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Cesare Beccaria and Rational Choice Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2472 words Published: 5th May 2017

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People commit crimes for an infinite number of reasons and the human mind is a complex electrical network that we are only beginning to understand. For this reason in part, we have a system of laws in place. The population depends on these laws to maintain some form of social order as well as to protect them to the best of their ability. Our nation’s criminal justice system is essentially based on rational choice theory. If a crime is committed the perpetrator is punished (punishment is sought) because it is assumed that he or she acted of their own free will in committing the criminal act. This is in part why there are individual laws for those who claim they were coerced, entrapped, or committed a crime under duress. However, Cesare Beccaria believed that there were no defenses for criminal acts.

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Cesare Beccaria is known as the father of criminology. His famous work On Crimes and Punishment “had a large and lasting impact on the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights and our criminal justice system.” (“Constitution.org”) His goal was to offer an enlightened, rational, and logical blueprint on which a new criminal justice system could be based. Without fairness, preciseness, and expediency the system of laws and punishment were doomed to fail as a proper deterrent. In his essay, Beccaria wrote, “for a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime; in this excess of evil one should include the certainty of punishment and the loss of the good which the crime might have produced. All beyond this is superfluous and for that reason tyrannical.” (Beccaria Cesare)

The concept of deterrence is imperative when considering rational choice as a viable theory. Without the threat of some form of suffering there is little to consider when making a choice, provided that our decisions are based on the premise that human actions are motivated entirely by the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. The concept of hedonism has been around since early civilization. “Hedonism is a school which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.” (Zalta) Democritus, the Greek philosopher said that the supreme goal of life was contentment and cheerfulness. (Rowe, and Schofield 122) The Indian Hindu hedonist school Cārvāka claimed that pleasure should be the only aim of living. Arristipus of Cyrene, founder of the Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure. (O’Keefe) The list could go on and on as this concept speaks to the foundation of human nature.

Beccaria believed that human beings are notorious for measuring the possible consequences of an action against the possible rewards of that action as those consequences relate to them. Being morally egotistical and thinking along the lines of maximizing pleasure, fear of punishment is necessary to overpower the desire to commit acts that could cause us suffering. This logic can be applied to all acts, not just criminal ones.

The structure of our criminal justice system operates under these basic ideas. A system of laws governing our behavior is the only way to ensure that individuals will adhere to certain norms within a culture. These laws (and the punishment administered by the violation of them), offer the population the guidelines needed when determining if a particular act would be more beneficial than harmful. Beccaria was an advocate for informing the public of what was expected of them as well as the punishment they could face did they not live up to these expectations. This system of laws and punishments act as a general deterrent against criminal activity. With the laws available to the public the probability of deviant behavior is reduced due to the fear of apprehension and/or punishment.

Evidence shows that swiftness, severity, and certainty of punishment are essential in order for deterrence to be an effective means of crime control. The most important of these seems to be certainty of punishment. If an individual knows that they will face charges for a certain criminal action they are less likely to commit that act. If there is no certainty that they will be caught, however, there seems to be less concern generally about what will happen if they are. This certainty factor holds a great weight in the process of determining if the criminal activity one is considering engaging in is truly rational after all.

Widely known as “The Vancouver Child Killer”, Westley Allan Dodd was a loner. Born in 1961 in Washington, he was the oldest of three children. His first reported sexual experience was in 1970, Dodd was only nine years old. He believes that his preference for boys was largely due to an incident with a younger neighbor girl when he was only ten years old. He claims that he felt rejected after pulling his pants down in front of her and her refusal to look at him. He experimented on his own body in grotesque ways and later began luring victims to his house to show them the “tricks” he could do.

Though Dodd claims his parents incessant arguing and lack of support were the cause of his unhappiness, he refuses ever having been molested himself. In 1975 at age thirteen Dodd began to expose himself to young boys throughout his neighborhood. Over the short period of two months he claims to have exposed himself to more than forty children. His belief that boys were less likely to report him was challenged later that year when he was reported to police. There were no consequences for his actions at this time, though the police did notify his parents of the complaint. It has been said that his father avoided talking with Westley regarding the matter. (Branch, Bryan, Giovenco, Nichols, and Yeatts)

At this time, Westley returned to his bizarre and unnatural experiments on himself and began masturbating frequently. He began molesting children at age fourteen. First, His sister’s friend (age ten), then, his sister. Shortly after that he raped his own eight year old cousin. Dodd began accumulating victims rapidly. His twisted behavior at that point extended to the family dog. Shortly before his fifteenth birthday his parents divorced. Dodd continued to trick children into situations in which he would molest them, one after the other, sometimes as many as six children at a time.

In March of 1977, at the age of fifteen, Dodd was arrested for exposing himself to two young girls, ages eight and ten. He was never prosecuted, however, counseling was recommended. Dodd later said that he was not afraid of the law because he had gotten away with molesting children and exposing himself numerous times without being caught. Just months later he molested his neighbors three children in their beds, they ranged in age from one to four years old.

Later that year, perhaps in an attempt to avert his predilections’, he had his first date with a girl. He denies any sexual contact with the girl and claims it to have been one of the worst nights of his life. He later met a girl at summer camp and had his first kiss. Dodd avoided her the rest of the summer. Later when asked out by a girl slightly younger than him he refused to go.

By the age of eighteen, Dodd realized that his preference was boys and girls under the age of ten. He was arrested in October of 1980, at age nineteen, for attempting to kidnap two young girls. He admitted wanting to molest the girls and even his plan of where to take them that was isolated and private yet he was not incarcerated. By age twenty he was enlisted in the Navy. Dodd said, “If I hadn’t joined the Navy then I may have been killing within a year.”

Dodd was arrested in May of 1982 after offering to pay two boys to go into his hotel room and play strip poker and confessed his plan to molest the two boys but the charges were dropped. In December of that same year he was arrested for “attempting indecent liberties” on a boy. After serving only seventeen days in jail he was released and ordered to counseling. This arrest ended his career with the Navy.

In May of 1984, Dodd was arrested once again. This time for the molestation of a ten-year-old boy. He was given a suspended one-year sentence and ordered to counseling. Just months later in Idaho, Dodd was convicted of molesting another boy, this one age thirteen. He received a ten-year sentence of which he served four months. By December of 1994 Dodd was back in the general population molesting young children. His deviance was leading him to more and more depraved acts including the rape of his co-workers eighteen month old son and his roommates’ two year old son who was partially deaf and could not talk.

Dodd was also becoming increasingly violent, binding the hands of his victims if they resisted. He began to fantasize about killing his victims. He is quoted as saying, “The more I thought about it, the more exciting the idea of murder sounded. I planned many ways to kill a boy. Then I started thinking of torture, castration, and even cannibalism.” Westley Allan Dodd was twenty-five years old when he said this. By twenty-six he had chosen his first murder victim, an eight year old boy he met on his worksite. Dodd attempted to trick the child into going back to his apartment but the boy said that he was going home to get some toys. Of course the boy told his parents and the police were called. Dodd was once again arrested but his sentence was reduced to a gross misdemeanor. He served 118 days in jail and was released with one year of probation.

Dodd moved to Vancouver and quickly discovered “a good hunting ground” as he describes it. David Douglas Park, located only a mile from his new apartment, would be the site of the first two of three murders Dodd would commit before being caught. September 4th, 1989, Billy and Cole Neer were raped and stabbed and left in the park to die. Dodd was feeling unsatisfied and decided that rape and murder was not enough, he wanted to perform “experimental surgeries” on his victims. By late October he was planning his next attack.

On October 29, 1989 Dodd picked Lee Iseli, a four year old boy, up at Richmond School Playground and took him back to his apartment. He tied the boy to his bed and proceeded to molest and photograph him. He then took Lee to a local store to buy him a toy where the boy began to cry. Dodd explained he was watching his nephew and took the boy to eat at a local fast food restaurant just miles from David Douglas Park where the Neer boys had been killed just weeks earlier.

The two returned to Dodd’s apartment where Dodd wrote in his journal, “He suspects nothing now. Will probably wait until morning to kill him. That way his body will be fairly fresh for experiments after work.” (Dodd) Through the night Dodd continued to molest the boy. As the boy slept, early in the morning, Dodd strangled Lee only to revive him. He then strangled Lee again and hung him in his closet so that he could take pictures. He burned the boys clothing and dumped his body near Vancouver Lake. The body of Lee Iseli was discovered the next morning.

Less than a month would pass before Dodd was in custody. In an attempt to kidnap a young boy from a movie theatre the boy escaped and ran to an employee. The boyfriend of the boy’s mother heard the commotion and came out to see what was happening. Upon hearing the claims he ran outside to find Dodd, stalled in the street, with no way to escape. At twenty-eight years old Dodd was once again in custody and in less than an hour he confessed to his crimes.

Dodd was convicted and sentenced to death July 15, 1990. At his sentencing he said, “I didn’t offer any mitigating evidence during the penalty phase because, in my mind, that’s just an excuse. I do not blame the criminal justice system for anything, but the system does not work” He asked to be executed by hanging. “I must be executed before I have an opportunity to escape or kill someone within the prison. If I do escape, I promise you I will kill and rape and enjoy every minute of it.” (Scott) The first to die in the gallows since 1965, Westley Allan Dodd was executed January 5, 1993.

There are several clear instances here where one could see that Dodd’s actions were rational ones. Early on Dodd accounts having no fear of the law due to his consistent evading of consequences, despite his several arrests up to that point. He later articulates that his original plan to murder his victims was to avoid detection. There was a time when, according to Dodd, he attempted to date girls. Perhaps to attempt to conform to some social norm yet he repeatedly returned to his deviant behavior.

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While his crimes are heinous and one might wonder how anyone could rationally choose to behave in the manner Dodd did, he behaved in that manner rationally and intentionally. His assaults were carefully considered and planned, the knowledge that these acts were criminal was present. This is not to say that this is the exclusive theory that could be used to define Dodd, any truly rational person would be compelled to feel that there was something more that drove Dodd to these behaviors. There is no evidence of any social influence, however.


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Scott, Shirley Lynn. “Westley Allan Dodd.” truTV. Turner Entertainment Digital , n.d. Web. 2 Nov 2010.

O’Keefe, Tim. “Cyrenaics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001. Web.

Rowe, Christopher, and Malcom Schofield. The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. 1st. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 122. Print.

Zalta, Edward N. “Hedonism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of

Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab , 2004.


Siegel, Larry. Criminology: theories, patterns, and typologies. 9th.

Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub Co, 2007. 94-122. Print.

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Criminology. Comp. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1994.



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