One of the two major schools of criminology. Originating in the 18th century and rooted in philosophical utilitarianism, it sees man as a rational self-seeking being whose acts are freely chosen. Faced with alternative courses of action, he will weigh up the risks and benefits of each and act so as to maximize his pleasure and minimize his pain. This explains both the existence of crime and the need for a rational penal policy in which the threat of punishment is used to deter criminal behaviour (see feature Theories of Punishment). To be an effective deterrent, punishment must be swift, certain, and proportionate to the offence.
From the late 19th century the classical school was challenged by the positivist school of criminology, which downplays the role of free will and emphasizes the various social and psychological forces that may drive an individual to crime. More recently, aspects of the classical approach have been revived in so-called rational choice theory, which highlights the opportunistic element in many crimes and stresses the role of surveillance and environmental design (e.g. better street lighting) in crime prevention.