Cesare Beccaria’s Attitude Toward the Death Penalty

Over time, many laws and government act change, and what was applied before seem absurd and inexplicable. This is what can be said about the death penalty, which in the eighteenth century was prevalent in appointing punishment for the crime. Most of these decisions were unreasonable, unpredictable, and repressive in nature. In addition, capital punishment was applied even if there was little evidence of a crime, and in some cases, it was used as a threat to achieving a confession. These factors influenced the choice of the topic for this literary work. Therefore, this study will consider such an excessive cruel punishment as the death penalty through the works of Cesare Beccaria entitled “On Crime and Punishment”. This work presents arguments that death penalty was and is too heavy a punishment, violated the individual rights of people and its execution requires a solid evidence base and a corresponding violation of the law.

With the release of the essay by Cesare Beccaria, the view and attitude towards capital punishment have changed significantly. The researchers emphasized that “in England during the 18th‐century, there were over 200 capital offenses, most of them being property related crimes” (Meany para. 1). This proves how often and how negligently they treated the appointment of punishment so contradictory to human rights and humanity in those days. The world was divided into two camps in the debate about the death penalty. Some were still actively using it to execute the verdict of the court and jury, and other countries were taking steps to eliminate this type of punishment. This problem is challenging to study because it affects such acute topics as politics, law, society, economics, and many other areas. Moreover, the human right to life is violated, and such aspects as ethics and morality are overlooked.

The time at which this valuable work was written has an essential place in the process of the formation of criminal law in England. There were changes that were associated with crime and punishments which were especially vivid. The norms and well-established measures for the suppression of criminal activity were strongly criticized, which became the driving force for the reform. This transformation also had to do with capital punishment, which was applied too privately and violated a lot of people’s rights. Beccaria became one of the pioneers in this sphere since it was his essay on the incorrectness of the criminal and judicial system and the actions of law enforcement agencies that made a deep contribution.

One of the topics in “On Punishment and Crime” is not only unfair and disproportionate punishment but also excessive cruelty and irrationality of the judicial process. What also makes this source valuable is that in addition to explaining the problem, the author provides reasonable evidence of his opinion. Moreover, in the essay, the philosopher advocates the abolition of the death penalty, unnecessarily harsh sentencing, and torture (Pelli 106). As alternative measures to solve judicial and criminal problems, they are characterized by a greater humanity and a fair approach.

At the time when the philosopher Cesare Beccaria was working, the enlightenment movement flourished. Its main postulates were individual rights, religious freedom, equality, fundamental rights, and such forms of government as absolute power (Outram 2). Cesare Beccaria himself was the founder of criminal theory and modern penology, and the essay “Crime and Punishment” gave him a special impetus in this. This literary work touched the topic of the death penalty under study and spoke about the cruelty of the judicial system when sentencing people. It was noted that many were imprisoned or executed even with the slightest amount of evidence that was not fully substantiated. This aspect greatly worries the philosopher and prompts him to go out to fight the established system.

Therefore, in his valuable work for society and the law-making system, the author examined the cruelty of punishments in England at that time. One of the statements was that people have an inalienable and lifelong right to life (Barry 1545). Further, in order to introduce changes to this system, it was necessary to abandon the established procedures and customs and switch to a regular, centralized system of execution of criminals. Thus, the need was for a more detailed examination of each case and finding sufficient evidence to bring any punishment into force, while capital punishment was considered unnecessary.

In his work, the author pays central attention to the consideration of the concept of crime and punishment. The philosopher writes that “any punishment should not be an act of violence, it is essential that it should be public, prompt, necessary, the minimum possible under the given circumstances, proportional to the crimes, and established by law” (Beccaria 20). Given this statement, punishment should play a preventive role in society, showing people the consequences can illegal actions have. In addition, the severity of the punishment should be determined by the severity of the crime committed, and the offender should be tried with constant consideration of this factor. In other words, the result of an illegal action should be considered and not the initial desire or plan for its execution.

In relation to capital punishment, Cesare Beccaria considers it to be largely inapplicable, except in sporadic exceptional cases. The activist also considers the problem of using torture to extract information necessary for the investigation. The danger of this action is because, in many cases, people confessed not because they committed a crime but because of oppression and physical damage. Opposition to established legislation was quite an unusual phenomenon for the eighteenth century. This is due to the fact that many, on the contrary, considered this form of punishment acceptable and advised for many crimes. However, in addition to Beccaria, many other figures opposed this measure of punishment.

The first argument put forward by the philosopher was moral and ethical considerations. In support of this opinion, the author emphasized that laws cannot be adopted without the participation of people, and society cannot arbitrarily deprive itself of the fundamental right to life. At the same time, the figure also supported the point of view that capital punishment is acceptable, but only in exceptional and unique cases (Pelli 107). In general, Beccaria considered human life to be the principal value and directed all his efforts to strengthen this understanding in the society of his contemporaries. Thus, the author determines that serious justifications for violating the rights of citizens and subjecting them to the death penalty are extremely rare.

The second argument is the opinion that the death penalty shows little results in terms of a preventive measure. Due to the fact that in the eighteenth century in England, this punishment was a public measure, many people welcomed the judge’s decisions in his favor. Thus, the function of the legislative and judicial system was violated, which is based on showing society the connection between their actions and the consequences that may entail (Pelli 109). The fleeting sight of the execution did not leave a strong imprint on people’s memory, which also significantly worsened the situation with its transformation into a preventive tool.

Another important person who equally advocated for the rights of people in the judicial and legislative sphere was Charles Louis Montesquieu. The French philosopher emphasized the importance of observing the principles of humanity when imposing punishments for a crime. In addition, he advocated the imposition of punishment equal to the crime for an illegal act committed and for the protection of the presumption of innocence. With regard to criminal policy, thinkers spoke in favor of its greater humanity, called for general mitigation of punishments, and acted as a defender of the presumption of innocence (Budisan 27). The main criticism of the philosopher was the incorrect use of torture and physical violence when torturing people to obtain the necessary information. Montesquieu also paid great attention to the fact that it is necessary to introduce changes in the structure of the formation of laws establishing responsibility for crimes. The philosopher also believed that every punishment that has an exact necessity and justification is tyrannical and rejects the principles of humanity. Punishment should be applied only to prevent criminals from harming society.

An essential aspect of why the death penalty did not have an effect as a preventive measure was the fact of the involvement of the emotional component. In this case, Cesare Beccaria agreed with Locke’s practical ideas. This knowledge asserts that all emotions and feelings are the sources of all knowledge (Locke 13). Hence, it is possible to compare the two phenomena and determine that if lethal executions had less emotional coloring, were fast and precise, and fewer people would consider this as the only effective measure. Moreover, more individuals would consider capitalist punishment as an accurate judicial measure for violating the law and causing severe harm to society. This opinion also contributes to the notion that the punishment under study should be more structured and defined in order to achieve the best social success in terms of reducing crime. Henceforth, like Montesquieu, Beccaria believed that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed.

The highest degree of punishment for a crime in the form of the death penalty has existed for a long time. However, despite this, it did not have the preventive character prescribed for such measures. According to the philosopher Cesare Beccaria, the promotion of capital punishment opposes the principles of morality, ethics, and, above all, humanity. Further, its public character in the eighteenth century in England only encouraged its frequent use in court decisions. Therefore, it can be concluded that Beccaria considered the death penalty as one of the most useless punishments in terms of effectiveness and usefulness to society. “On Crime and Punishment” provides valuable insight for further study of the topic of the judicial and legislative spheres of society.

Works Cited

Barry, Kevin M. “The Death Penalty and the Fundamental Right to Life.” BCL Rev, vol. 60, 2019, p. 1545.

Beccaria, Cesare. On Crimes and Punishments. Routledge, 2017.

Budisan, Calin. “The Presumption of Innocence. Evolution of the Concept and Current Tendencies.” CDP, 2017, p. 27.

Locke, John. “John Locke and Emergence Empiricism.” Learning Theories for Early Years Practice, vol. 12, 2018, pp. 12-14.

Meany, Paul. “Cesare Beccaria Was a Trail Blazer on Capital Punishment.” Libertarianism, 2020, Web.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Pelli, Giuseppie. Against the Death Penalty. Princeton University Press, 2020.

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