. Not only was our nation founded on these principles, other countries applied his principles as well. For example, France composed a list of roughly 120 capital offences and tried to reorganize French laws based on Beccaria’s principles. To this day, there is still ongoing research that takes Beccaria’s principle and applies them to every area of the criminal justice system trying to improve its legitimacy. The core concept behind all the research and policy implications is utilitarianism; how can we create the greatest good for the greatest number. The importance of Beccaria and his work in criminology provided the foundation that our nation was built on. Given the rights and lifestyle we live today, that is an achievement we can give thanks to.





Reference Page

Martin, R., Mutchnick, J. R., & Austin, T. W. (1990). Criminological thought: Pioneers past and

present. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Cote, S. (2002). Criminological theories: Bridging the past to the future. Thousand Oaks,

Callifornia: Sage Publications.

Manheim, H., Glover, E., & Miller, E. (1960). Pioneers in criminology. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle


Jones A. D. (1986). History of criminology: A philosophical perspective. New York, NY:

Greenwood Press.

McShane, M., & Williams III, P. F. (1997). Criminal justice: Contemporary literature in theory

and practice. New York, NY: Garland Publishing.

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