Rational choice theory was inspired in the 1700’s by a man name Cesare Beccaria, whose utilitarian views and ideas were accepted throughout Europe and the United States. This theory is also known as rational action theory meaning the framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior. It is the dominant theoretical paradigm in microeconomics. It is also the central to modern political science and is used by scholars in other disciplines such as sociology and philosophy.
Rational Choice Theory is used by social scientists to understand human behavior. This theory is the belief that man is a reasoning actor who weighs means and ends, costs and benefits, and makes a rational choice. Beccaria’s helped to eliminate cruel and unusual punishment in the nineteenth century, which at the time was very common, and formed the basis for the classical theory of crime, a school of thought that influenced the French Revolution and the establishment of the Eighth Amendment in the United States Constitution. Beccaria believed that people choose to engage in all behavior, criminal and non-criminal, and without the fear and certainty of severe punishment for criminal offenses.
People will continue to choose to commit those crimes. Beccaria believed that all individuals possess free will. People use free will to make rational decisions, such as whether or not the personal benefits are worth the risk of violating the law by committing a crime. It is by free will that people are able to follow through with those “rational” decisions.
To Beccaria, punishment should address prevention rather than revenge. He believed that the only way to deter criminals from continuing to commit more serious offenses is to ensure that the punishment is well suited for the crime. He believed the punishment should only be severe enough to outweigh the personal benefits gained from committing the crime.
A British philosopher named Jeremy Bentham elaborated on Beccaria’s views and proposed the idea that people choose their actions by whether or not they produce happiness and avoided unpleasant conditions. With this theory laws were created to keep the community happy and punishment is only justified if it is used as a method of prevention. The popularity of the classical theory peaked in the 1800s but began to decline and was eventually neglected altogether by the majority of criminologists by the end of the twentieth century. During the mid-1970s, as positivist approaches towards the rehabilitation of known criminals began to prove ineffective, the popularity of the classical approach improved.
Criminologists began to portray criminals to the public as rational planners who deserve to be punished. This modernized view of the classical school of criminology is now known as the rational choice theory and is used to explain why criminals commit crimes. According to the rational choice theory, criminals are people who share the same goals and ambitions as ordinary citizens, but choose to obtain those goals by illegitimate means.
The rational choice theory is based on the assumption that before choosing to commit a crime, the criminal considers personal factors or motivation for the crime, such as their immediate need for benefits, revenge, or excitement, and also situational factors, such as the severity of the consequences and the risk of apprehension.
The rationality described by rational choice theory is different from the colloquial and philosophical uses of rationality. Rationality means in colloquial language sane or in a thoughtful clear headed manner. Routine activity theory is a sub-field of rational choice criminology, which was developed by Marcus Felson. Routine activity theory says that crime is normal and depends on the opportunities available. For example after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, meaning poverty, inequality and unemployment became a problem this gave people a reason to commit crimes.