Disclaimer: This essay has been written by a law student and not by our expert law writers. View examples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of LawTeacher.net. You should not treat any information in this essay as being authoritative.

The Classicist and Biological Positivism Approaches to Crime

Info: 2594 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 21st Sep 2023

Reference this

Jurisdiction / Tag(s): Jurisprudence

The following criminology assignment focuses upon the classicist and biological positivist approaches to criminology, comparing and contrasting the two theories. It is, however, important to investigate the history of crime and punishment briefly in order to understand fully the development of each theory. If you require assistance with your own compare and contrast assigment, our team of law assignment writers are always available to help.

Crime has obviously been present in society since the beginning and one of the first formal forms of trial and punishment grew in the Middle Ages through Trial by Ordeal. Feudal Lords initiated a system whereby any person suspected of a crime would be put through difficult and painful tasks: if they were innocent they would be protected by God, if they died they were guilty. Obviously most died.

These ‘trials’ were eventually condemned by the Pope and St Thomas Aquianas (1225 – 1274) began to write his theology. He advocated that crime was due to a God given ‘natural law’. He claimed that it was innately people would do well, but that crime was committed by sinners who not only violated the ‘natural law’ but, in turn, violated the ‘criminal law’. Aquinas believed that the punishment for criminals was their loss of ‘humanness’ and that this alone was punishment enough.

The end of the middle Ages brought with it a search for natural explanations of crime rather than spiritualist and religious arguments. The Renaissance saw the emergence of humanists such as ‘social contract’ writer Thomas Hobbs (1588 – 1678), who studied the human character, personality, society and politics. Naturalistic arguments explaining crime now replaced spiritual and religious ones as Hobbes argued that individuals naturally look to satisfy their own needs regardless of the effect on others. He continued that, thankfully, humans are rational and realise that selfish behaviour by everyone will benefit no-one; therefore, they will curb their behaviour as long as others do the same. Through this belief the theory of ‘social contract’ developed and formed an unwritten peace treaty. Hobbes was not, however, naïve enough to believe that all individuals would adhere to this ‘contract’ and advocated that the state must intervene and punish anyone who deviated.

By 1748 scholars had developed the ‘social contract’ theory even further and Montesquieu printed his work, The Spirit of the Laws. Reform was now the new debate, and he insisted that prevention was far better than punishment. Voltaire (1694 – 1778) supported this theory by leading a movement challenging the previously barbaric treatment of prisoners. He advised that prisoners be used to carry out dangerous public works rather than sitting idle in jail, thus creating in the criminal a sense of self worth. He blamed poverty for much crime and laid the responsibility for this at the feet of the developing institution of property. ‘Utopian’ theories were still strong and in 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia was printed. This satirical work criticised social institutions in England, advocating the link between poverty and crime.

There was little doubt that by the 1700s the theories of Social Contract and Utopian writers was highly regarded by scholars of the day, however, these theories did not represent the thinking of politically powerful groups who still adhered to the spiritual explanations for crime. It was out of this conflict that the classical school of criminology raised.

Classical criminology is based around the beliefs that an individual commits a criminal offence after they have weighed up both the pros and cons. This suggests that the decision to commit a crime is a rational one as it has been pre meditated. The assumption is that the individual has a choice between either committing a crime or to follow the law. If the individual chooses to deviate from the law then a system of punishment must be put in to action. When a crime is committed a certain amount of pleasure is received by the individual, to counteract this pleasure, punishments must be provided. According to ‘classicists’ the major control over a person exercising their free-will is the fear of pain. The punishment issued to the offender must carry with it enough pain to outweigh the satisfaction and pleasure received by committing and offence.. This theory based around individuals having a choice is very attractive to politicians as it places the blame solely on the individual and not upon society.

One of the main writers of the classical approach was Cesare Beccaria author of On Crime and Punishment (1764). According to Beccaria, right minded people would have no problem with appreciating that “good” laws are for their benefit not their control, and as such will abide by these. In On Crimes and Punishment, Beccaria argues that in a fair society, when a crime is committed by an individual, the punishment issued should be only harsh enough to defer the individual from committing that particular crime. He believes,

“The most severe crimes should receive the harshest penalties, but when being punished for a crime, everybody should be treated equally regardless of their previous character.”
- (Marsh, 2006:93-94)

Beccaria believed that when a punishment was issued to a criminal, it was not for “social revenge” or “retribution” but to ensure the greatest overall good for society and to set to deter others from committing crimes.

Beccaria was one of the first people to disagree with the existing systems of law and criminal justice. He believed that the courts made inconstant decisions against criminals, especially the poor, such as the extensive use of the death penalty.

“Beccaria was one of the first opponents of the death penalty claiming that long prison sentences were more of a deterrent than the threat of instant punishment”
- (Jones, 2009: 75-77)

In his criticism of the death penalty he appealed to two philosophical theories, these been social contract and utility. He argued that punishment is issued only to defend the social contract. He argued that the state does not possess the right to take a life of an individual which ever crime they have committed.

English political philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism is based around the idea laws must be established in order to ensure the security and happiness of the majority of society. His theory is based upon the idea that human beings will always consider the consequences of their actions; weighing up the proposed pain of punishment against the gain of the crime. This theory however, supposes that all crime is committed whilst the perpetrators are of sound mind. It does not take in to account the fact that much crime is committed when the person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and obviously these influences will severely distort the perpetrators judgement. There is also an argument that it is impossible to measure pain or pleasure in different individuals. Certain punishments will, to some criminals, be worth risking for the pleasure or gain of their crime.

Biological positivism claims that criminal behaviour is the results of some chemical imbalance within the brain or abnormalities. Traditional biological theories suggest that criminal behaviour is a result if a defect within the individual. This defect can be either biological or genetic, and can be used to differentiate between a criminal and law abiding citizens. More modern biological theories unlike traditional ones search for a link between things like testosterone and IQ. Even thought modern theories share a biological link they also understand that larger society have influences on the individual’s choices to commit crime. Society is very limited in the responses they can make to the individual, if the biological theories are correct. There are however some approaches society could offer, firstly they could try and fix the offender through medication or therapy. Secondly society could keep the offender isolated from larger society. Thirdly, to keep the offender passing on any genes to future generations the offender could be sterilised. Finally society could take the life of the offender. If criminal behaviour is purely biological determined, these options would be more useful than if the individual was punished for the crime committed by advocates of classical punishment.

Cesare Lombroso (1935-1909) is best known as the founder of criminal anthropology, the study of the mind, body and habits of the “born” criminal. Lombroso began his studies while in the army service. He measured psychical differences among soldiers, including soldiers who were highly disciplined and those who displayed aggressive or criminal behaviour. His initial theories supported the correlation between physical abnormalities and features of an individual against his propensity to commit crime. Lombroso studied abnormalities such as the dimensions of skull and jaw, asymmetries of the face and body etc and referred to these various anomalies as stigmata. He advocated that criminals could be identified by these types of features. One strong criticism of Lombroso’s theory was that it encouraged stereotyping among society, which would then leas to discrimination towards individuals who processed these characteristics Lombroso referred to. Whilst Lombroso’s theories of physical abnormality and criminal behaviour has been scientifically discredited, Lombroso was however responsible for instigating the importance of the scientific study of the criminal mind.

One of Lombroso’s main critics was an English man, Charles Goring who stated Lombroso work was “an organized system of self-evident confusion whose parallel is only to be found in the astrology, alchemy, and other credulities of the Middle Ages” (Jones 1986:107). Goring was the author of “The English Convict”, a study in to the psychical characteristics of 3000 inmates. Goring included a sample study by comparing an equal amount of law abiding citizens, such as, army members and college students to criminal offenders. Goring disproved that criminals show certain psychical abnormalities when compares to the general population. The only differences Goring established was that criminals were on average 2” shorter than the non criminals and weighed 3 to 7 pounds less. Goring believed however that these differences were attributed to hereditary inferiority.

William Herbert Sheldon was an American psychologist. In the 1940s Sheldon examined 200 photographs of nude men and categorised them in to three different body types, or how Sheldon called them “somatotypes” together with their personality types. These were “Endomorphs”, this is where the individual was large and heavy with a outgoing and sociable attitude. “Mesomorphs”, this is where the individual was broad and muscular with an adventurous and aggressive personality. And the final one “Ectomorphs” is where the individual was thin and bony with a restrained and introverted personality. Sheldon realised that no one can be entirely characterised in to one of these groups, so he created a scale. The scale ran from 1 through to 7, with 7 been the highest. According to Sheldon, a totally balanced person would be 4-4-4 and a person with strong “Mesomorphs” tendencies could possibly be 3-6-2. He concluded that most deviant characters display “Mesomorphs” characteristics, with his typical delinquent been “3.5-5.6-2.7”. He also concluded that criminals lack “Ectomorphs” characteristics, yet display slightly more “Endomorphs” characteristics than the delinquents. There are however criticism towards Sheldon’s theory, one been that Sheldon underestimates the effects that society has on our behaviour. Another criticism been that when this experiment has been repeated it has had inconsistent results, therefore it is unreliable.

Although Positivist and Classicist theories on crime are extremely different in their views regarding what creates criminal behaviour, they are alike in the fact that both have their roots in Italy, and both would agree that the causes of crime are rooted in human nature. Each theory suggests that criminals must be removed from society, but the classicist theory would suggest that there is some hope of rehabilitation and deterrence. Positivists would rebuke this thinking as, by their admission, criminals are born, not made.

Classicists argue that individuals decide rationally to commit crime weighing up the pleasure of gain against the pain of being punished. Free will is exerted by the individual when choosing to deviate and, therefore, appropriate punishments must be established in order to discourage such behaviour. Early advocates of this theory were mainly interested in legal reform and showed very little interest in whether there may be an underlying reason which might cause an individual to commit crime. They insisted that any punishment must always exceed the nature of the actual crime, therefore ensuring that the risk to the criminal of being caught was too great.

Biological positivist theory reflects a very different approach to the classicist reasoning behind why individuals commit crime. They reject the idea that individuals have a choice, advocating that criminal behaviour is the result of biological defects and abnormalities. These defects can be either biological or genetic; however they render the sufferer incapable of free will regarding their deviant behaviour. Advocates of this theory regard themselves as scientists, studying the physical and biological make up of humans in respect to their propensity to commit crime and, therefore, have a very different approach to punishment. Biological positivists claimed that the threat of incarceration and punishment was useless in deterring criminals as the criminal had not exercised free will when committing the crime. They offered five alternatives to punishments, one being that the offender could be treated through medication or therapy. Further alternatives were offenders could simply be looked away from society for the rest of their life or alternatively deported. Fourthly, the offender might be sterilised, thus enduring that his deviant genes were not passed down to further generations and finally the offender may be executed, thus ensuring no further deviance.

Of these two approaches, politicians and courts have always preferred the classicist theory and much of the modern legal system is based upon it. This perspective puts the blame for crime solely onto the criminal. Society, poverty, deprivation and poor health is unable to be held responsible for crime, and those who commit crime can be publically punished, thus satisfying the rest of society.

Having investigated the above theories I would maintain that although the classical school’s popularity did in fact diminish as some positivist explanations emerged, the Classicist theory still serves to provide much of the framework for the modern legal system. Free will of the individual has never been rejected and the Classical model has now re-emerged as the ‘justice model’ and rational choice explanation.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

Related Content

Jurisdictions / Tags

Content relating to: "Jurisprudence"

Jurisprudence, or legal theory, is the theoretical study of law. Scholars of jurisprudence seek to explain the nature of law in its most general form and provide a deeper understanding of legal reasoning and analogy, legal systems, legal institutions, and the role of law in society.

Related Articles

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on LawTeacher.net then please: