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Rational Choice Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3495 words Published: 6th Mar 2017

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Critically explore the proposition that individuals freely and rationally choose to commit crime.

This essay will critically discuss the proposition that individuals freely and rationally choose to commit crime. Alternative criminological theories such as the Positivist tradition and more recent sociological perspectives of crime will be examined. This paper will conclude the proposition of the rational criminal is one of many constructions used within criminology to understand criminal behavior.

The idea that individuals freely and rationally choose to commit crime stems from the Classical School. Eighteenth century philosophers such as Jermemy Bentham, and Cesare Beccaria are associated with the classical tradition. During the Enlightenment varied theories such as the social contract and utilitarianism provided the initial context for the theorization of criminal activity in society. It is argued (Garland 2001 p.11) the classical school characterizes the offender as a rational free-willed actor who engages in crime in a calculated, utilitarian way and is therefore responsive to deterrent.’ Classical philosophers were engaged by the criminal justice system and punishment in order to investigate wider socio-economic aspects of the Enlightenment era. It must be suggested that criminal actions by the individual was not the main agenda of Classical theorists. But the school did provide a platform to enable discussion as to what motivates an offender to commit crime.

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To understand the reasons why the individual was seen in a rational calculating manner it is important to discuss the ideas of the social contract and utilitarianism. The classic tradition is founded upon social contract theories by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. John Locke wrote about the unwritten social contract between state institutions (such as the monarchy) and its citizens. Locke placed an emphasis on all individuals being equal, while those in sovereign power define a clear systematic framework for protecting citizen’s fundamental rights. The belief in human free will and self interest according to Locke and Rousseau, meant the existence of society would be untenable if all individuals were motivated by selfish interests governing the way they lived. It is assumed that all humans are rational, capable of self interest and are liable to commit crimes as an expression of their free will. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan suggested the ‘right of all sovereigns is derived from the consent of every one of those who are to be governed.’ (Wikipedia 2006) Thus individuals are viewed rationally as citizens who have sacrificed part their freedom in making the social contract with the state. This sacrifice allows them to ‘live in a peaceful society’ and not in an anarchic state of nature without laws and rules to govern conduct. Those who break their contract by not abiding specific community rules, cause harm which must be punished accordingly in proportion to their criminal conduct. Violating the social contract leads to sanctions, in order to carry out state punishment on those individuals who have chosen to commit a crime.

Beccaria was one of the most prominent social writers advocating a classical approach to crime in society. The text Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (Crimes and Punishments 1764) discussed the idea of a justice system able to determine the appropriate levels of punishment for violations. Beccaria is influential as he supported the reform of the criminal justice system and viewed crime in terms of the harm made to society rather than to the individual victim of a crime. Beccaria applied the social contract model to crime and criminal justice. Thus Beccaria believed all humans were rational beings. Consenting to the social contract meant giving up a partial amount of individual liberty to the sovereign power. In turn this agreement allowed authorities to impose proportionate punishment to those breaking the established rules of the state. For example the social contract idea was applied to legal regulation of crime and those who commit it; that laws are the ‘conditions under which independent and isolated men united to form society and tangible motives had to be introduced to prevent the despotic spirit.’ These take the form of punishments established against those who break the law. (Jones 2001, Chap 5) It follows that such violators of the law are therefore engaged in an irrational act. Crime is viewed as an irrational act as the deviant activity is perceived to be against the best interests of the public. Beccaria also followed a rationalized proportionate view of how the state should respond to such criminal individuals. For example he argued the true measure of the seriousness of a crime is the harm to society and not the intention of the offender. Thus the punishment given by the state must be determined in public to ensure deterring others contemplating such acts. Beccaria argued for deterrence measures to prohibit future criminal intentions and activity. Such reasoning held that the threat and certainty of detection is an effective form of deterrent. Once detected the punishment of the crime should be swift to ensure maximum impact and effect. Beccaria’s system relies on its clarity and simplicity. It is a proportional system in which punishment and sentencing aims to prevent re-offending and control crime. Secondly such a system and laws represent the ‘moral consensus of society’ acknowledging the seriousness of the crime. (Hamlin 2006)

Jeremy Bentham was a key figure of classical theory and was influenced by Beccaria’s work. Bentham approached the proposition that individuals choose to freely commit crime within a utilitarian framework. This was applied to the penal system and crime. Bentham created the ‘felicitation principle’, that whatever activity is committed should endeavor to give the maximum happiness to the largest number of people in society. Bentham formulated the moral calculus also known as the pleasure-pain principle. For example Bentham supposed that man is a rational calculating animal, who can judge probable gains against the pain likely to be imposed. Thus ‘if the pain outweighs the gains he will be deterred and this produces maximum social utility.’(Wikipedia 2006) Bentham used the utilitarian idea to advocate the need for a rational justice system which was ‘graduated’, based on the principle of proportionality to ensure fairness. Bentham’s philosophical ideas laid the foundation for new forms of penal systems, such as incarceration as a sanction, to fit the type of crime committed. (Garland 2002 pp.20) Thus classical theory argued that deterrence could be maximized through the proportional criminal justice system. Such an approach called for the reform of excessive state punishment which was humane in penal sanctions. Through examining the impact of an individual’s capacity to freely commit crime, the classical writers helped to lay the initial foundations of how criminal behavior could be studied and theorized in later modern criminology.

The classical theories which believe in the rational sentience of human beings have been heavily criticized for being too simplistic, and assumptive. For example Gilbert Geis (1955) suggested Bentham’s classical theory was a ‘total failure to consider criminals as human beings as live complicated variegated personalities.’ The critics of the classical school further point out the crucial weakness in Bentham’s utilitarian pleasure – pain principle. The moral calculus of cost benefit analysis is flawed in two ways. First it relies of the hypothesis that for deterrence to be successful the offender will act rationally. Successive criminological schools such as the positivists have challenged this rational assumption of humans. Classical theories can be criticized on the basis of failing to take into account individual circumstances and the unsophisticated manner it perceives human beings to act. Crime can often be a ‘spontaneous reaction to a situation’ (Wikipedia 2006) which can be unplanned and without rational intention to commit it. Secondly the principle uses this same line of assumption in deciding a graduated scale of punishment according to the seriousness of the offence. In relying on a just desserts model of punishment it assumes ‘the more serious the harm likely to be caused the more the criminal has to gain.’ (Wikipedia 2006) Therefore Bentham has been criticized for painting man as an unrealistic calculating individual. It suggests that subsequent criminal activity can only be the result of free choice by those who choose to commit the crime. It does not take into account the varied differences within the human condition or wider sociological factors which attribute other alternative factors for the causes of crime.

Criticism of the classical school highlights the lack of scientific evidence to back the moral, economic and social assumptions within the theories of Beccaria and Bentham. For example Garland (2002 pp.20) discusses the methodological criticisms of the classicist school for its ‘unscientific reliance upon speculative reasoning rather than observed facts.’ The rejection of speculative thinking of the human condition challenged the basic proposition that individuals freely and rationally choose to commit crime in society. It is argued by Garland while such criticisms emphasize the lack of scientific knowledge; both Beccaria and Bentham were not criminologists but philosophers writing in the eighteenth century. Criminology as a distinct form of study can trace its roots back to certain ideas published by prominent social contract writers. Primarily Bentham and others where not occupied in scientific debate but philosophical social and economic study. Social contract writers emphasized ‘the importance of reason and experience, denigrating theological forms of reasoning.’ (Garland 2002 pp.20) It is in this sense unfair to criticize Enlightenment writers’ contention of the rational free will from a criminological standpoint. Such classical theories were not created specifically to consider the study of crime on its own. But they attempt to engage in a modern dialogue objectively dealing with current social issues of the era avoiding, ‘irrational superstitious beliefs and prejudices’ in discussions. This can be seen in Beccaria’s work which was not criminological but an extensive body of ‘work related to the political economy’. Garland (2001 pp. 20) argues that despite the classicists’ lack of a scientific methodology, their interests helped to develop ways of investigating how and why crime is caused in society. For example Garland argues that topics such as ‘psychology of offending, nature of criminal motivation, and state control to regulate individual conduct’ are central issues explored by classical writers to examine the notion of rational free will in a wider academic context. They were in Garland’s view ‘attempting to understand the roots of human conduct rather than develop a particular knowledge of offenders and offending.’ (Garland 2002 pp. 23) In response to the classical traditions’ scientific weakness, the ‘Neo-Classical’ school of thought emerged maintaining the belief that humans were rational beings with individual free will and the capacity for responsibility. Such individuals can be controlled by the fear of punishment. The Neo –Classical perspectives looked to external explanatory factors in examining crime. For example it located the concept of the individual’s free will and choice to commit crime within a broader landscape of the influence of social environmental factors. Such outside factors could be used to asses the seriousness of the crime and the corresponding punishment to be given by the state.

The proposition that crime is committed by free will and rational choice was attacked by the positivist school. Positivists looked to overcome the lack of sophistication of classical theory by using a ‘scientific’ style to examine aspects of the criminal and criminality. The main text which aimed to uncover the ‘science of the criminal’ (Garland 2002 pp.23) was by Cesare Lombroso LÚomo Delinquente in 1876. Lombroso is widely seen as the father of modern criminology, concentrating on the subject of crime by offenders. Lombroso believed in the primacy of scientific empirical study to answer why people commit crimes. This school of thought contested the classical proposition that crime was a product of free will and rational though processes of humans. Concepts of biological determinism suggested there were external forces outside the control of the individual in determining the capacity for criminal behavior. For example studies by Lombroso, Ferri and Garofalo investigated the concept of the ‘born criminal’ from distinctive physical traits and examining social factors influencing the causes behind crime. The work of Lombroso was influenced by the cultural impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the existing anthropological studies which initially were used to help understand human motivations behind crime. Garland (2002 pp.24) suggests that positivists clearly rejected the classicists idea of rational free will due the belief in ‘the conception of the criminal as a naturally occurring entity, a fact of nature rather than social or legal product.’ Such an approach led to the natural scientific study of the criminal type, to ‘trace its characteristics, its stigmata, its abnormalities and eventually identify the causes which make one person a criminal and another individual a normal citizen.’

The focus on the existence of criminal types which are predetermined rather than chosen by the free will of individuals, suggested the positivist school also refuted the classical view on criminal justice and punishment. The positivists’ emphasized the need for treatment instead of penal measures as a mechanism for crime control by the state. The rejection of the free will of rational actors is important as positivist theory aims to distinguish between those who commit crime from those who do not. The notion of free will is in this sense attacked as a ‘metaphysical abstraction’ (Garland 2002 pp.24) while the deterrence theory was deemed a failure in sentencing practice. Within this background a second strand of positivist study developed known as the Governmental Project. It involved a series of government sponsored empirical enquiries. Such studies sought to chart crime patterns and monitor police and prison practice in eighteenth century Britain. Such studies led to classical views to fall from favor. For example proportional sentencing in response to differing levels of harm was seen as a ‘failure to differentiate between different types of offender.’ Thus the positivist approach it can be suggested was a flexible rehabilitative approach to preventing and treating criminality, as criminals themselves are not responsible for actions as they are already pre determined.

The importance of positivist views was to establish the connection between scientific methods analyzing all aspects of criminality, with the individual and the wider social context. From this premise a wide and far reaching academic discipline of criminology has become established within the last century examining issues such as why crime is committed by offenders. While many of the findings of the Lambroso project have since been discredited its impact and ideas on rehabilitative treatment as a form of social control on crime have had an important effect on policy formers working within the criminal justice system. Modern positivist criminologists still share the view that human behavior is not just a by product of choices, but is determined by biological, psychological or social forces. It can be suggested that this belief has helped to widen the discourse on ways of explaining why individuals commit crime under the influence of ‘deterministic’ factors.

The proposition that crime is committed by individual rational beings has also been challenged by the rise of the wide-ranging category of sociological criminological theories. For example according to Rock (2002 pp.51) sociological approaches explaining crime is vastly different to the classicist and positivist approach to understanding why crime is committed by the individual. Instead of focusing on the individual as the basis for empirical study, sociological theories draws from an array of potential causal factors. Thus the sociological method will aim to study the significance of social institutions, group behavior and interaction between communities and the individual. Sociological methods include Durkheimian and Mertonian anomie theories, the Chicago School, and Labeling theory, all which cast unique social factors locating the individual in a group setting as to understand criminal behavior. Rock (2002 pp.51) argues this approach highlights the fact ‘crime is centrally bound up with the states attempts to impose it’s will through law; the meaning of those attempts to the law-breaker, law-enforcer and victim.’ This only serves to demonstrate a diverse approach to examining crime from all aspects of those involved in the criminal justice system. Early classicist thought viewed in light of sociological theories shows there are many theoretical starting points to discuss the fundamental question whether the individual freely chooses to commit crime as a rational being.

Other disciplines such as criminal psychology, has aided the study of crime through medical analysis. For example Hollin (2002 p.145) states that the distinctive branch of criminological psychology is ‘concerned with the use of psychology to help explain criminal behavior.’ It is focused ‘on the individual’ as to what motivates criminal activity within the individual and society at large. Criminological psychology explores the proposition of the individual committing crime. For example behavioral theory stresses the importance of the in individual comprehending the consequences of the act for the individual concerned.’(Hollin 2002 p.151) This serves to show how other modern theories look at the role of the individual and responsibility in relation to criminal activity within society.

In conclusion this paper would argue the proposition that individuals freely and rationally choose to commit crime is a valid contribution to the discussion concerning criminal behavior. The classical tradition raised important philosophical, social and moral issues related to crime and its impact within society. But the assumption in rational belief is too simplistic to explain the differences in individual criminal actions. It does not account for those who are not capable of making rational decisions such as the mentally impaired or acts which irrationally occur unexpectedly. For this reason this essay would argue that this proposition is only one of many theoretical ways to understand why crime is committed by individuals in society.


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