Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Is Corporal Punishment So Bad?

Punishment is never particularly pleasant, of course. But is there any principled reason why corporal punishment must be worse than other kinds? In practice, it may be more subject to escalation and abuse. But suppose we could avoid that risk (e.g. through mechanized administration). Would that make it okay, or is the infliction of physical pain different in principle from other kinds of punishment?

If anything, momentary pain seems like the perfect punishment. We are strongly motivated to avoid it, and yet -- unlike incarceration -- it is over in moments and has no lasting ill-consequences. (Prisons should be used only for purposes of removing threats from society. They're too inefficient for mere punishment.) Perhaps fines and "community service" are better still, since they produce benefits to others rather than merely imposing harms. But corporal punishment could replace jail-time as the ultimate punishment, for when all others have failed. Why not?

Criminals aside, consider children. Some people claim that smacking is an inexcusable act of violence, intrinsically "abusive" no matter how light it may be. But again, why is physical discipline picked out for special treatment? Isn't this arbitrary?

Perhaps we have (indirect utilitarian) reason to promote the norm that one's body is inviolate. But parenting and legal punishment are a special cases, where we may allow things that we wouldn't normally allow (e.g. locking people up against their will!). So I don't see why we couldn't do just as well with a more restricted norm of bodily autonomy that can be overriden by appropriate authorities (i.e. a young child's parents, and the legal justice system). It needn't have broader implications for how we treat each other in society.

Compare the extreme case of torture. Torture is intrinsically problematic because it essentially involves the use of extreme pain to induce psychological breakdown (and subsequent compliance). The mark of abuse is that it leaves the person physically or mentally "broken", unable to function properly as a fully autonomous agent. This consequence is atrocious.

But if light physical punishment can safely avoid such effects, what else is left that's so objectionable? Perhaps being physically dominated by another induces feelings of helplessness. But it is the domination -- i.e. arbitrary power -- that's the problem here, rather than the infliction of physical pain per se. I agree that this is a severe risk in practice, but suppose for sake of argument that corporal punishment could be delivered in a measured and non-dominating way. Would it still be objectionable, even then?


  1. As a conservative (evil, uncaring, brutal, primitive, etc.) I sympathize with any argument that will take the mickey out of the latest touchy-feely psychological fashions. And your arguments here are right that corporal punishment is not intrinsically abusive or dominating.

    But there is a connection between corporal punishment, on the one hand, and resentment, rage, and enmity, on the other. The latter sentiments are causally associated with violence (likely with most violence resulting from those emotions.) So, the child or criminal is highly likely to assume that the administrator of corporal punishment is feeling those emotions and acting on them, even in the case where it isn't true. (It's because it isn't always true that corporal punishment is not inherently dominating or abusive.) Therefore, corporal punishment will tend to obfuscate the correction intended by associating (in the mind of the child or criminal) the administrator with vice, to sever the ties that bind the child or criminal to society, and to create anger and resentment in him (which has a bad feedback effect.)

    Try imagining that you are a child with a father a paragon of virtue. It is hard to imagine that he administers corporal punishment to you. (Not that it's a matter of logical impossibility.)

  2. I think it is the indirect utilitarian argument.

    Simply is is very easy to abuse physical punishment. somewhat more so than other methods - so forcing people to use other methods has a side effect of generally improving the level of consideration given to punishment.

    So in a sense it might be a sub-optimal policy that just happens to tend to have a better result in terms of child abuse - and possibly in terms of child behaviour. At the same time it might have other costs in terms of making criminals of ordinary parents or encouraging family separation or whatever else..


  3. Objecting to corporal punishment provides you with a cost free method of telling other people how virtuous you are.

    How could any need be greater than that?

  4. For a defense of corporal punishment, check out Graeme Newman's book (available online) Just and Painful.

  5. I would say, given your assumption that it can be delivered in a measured and non-dominating way, and in the right circumstances, for the right reasons, it isn't objectionable.

    However, I think such assumptions are for the large majority of instances of smacking are false. All i've ever seen is parents smacking children in a manner that is not in any way measured or non-dominating; it's the result of lack of control, frustration, and anger on the part of the parents. And I suspect, it results in similar qualities in the children.

    A slippery slope argument, yes, but one that my experiences of corporal 'punishment' support.

  6. I'm opposed to corporal punishment because it seems likely that it teaches the person subjected to such punishment (especially if that person is a child) that physical force is an appropriate way of resolving conflicts.

  7. ebonmuse,
    I guess that depends on context and the thought processes of the kid. (age etc)

    Maybe they draw that connection although I think that the nature of a smack used in the best way is normally fairly different from that of a physical fight to dominate another person.

    Maybe time out teachs kids to kidnap and chores teach them that slavery is appropriate - but I would not think that those connections are outstandingly strong unless your following bad methodology.


  8. "mechanized admistration" of corporal punishment? As if beating by a machine were more humane than beating by a human? And as if the machine couldn't be programmed by the people using it, to be abusive?

  9. No, merely "as if" a machine is less subject to the momentary anger or frustration that could cause the inflicted punishment to spin out of control, or be greater than intended.

    If those in power fully intend to be abusive, that's a whole 'nother problem. (But hopefully whatever measures we put in place to prevent abuse of other forms of punishment could also be used to prevent abuse of the corporal form.)

    More importantly: what makes incarceration more "humane" than corporal punishment? Note that my whole post was about questioning such assumptions, and asking for the reasons behind them.

    You're welcome to expand on this point, but if so please choose a unique name (not "anonymous"), as per my commenting policy.

    Billy - thanks for the pointer!

    Jim - interesting suggestions. I'll need to think more about that.

  10. I'm sure you see that what counts against my point is the lack of social-science data to support the claim that those suffering corporal punishment will associate it with enmity and resentment on the administrator's part, an association not made by those suffering non-corporeal punishment. It just seems right to me, but it rests on a sociological claim that would need big data.

    By the way, I not only agree with what you've said here but also have applied a similar argument to capital punishment. I'm in favor of it (with all the predictable caveats) and reply to objections from state-sanctioned awefulness by noting that if this objection holds against capital punishment, it holds against long imprisonment terms, as well (the sheer horror of being thrown into a cell for scores of years by the state, the irrevocability of it once the prisoner has spent forty years behind bars or finally died there, etc.) If you object to the state doing really bad things to a citizen, then both capital punishment and long prison terms are right out. But that's untenable, so... etc.

  11. Indeed! We're very much on the same page here. (Though prison sentences can be cut short upon discovery of innocence. It's harder to compensate the dead.)

  12. If you put me in prison for 40 years it would probably take an infinite amount of money to compensate me. Of course no less if you killed me.


  13. I think the main argument against it is that it justifies the means by the ends. That it is ok to inflict violence on an individual in order to bring order.

    Debatepedia has an article on this that might be worth looking at:



Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.