The Death Penalty And Criticisms Of Beccaria

’s Work Essay, Research Paper


The Death Penalty and Criticisms of Beccaria’s work

Troy K. Prichett

University of Alabama


The purpose of this paper is to discuss Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments,

with emphasis on Beccaria’s views on the death penalty and the many criticisms

that surrounds his work. Beccaria had extreme views against the death penalty,

but he contradicted his views several times. This led to the criticism of his work

and many of his views of society of the Enlightenment period. There were some

who said the Beccaria did not write On Crimes and Punishment, this along with

other criticisms will be address below.

The Death Penalty and Criticisms of Beccaria’s Work

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the death penalty and the many

criticisms surrounding Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments. Key

points in Beccaria’s life according to Adler, Mueller, and Laufer (2000):

Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria (1738-1794), was rather undistinguished as a student. After graduating with a law degree from the University of Pavia, he returned home to Milan and joined a group of articulate and radical intellectuals. Disenchanted with contemporary Europeans society, they organized themselves into the academy of fists, one of many young men’s clubs that flourished in Italy as the time. Their purpose was to discover what reforms would be needed to modernize Italian society. In March 1763 Beccaria was assigned to prepare a report on the prison system. Pietro Verri, the head of the academy of fists, encouraged him to read the works of English and French philosophers-David Hume (1711-1776), John Locke (1632-1704), Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771), Voltaire (1694-1778), Montesquieu (1685-1755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Another member of the academy, the protector of prisons, revealed to him the inhumanities that were possible under the guise of social control. Beccaria learned well. He read, observed, and made notes on small scraps of paper. These notes, Harry Elmer Barnes has observed, were destined to “assure to its author immortality and would work a revolution in the moral world” upon their publication in July 1764 under the title Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishment). Beccaria presented a coherent, comprehensive designs for an enlightened criminal justice system that was serve the people rather than the monarchy. (p. 62-63) After On Crimes and Punishment was published Beccaria was considered the founder of Classical school of Criminology.

The Death penalty

The death penalty also known as capital punishment is being put to death for committing a crime. Beccaria (1764/1963) views the death penalty as a “ . . . useless prodigality of torments, which has never made man better . . . .” The purpose of punishment is to deter crime, but when that punishment exceeds what is necessary to deter crime it becomes unjust, according to Beccaria. What can justify the execution of one of societies citizens? How can we determine if the punishment of the crime should be death? Are there any crime that are justified by the killing of a human being? These are some questions that Beccaria (1764/1963) answers:

There are only two possible motives for believing that the death of a citizen is necessary. The first: when it is evident even if deprived of liberty he still has connections and power such as endanger the security of the nation-when, that is, his existence can produce a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen thus becomes necessary when a nation is recovering or losing its Liberty or, in time of anarchy, when disorders themselves take the place of laws. . . . I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except if his death were the only real way of restraining others from committing crimes; this is the second motive for believing that the death penalty may be just and necessary.(p. 46)

So only in extreme situations the death penalty can be just and necessary. But during the enlightenment period when laws were hard to interpret and most people in society could not understand or did not know the law; how could we then justify the death penalty if society was not sure about the law or the punishment of crime. According to Beccaria (1764/1963) “If the interpretation of laws is an evil, another evil, evidently, is the obscurity that makes interpretation necessary. . . . written in a language that its foreign to a people . . .” Thus if society is confused about the law and the punishment that one might get for breaking the law, then how can it be an effective deterrent? If deterrence is the whole reason for punishment then wouldn’t it be more effective if society knew the law and the punishment. If the death penalty is an uncertain punishment and the duration between committing the crime and punishment, then that in itself makes the death penalty ineffective for others that witness the execution, because the see the long wait before being punished. Beccaria (1764/1963) stated “With the death penalty, every example given to the nation presupposes a new crime; with the penalty of a lifetime of servitude a single crime supplies frequent and lasting examples. And if it be important that men frequently observe the power of the laws, penal executions ought not to be separated by long intervals. . .” Johnson and Wolfe (1996) stated “Law should be adapted to the people for whom they were made and insure both the health and stability of society.” Thus when writing law for the people don’t write over the people.


There are many criticisms of Beccaria’s work, some that argue he

did not write or even that he plagiarized the essay. According to Newman (1990)

One is a suspicion that Beccaria did not write the document, but the accuracy of this accusation turns on what is meant by the word ”write.”. . . Our guess is that Beccaria had put down notes resulting from the many discussions he had with the Verris and their visitors about the criminal law, . . . then urged Beccaria to put these scraps together into a book. Beccaria apparently spent a long time trying to do that, without accomplishing very much. Eventually, Pietro Verri collected the various pieces and organize and into an essay. so, whether Beccaria “wrote” the treaties is difficult to say.(p. 330-331)

Their are some that say Beccaria did probably write the essay as Verris as an editor.

Some other criticisms of Beccaria essay were its contradictions, such as his utilitarian views. According to Adler, Mueller, and Laufer (2000) “Utilitarianism a science that all human actions are calculated in accordance with their likelihood of bringing happiness (pleasure) or unhappiness (pain). People weigh the probabilities of present and future pleasures against those of present and future pain.” Beccaria’s (1764/1963) utilitarian views are contradicted in his last sentence, “In order for punishment not to be, in every instance, an act of violence of one or of many against a private citizen, it must be essentially public, prompt, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crimes, dictated by the laws.”

However, it is contradicted by the utilitarian view that the pain of the punishment must outweigh the pleasure of the offense. This is in fact what is hidden by Beccaria’s use of the words “least possible” and “necessary.” What is the necessary condition for punishment-the breaking of a law? Retributivists would say so. But utilitarians, who are forward looking, are interested in preventing future crimes. (Newman and Marongiu 1990 p. 335)

This utilitarian view were also noted in Johnson and Wolfe (1996) “Punishments served a utilitarian purpose; they were to discourage future criminal activity, both by the convicted person and by those who witnessed his chastisement.”

Beccaria was also criticized for his extreme views on the death penalty. He argued against the death penalty, that a sentence of slavery was more sever and thus a greater deterrent than death. Their were many criticisms of this view; because slavery was another way of inflicting death. “This was especially so when time was served in ships’ galleys. In fact, galley slavery was considered appropriate for a “capital offense.” It is not clear, therefore, how “absolute” Beccaria’s opposition to the death penalty was, since many would die as a result of the punishments he proposed.” (Newman and Marongiu, 1990) His argument was that a sentence of slavery was a greater deterrent, because of the pain that was inflicted. It is hard to see how this was a more deterrent because their was sufficient pain inflicted with both slavery and the death penalty. “We can see that his arguments here deeply contradict his previous claims to advocate mild punishments. In fact, he had argued in other parts of the Treatise that harsh punishments worked against deterrence. His only response to this criticism could be that penal slavery was less harsh than death as then inflicted, yet his argument was the opposite.” (Newman and Marongiu, 1990) According to Beccaria (1764/1963) “It is not the intensity of punishment that has the greatest effect on the human spirit, but its duration, for our sensibility is more easily and more permanently affected by slight but repeated impressions than by a powerful but momentary action.” With is statement it is easily to see how Beccaria contidicts himself, but still make a very powerful argument.

Cesare Beccaria was known as the father of the modern criminology, But his views and his book On Crimes and Punishments was widely criticized by other who studied in the same field. “A critical appraisal of the substance of On Crimes and Punishments is difficult to make, because it is a document full of many of obscurities and contradictions(which become worse when translated into English). The vagueness of many of the terms used and the level of generality of the document makes it difficult to pin down the substance. Some say that its this level of generality that constitutes its genius.” (Newman and Marongiu, 1990) Even though Beccaria was widely criticized his views have been shared for many generations and will continue to shape and mold future generations.



Adler, F., Mueller, G. O. W., & Laufer. W. S. (2001). Criminology. (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Beccaria, C. (1963). On crimes and punishment (H. Paolucci, Trans.). New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1764).

Johnson, H., & Wolfe, N. (1996). The Enlightenment and criminal justice. History of criminal justice. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Company.

Newman, G., & Marongiu, P. (1990). Penological reform and the myth of Beccaria. Criminology, 28, 325-346.


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