Is Capital Punishment a Deterrent to Crime within the Classical Theory?


The paper researches the interpretation of capital punishment through the prism of the Classic School of Criminology. The overview of the Classic School’s background and its interpretation of punishment allows the author to put capital punishment in the context. Through the analysis of the main principles of the Classic School and the place of punishment within it, the author concludes that capital punishment contradicts the central ideas of Cesare Beccaria, the founder of the Classical School. Furthermore, for a persuasive illustration, the modern researches of correlation between capital punishment and deterrent effect are mentioned.


There are many approaches to different issues in Criminology. During the history of this field of knowledge, the central thinkers of the world have provided their interpretations of the same problems in accordance with the prevalent intellectual position that presupposed the whole epoch in philosophical aspect. In such a way, the Classical Theory is one of these approaches established during the Enlightenment when the most prominent European philosophers believed in the highest dignity of human reason, which would be the only one determinative factor of human behavior. In some degree, the Classical Theory of Criminology provides degree very specific explanation of different aspects of criminological practice, and one of them is the interpretation of punishment as a deterrent mean that implies on human reason and prevents people from crimes because of fear of being punished. The interpretation of capital punishment and its role within the society of rational people takes here a specific place. According to the Classical Theory, there is no sense in using capital punishment because it kills instead of deterring criminals and, in such a way, contradicts the central principles of the Classical Theory and Enlightenment in general.

The Classical Theory’s Background

To understand the specifics of interpretation the Classical Theory in the field of Criminology, it is necessary to clarify the philosophic underground of that theory and the general worldview principles that have determined its appearance. The Classical Theory of Criminology is a result of the thematic implementations of the Enlightenment principles. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that preceded the French Revolution and proposed the understanding of all people through the prism of rationalism. The main difference of a human being from other beings is human reason, according to that teaching. That is why, as long as everyone has some intellectual potential, the main goal of society is be the enlightenment, or education, of every person, in order to help everyone realize his or her reason. The social problems of the thinkers of the Enlightenment involve many spheres, such as pedagogics, politics, and, among many others, criminal law.

Through the prism described, it is clear that the criminal law of the Enlightenment understands people as equal beings that live for a common good represented by some rational goal. The main representative of the Classic School, Cesare Beccaria, founded his conception on two statements. Firstly, he claimed that the state was the result of a social contract all people realized in order to delegate some of their rights to common authorities that would organize work of all people. Secondly, Beccaria believed that morality had utilitarian essence, and that useful things would be always considered moral. In such a way, Beccaria, as well as other Classical Theory thinkers, understood the state and law particularly as the forms of human beings organization that existed in order to help every person achieve some rational good and useful goal.

Thus, as long as Beccaria considers that the only thing all people want is good, his ethical system appears as a solution of contradiction between pleasure and pain within the state. Crime is a result of one’s misinterpretation of the reality, through which some person attempts to achieve something good by immoral means that appear as bad actions toward other people. Thus, the only one way to prevent crimes is to deter potential criminals by some possible punishment that may appear as pain, loss of something precious, etc. According to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, punishment deters crime because of the rational essence of people. Such a position is common for all representatives of the Classic Theory because their ideas have common roots of the same epoch. Thus, for example, Beccaria influenced English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who developed Beccaria’s utilitarianism into an elaborated conception that also had important implementations with the field of criminal law.

Punishment within the Classical Theory

To understand how the Classic Theory interprets capital punishment, the main concepts connected with punishment itself within the Social Theory must be clear. Harcout proposes different reasons for punishment as a social measure of influence realization and crime prevention. There are three main principles that help to establish and regulate punishment for each separate crime properly in accordance with each specific crime. The first one concerns the just severity of punishment. It means that severity of each concrete punishment has to correspond to each concrete crime committed. Thus, Beccaria and his followers denied tortures as means that were too severe without any need. This principle exists in the connection with understanding of punishment as deterrence instead of vengeance. That means that judges do not have to find a way to make a criminal pay by his or her sufferings for some deeds. The deterrent character of punishment makes this judiciary mean prevent other crimes by simply influencing people through demonstration of crimes commitment results. The third principle means that each crime has to be equal to each special punishment, because a person who committed some middle crime has to be punished not as severely as someone who committed some great crime such as an act of terrorism. In such a way, the Classic Theory understands punishment through the principles of just severity, deterrence, and proportionality. Each of these principles appeared from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and that is the result of the Enlightenment thinkers’ common belief in human rational essence.

Certainly, there were theoretical problems with average person’s ability to understand all possible dangers that would come because of crime commitment. More to say, the philosophers solved such problems through the common appellation to peoples’ lack of education. Through such a prism, education would make people law-obeding because they would realize their reason well enough to evaluate all negative consequences of crime and positive consequences of stability. The same thing Wright claims regarding today’s deterrent of theorists’ researches: “enhancing the certainty of punishment produces a stronger deterrent effect than increasing the severity of punishment.”

According to Harcout, the Classic School thinkers such as Beccaria and Bentham, consider that the main reasons for criminal punishment are various because of different possible situations that may realize themselves as crimes. It is possible to mention four reasons for punishment. Those are specific deterrence, general deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution. Specific deterrence concerns a criminal who would be afraid to commit another crime after he or she had a personal experience of punishment for the previous one. General deterrence means social influence of a punishment realized on one criminal. After that punishment, according to the Classic Theory, most citizens would be afraid of the results of that criminal’s illegal activity, and for that reason, they would not commit crimes as well. Thus, one person serves as an example of a loser. Incapacitation is a limitation of one person’s rights because he or she realizes these rights contradictory to other people’s rights. One of the best examples of incapacitation is jailing, after which one loses many possibilities. Incapacitation does not influence society like general deterrence, for example, but it is a way to resolve the problems with particular ungoverned people. The last example is retribution, the material compensation of a suffered part for some injuries. In such a way, there is a gradation from the most common and abstract reasons to the politically and economically motivated aspects.

Capital Punishment within the Classical Theory

As for the forms of punishment, there are many different ways for each particular problem. In addition, there can be five most representative and specific types of punishment. Among them are corporeal punishment, banishment, incarceration, restitution, and capital punishment. Each of these categories includes many different concrete cases. The most potential contradictory essence belongs to the last category, because it has different interpretations within separate structural units of the Classical Theory and principles mentioned. In some degree, capital punishment has some reasonable details, but the philosophers of the Enlightenment denied it because of their conception about human equality and everyone’s life as a high value.

After the previous overview, the main point of this research is to interpret capital punishment through the prism of the Classical Theory with its specific worldview aspects. For example, while understanding capital punishment through the reasons of punishment itself, it becomes clear that it contradicts half of those reasons. Thus, capital punishment makes a very exciting general deterrent effect, and completely incapacitates everyone sentenced. More to say, such a measure does not work for specific deterrence cases (because capital punishment is a death sentence, after which there is no fear of death), and it has no usefulness for the sake of retribution. In such a way, the sequences of capital punishment have no direct individual or constructive character.
The same is with the main principles of the Classical Theory. Thus, capital punishment does not fit all of them, because they are in a close interrelation. In such a way, there is no place for capital punishment within the state of the Enlightenment. For example, it completely contradicts the principle of just severity, because capital punishment is the severest mean of punishing a criminal. There is no possibility to find some reason to use it in some specific cases, because there cannot be a criminal who deserves death sentence in comparison with other criminals involved in alternative cases. In such a way, the problem of punishment’s generalization makes it clear that no person deserves death for his or her crimes. The same is with other theoretical principles mentioned. Thus, the underlining of the fact that punishment has to be a deterrence, not vengeance, also does not allow including capital punishment into the theoretically accepted practices of an enlightened state. At last, there is also a problem with the principle of proportionality. To use capital punishment, there has to be a group of crimes that would overcome other crimes in such degree, in which capital punishment overcomes other forms of punishment. At the same time, according to the research provided by Radelet and Lacock, “the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.” Frost adds the same thing, when he claims: “the death penalty does not have a perceptible influence on the homicide rate.” In such a way, capital punishment contradicts all main principles of the Enlightenment, and that explains why Beccaria argued against it as an unjust method of punishment.


The Classical Theory of Criminology proposes a point of view, according to which, the deterrent means are the best way to decrease the number of crimes. In implication of this thesis to capital punishment, it is clear, that this type of punishment both contradicts the main principles of the Classical Theory and does not work in accordance with the researches in this field. Thus, capital punishment since the founder of the Classical School, Cesare Beccaria, is considered an unjust and ineffective way of state’s influence on the people.

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