Classical Criminology Strenghs and Weaknesses

Topics: Human Rights

The following academic paper highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of Classical Criminology. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.

The development of the Classical theory was at a time where society was experiencing vast changes with the movement from feudalism to that of capitalism. This substantial transition took place in the 18th Century or Renaissance period where views and attitudes on religion were being challenged. Due to the influence of religion upon society at the time the challenge that it faced deeply affected society, including that of attitudes to crime.

Feudalism was based upon repression with the majority of power, wealth and land being in the hands of only a few people.

There was a significant absence of legal rights, punishment was brutal and justice was personalised. In reaction to this a group known as the ‘enlightenment’ philosophers emerged who argued that ‘human problems should be tackled by the application of reason, rather than tradition, religion or superstition.

‘1 The Enlightenment thinkers argued for a criminal justice system which was ‘predictable, non-discriminatory, humane and effective. ‘2 This line of argument formed the basis for the classicalist theory. The Classical theory relies on the principle that humans have individual rights, the capacity to reason and the ‘rule of law.

The voluntaristic view that humans have free will therefore means we are entirely responsible for our actions. We commit crime due to either using reason to outweigh the benefits against the detriments or because of an irrational decision.

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The Classical theory views everyone as having the equal capacity to reason therefore everyone should be treated equally under the law. 3 In order to maintain both individual rights and order the Classicalist theory proposes that there should be a social contract between the governing state and the individuals.

What Is The Classical Theory Of Criminology

The Social contract states that we give up certain rights in return for both the safety of ourselves and our property. The ‘rule of law’ means we are treated equally under the law. The law is seen as essentially good and that crime is simply a violation of the law. Punishment was used only as a deterrent against committing crime working on a ‘pleasure-pain principle, in which the pain of the sentence would outweigh any pleasure to be gained from committing the crime. ‘4 The influence of the Classicalist theory has been both positive and negative with both presenting challenging arguments.

As Jock Young argues the Classical argument has been immensely influential upon both the legal and criminal side of society. 5 Firstly the Classicalist theory presented a far more open and orderly justice system unlike its predecessor which was left at the discretion of the aristocracy. With the focus being upon the individual, and more importantly the individual’s rights, a repressive attitude could no longer be taken in the Criminal Justice system. A sense of justice is given to all parts of society and not just a select few.

The Classical theory is based on self interest of man, will and desire rather than that of God, making social problems easier to deal with and meaning that we have a society all working on the same basis of their reasoning ability. The basis of self interest as our motivation is something that all of society can relate to and provides ‘a firm, realistic – perhaps even materialistic – foundation. ‘6 The tension in the theory between ‘the rational self and the pursuit of self interest’ has been tempered, as Young says, by reason.

We are all endowed with free will and the ability to reason and for this the law views us equally, meaning that the justice system can move towards an objective basis. A system which is both fair and objective can be relied upon and is far easier to debate any disputes than a subjective one. Classical theory has led to many legal system reforms but one of the most important is that of punishment, due mainly to its significance in the reform of criminals.

Punishment has become proportionate to the crime committed thereby not only making the punishment fair and just but also acting as an effective deterrent against any future unlawful activity. The idea of a social contract coupled with free will gives individuals in society responsibility and choice and it is this responsibility which forces people to consider their actions. By forcing people to take responsibility for their actions society is asking the individual to consider mistakes they have made and how best to reform their ways. The Classical theory has set a standard which other theories can be compared to, it has moved the criminal justice system towards a more predictable, fair and effective position which can be relied upon.

The Classical theory has given individuality to society meaning we live in a culture which relies upon itself to improve rather than others forcing us. The Classical theory has been limited by the assumption that all people are equal in front of the law. There cannot be equality in front of the law when society is immersed in inequality. The problem of fairness in individual cases becomes apparent when we consider that ‘people are not endowed with equal capacity to reason. ‘8 Children and adults with mental illnesses cannot reason in an equal capacity to other people therefore how can they be tried in the same manner.

Their decision to commit a crime may be due to an irrational decision therefore how is a case of this nature approached, the classical approach offers no answers. The introduction of ‘mitigating circumstances’ as a possible solution could be countered in that it would conflict with the free will and rational argument upon which the Classical theory is based. The Classical theory also fails to recognise that crime is not distributed throughout society equally. The Classical argument suggests crime occurs due to temporary irrationality but this does not explain why crime occurs in predominately low income areas.

Classical theory fails to recognise that the inequalities in society are often the cause of crime and when suggesting all are equal before the law we are confronted with a major contradiction. The inequality in society also highlights the difference between formal law and substantive law because certain individuals in society have the means to exploit the legal system through knowledge and lawyers whereas others cannot. 10 Similarly with punishments, which although may be proportional to the crime, affect members of society in noticeably different ways.

For example a poorer individual may experience far greater implications upon being found guilty, in that they could lose income and any future work opportunities, whereas a more affluent person could still manage. It is clear that in an unequal society the argument for complete equality in law is met with many dilemmas. Lombroso would argue that the Classical theory is simply ‘metaphysical speculation’ and that we are pre-determined, meaning personal characteristics are the reason behind crime. I however would not support the determinism argument because I don’t believe we can be free from responsibility for our actions.

Functionalism, ‘a theoretical perspective that emphasizes how societies operate or function by highlighting the interdependence of individuals and institutions,’11 has also challenged the argument put forward by the Classical theory. Durkheim believed that ‘social activities contribute to the functioning of social systems’12 and that crime was normal and had four functions. The first being that it highlights certain behaviours or attitudes because deviance causes ‘proper moral behaviour. ’13 Secondly by identifying deviants you are able to recognize group boundaries.

Thirdly ‘punishing deviance provides forums for collective action. 14 Finally deviance may bring about a social change. Functionalism provides a substantial argument against the classical theory because it attacks the premise that crime is due to irrational actions and is a detriment to society. Although the functionalism argument has been criticised for being in no position to focus on social conflict when it is based upon consensus and how the unity of people is for the good of society. The Classical theory has been scrutinized for not showing any focus towards the causes of crime simply arguing that individuals work on a pleasure-pain basis.

However Beccaria argued ‘that economic conditions, bad laws could cause crime. Additionally, he was clear that property crimes were committed primarily by the poor, and mainly out of necessity. ’15 The Classical theory’s main problem is that it continually contradicts itself which leads to various other problems. The Classical theory could only occur in a society free of inequality, not based on class or status. When this is met with the premise that individuals are self-seeking and motivated by their desire to excel you arrive at a contradiction which leaves it with little freedom to counter.

A society which is based on the individual being motivated by their own objectives leaves an imbalance and inequality because obviously not everyone will reach the same standard. The Classical theory is attempting to have a justice system based on formal equality in a society which is substantively unequal. This has repercussions throughout the whole of the justice system and renders the classical theory in need of reform. The Classical theory obviously provoked a radical change to the justice system and forced elements which were brutal, unpredictable and unfair to be amended in a manner which suited all of society.

Classicalism has brought about a justice system which can be relied upon and proposed the theory that deviance is due to irrationality and that individuals are self-seeking which is a premise all of society can relate to. However it is the focus upon the offence rather than the offender which has been its downfall. It has been accused of being inhumane and too formal. Inequality in society has been hidden by the equality in the justice system and for this reason it will always be limited in its approach.

However the influence that Classicalism has had is vast with the idea that we are in control of our actions being at the heart of society today. Jock Young stated that ‘classicalism has the largest history of any contemporary criminological theory but still continues to be a major influence both on institutions of social control and in controversies in criminology. ’16 Both the Positivist and Classical argument are persuasive theories but a combination of both would obviously provide a stronger argument which would hopefully amend the faults they possess.

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Classical Criminology Strenghs and Weaknesses. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Classical Criminology Strenghs and Weaknesses
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