Paper on Exploring Criminal Theories: Classical and Positivist Approaches in Understanding Criminal Behavior

Published: 2023-12-11
Paper on Exploring Criminal Theories: Classical and Positivist Approaches in Understanding Criminal Behavior
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Psychology Criminal law Behavior
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1850 words
16 min read


Solving criminal activities requires applying various theories that are used to determine why such acts occur. Criminals are usually motivated by something in their actions, and it is essential to decide on such intentions. The determination of the causes of criminal activities may sometimes require the application of more than one theory for satisfactory results (Metzner, 2013). Classical and positivist theories are examples of such approaches that enable various security stakeholders to determine the reasons behind criminal activities. Even though none of the views is absolute in offering solutions to why people engage in illegal activities, they are essential in choosing the right form of punishment.

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Classical Criminology Theories

According to the classical theory, a criminal actor engages in the act from a rational state of mind. Based on the psychiatric assessments conducted by Margret, James was suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Still, even with it, the patient was in the right state of mind before, during, and after the fateful day. The assessments further indicated that James was a logical person who thought about his endeavor's danger, yet he continued to pursue it. Even though he was aware the killings would be legally and morally wrong, he conducted them and made some efforts to stop anyone from detecting his egregious behavior. The classical theory adds that people perform evil acts by their desire to experience hedonism, a passion for experiencing pleasure (Ronald, n.d). Based on James's acknowledgment that he was not regretful about the devious act, it indicates his desire to fulfill a particular pleasure. In fact, he indicated that he would repeat such an act as it satisfies something in him, though he did not indicate what it was. He was satisfying an illicit desire stemming from his awkward belief that there was no right or wrong. It was clear that James evaluated the danger of performing the act, but his desire to do it superseded its repercussions.

Critique of the Theories

The classical theory focuses on criminal law rather than criminal behavior itself. It further supposes that counteracting criminal acts requires legal systems that are likely to make the actor retract their behavior. Well, James knew there was a possibility that he would be arrested or even killed by the police, yet he went ahead to open fire to the public. In that regard, the classical theory does not explain why James decided to conduct criminal activity despite thinking about his possible death. The theory proposes that criminals should take the rational step of refraining from a criminal act on their own by making better choices. He was not ready or willing to do the right thing; he was also not afraid of the existing criminal deterrents such as incarceration, possible death, and even moral opinions. James is not an acute conformist in the sense that he knew the law yet chose to ignore its provisions. The classical theory does not explain why James conducted criminal activity but contrives the relevant authority to evaluate his mental state before acting deviously (Ronald, n.d). Even though it does not provide a solution to James' case, it gives him a chance to prove his mental uprightness or otherwise before facing the full force of the law. It adds the aspect of fair judgment in the judicial process. Based on the classical theory, the only reason why James could have engaged in the devious act was that the existing punishment systems did not achieve the threshold to scare him from engaging in them. However, the theory indicates that some form of evil desire could supersede good morals to the extent of one acting in a pernicious manner.

Positivist Theory of Criminology

Unlike the classical theory that entirely focuses on criminal law, positivist theory pays more attention to criminal behavior. The positivist theory proposes that criminal activities are not a personal choice. While, to some extent, James delved into the shooting spree knowingly, it is evident that there is something that triggered his thoughts. That is probably, why he hides some information from psychiatrists claiming that the information could have been used against him by the police. He concealed some information concerning his decision to kill people, even when he was aware of the consequences. The positivist theory suggests that a criminal's psychological and medical evaluation would reveal much about why the criminal activity was conducted. Concerning the psychological aspect of the theory, James's parents were contacted to gain insights into his acts about his surroundings. Additionally, his educators at school were also contacted (Weatherburn, 1985). The above was probably conducted in honor of behaviorism, which indicates that their surroundings usually influence one's behavior. It is worth noting that the positivists' theory refrains from accessing thoughts, beliefs, desires, and motives because they are not scientific. In essence, all aspects of an individual that cannot be empirically tested should be avoided insofar as this theory is concerned. The positivism theory constitutes various constraints that make it unpractical, in the sense that it does not provide elaborate means of explaining criminal activities. In that case, his hedonistic desires could have caused him to engage in the unfortunate act.

Critiques of the Theory

The overreliance on scientific procedures by the theory does not explain criminal activities in the sense that it only provides a set of tactual approaches to endeavor during the determination of criminality. Even though the procedures could be used to determine some medical or psychological aspects of the criminal, they do not prove explanations for criminal activities per se. The positivist theory does not create a link between medical findings and beliefs, desires, and motives. In relation to James's case, he was tested for several psychological issues, and they indicated close to nothing about his actions (Weatherburn, 1985). Yes, he was found to have been depressed, but depression was not deemed to be a mental state enough to cause him to act criminally. Seemingly, the two theories were utilized in the James case, but their limitations were evident. Concentration on behaviorism rather than criminal law could have worked probably if the approach did not entirely rely on scientific methods. Both approaches did not provide an elaborate explanation concerning why James decided to act as he did during that fateful day. Even though all medical assessments were not conducted, the existing data suggested James conducted the act because of depression or OCD, but that could be inappropriate considering that they were not severe insofar as his health was concerned.

Severity of Punishment

According to classical criminology doctrine, the severity of a crime is determined by the amount of pain it inflicts in a society. It also supposes that punishments should be based on the severity of the crime, and they should not exceed that which is necessary for deterrence. Severe punishments such as torture are discouraged by the classical doctrine. The classical theory suggests that incarceration and mandatory punishments are considerable ways of administering punishment to a criminal so long as they are not harsh enough to harden them. On the contrary, the positive theory advocates for a criminal's medical examinations to determine their intent in engaging in criminal activity. It disregards the aspects of external factors in finding out why people behave in a certain way (Metzner, 2013). The theory does not believe in external factors for determining desires for criminal activities; then, it cannot propose punishments such as incarceration for punishment because it does not solve biological issues. Positivist theory might propose a medical solution instead of a physical punishment stemming from the fact that the theory recognizes criminal activities to be consequences of identifiable causes. The positivist theory might also propose psychiatric visits as elaborate procedures to curb bad behavior if the criminal was found suffering from such an ailment. The application of medication could not have acted as enough punishment in James's case because even though he was suffering from depression, he was aware of his actions and had logically considered its repercussions both on social and moral perspectives. To some extent, the positivist theory could likely apply medication alongside other forms of punishment.

Appropriateness of the Punishment

Considering that James conducted the act to achieve some pleasure, incarceration was the most appropriate punishment for him. He acknowledged that whatever he aimed to achieve through his act was never fulfilled. His explanation that he aimed to relieve some gratification in himself and repeat the act despite acknowledging that it was not satisfactory to what he intended indicates that he needed somewhere he could reflect on his actions. Maybe he needed to stay in a place feted with reformists, those who thought like him some time but have changed over time (Ronald, n.d). In prison, he would get to speak to people who committed various crimes for varying purposes. Maybe he would get reformed. It is also worth noting that James was not interested in continuing with his studies. He did not like the course he was pursuing. Thus, keeping away from society would serve him well. Additionally, he proclaimed that he would kill more people even though his acts were void because perpetuating his agenda was concerned. Based on the fact that he was logical enough to circumvent anyone who could inform law enforcement regarding his acts, there is no guarantee that he would be contained outside prison walls. He would eventually repeat the act, maybe in a more damaging way. One would opine that society would change his thoughts sometime later, which is not guaranteed based on the fact that he was nonchalant to societal rules and concessions. Concerning conversations with his family members, he treated his mother with disdain and only talked to his father, though rarely because his father was introverted. In essence, society could not solve his problems in any way.

Justice was served because various theories were applied in the build-up of the determination of his case. His family members were contacted, some medical interventions were conducted, and his opinions concerning the issue were sought. One could opine justice was not served if the judicial system ignored his state of mind and biological factors (Metzner, 2013). He was willing to seek psychiatric interventions even before he engaged in the act, yet he decided to ignore such interventions for what he claimed was depression. His belief that there was no right or wrong was the main reason why he thought killing people was not as bad as portrayed in society. Changing such beliefs would only require changing his environment. In that case, putting him in jail was the best option for him and society.


Classical and positivist theories could be utilized in the determination of causes of criminal activities. They ought not to be used individually as they both have weaknesses that complement each other's strengths. The classical theory proposes a criminal law approach where legal interventions are used to scare criminals from behaving dangerously. However, despite having interventions supposedly possible to scare criminals from engaging in criminal activities, some people still find their reasons for engaging in such activities superior to the repercussions. The classical theory attributes such as pernicious behaviors to hedonism.

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Paper on Exploring Criminal Theories: Classical and Positivist Approaches in Understanding Criminal Behavior. (2023, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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