Getting BACK on TRACK
Responding to arguments against corporal punishment
June 19, 2004
THE question of corporal punishment is the subject of discussion at many levels in society at this point in time, and I would like to inject the results of the research by David Benatar, a distinguished professor in the Philosophy Department in the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in his thesis Social Theory & Practice, into this discourse, with the hope that those who are advocating the total elimination of this form of discipline would be as open-minded as they expect their opponents to be, and give due consideration to these arguments in their own assessment of this important phenomenon in the treatment of our children.
I sincerely hope that the elements of his arguments do not suffer from my own summarising.
“Those who oppose corporal punishment do not normally do so on the basis of a single argument.
Usually they muster a battery of reasons to support their view. They do not root their arguments in particular theories of punishment – theories that justify the institution of punishment – and say why corporal punishment fails to meet the theoretical requirements.
In many cases, this may be because they lack a theory of punishment. However, it should be said in their favor that having a theory of punishment is little help, by itself, in determining whether corporal punishment is ever morally acceptable.
The arguments raised by those who believe that corporal punishment should never be inflicted are that corporal punishment 1) leads to abuse; 2) is degrading; 3) is psychologically damaging; 4) stems from and causes sexual deviance; 5) teaches the wrong lesson; 6) arises from and causes poor relationships between teachers (or parents) and children; and 7) does not deter. I shall now consider each of these arguments in turn.
1.Corporal punishment leads to abuse: Opponents of corporal punishment make regular reference to the frequency and severity of physical punishments that are inflicted upon children. They suggest that corporal punishment “escalates into battering,” or at least increases the risk that those who punish will “cross the line to physical abuse.” Clearly there are instances of abuse and of abusive physical punishment.
But that is insufficient to demonstrate even a correlation between corporal punishment and abuse, and a fortiori (a causal relationship). The fact that there are some parents and teachers who inflict physical punishment in an abusive way does not entail the conclusion that corporal punishment should never be inflicted by anybody.
2. Corporal punishment is degrading: One argument that is intended as an attack on both mild and severe cases of corporal punishment makes the claim that physically punishing people degrades them. I understand degradation to involve a lowering of somebody’s standing, where the relevant sense of standing has to do with how others regard one, and how one regards oneself.
It is the interplay between the way we understand how others view us and the way that we view ourselves that produces feelings such as shame.
Thus one way in which one might be degraded is by being shamed. In order to respond satisfactorily to the objection that corporal punishment is degrading, clarification is required about whether the term “degrade” is taken to have a normative content, or, in other words, whether it is taken to embody a judgment of wrongfulness. If it is not, then it will not be
sufficient to show that corporal punishment is degrading.
3. Corporal punishment is psychologically damaging: It is claimed that corporal punishment has numerous adverse psychological effects, including depression, inhibition, rigidity, lowered self-esteem and heightened anxiety.
Although there is evidence that excessive corporal punishment can significantly increase the chances of such psychological harm, most of the psychological data are woefully inadequate to the task of demonstrating that mild and infrequent corporal punishment has such consequences.
4. Corporal punishment stems from and causes sexual deviance: Those who want to outlaw corporal punishment often argue that there are disturbing sexual undercurrents in the practice. This objection is, in part, a special instance of the argument about adverse psychological effects.
In part it is a separate, but related objection. The argument is that corporal punishment stems from some sexual perversity on the part of the person inflicting the punishment and can in turn causes sexual deviance (in the person punished).
In some versions of this argument, it is claimed that sadomasochistic relationships can develop between the beater and the beaten. In other versions, only one party – usually but not always the beater — may experience sexual excitement through the beating.
The beaten person may become sexually repressed. It is no accident, the argument goes, that the buttocks are often chosen as the site on the body to which the punishment is administered. Those who advance the objection that corporal punishment fosters masochism are rarely clear about the nature of the masochistic inclinations that they say are produced.
Yet, it is crucial to be clear about this. However, if this is the concern, surely the fitting response would be to place limitations on the use of the punishment and, at least in schools, to monitor and enforce compliance.
Here we are not without examples to follow. For example, given the intimacy of a medical examination, the doctor-patient relationship is one that is prone to sexual undercurrents.
Needless to say, it is a disturbing thought that doctors may be sexually aroused while examining patients, but we cannot(easily) monitor that, nor can we ban doctors from examining patients. Our response then, is to lay down guidelines to curb any abuses that might ensue.
I am aware that medical examinations are necessary in a way in which corporal punishment is not, but corporal punishment might nonetheless fulfill an important function.
5. Corporal punishment teaches the wrong lesson: It is often said that punishing a wrongdoer by inflicting pain conveys the message that violence is an appropriate way to settle differences or to respond to problems. This implicit message is believed to reach the level of a contradiction in those cases where the child is hit for having committed some act of violence
- like assaulting another child. Where this happens, it is claimed, the child is given the violent message that violence is wrong.
The child is told that he was wrong to commit an act of violence and yet the parent or the teacher conveys this message through violence.
Not only are such messages thought to be wrong in themselves, but it is claimed that they are then acted upon by the child who is hit. In the short term, those who are physically punished are alleged to commit violence against other children, against teachers and against school property.
As far as long term effects are concerned, it is alleged that significant numbers of people who commit crimes were
physically punished as children. It is these arguments that lie behind the adage “violence breeds violence.”
Three defenses of (limited) corporal punishment can be advanced against this objection. First, there is a reductio adabsurdum. The argument about the message implicit in violence seems to prove too much. If beatings send a message, why don’t detentions,
imprisonments, fines, and a multitude of other punishments convey equally undesirable messages? The argument proves too much because it proves that all punishment conveys inappropriate messages and so is wrong. It is a reductio because this conclusion is absurd. Those who want to replace punishment with therapy would not be immune to the reductio either.
Providing therapy would convey the message that people with whom one disagrees are to be viewed as sick and deserving of treatment. This leads to the second argument. The objection takes too crude a view of human psychology and the message that punishment can impart. There is all the difference in the world between legitimate authorities — the judiciary, parents, or teachers — using punitive powers responsibly to punish wrongdoing, and children or private citizens going around beating each other, locking each other up, and extracting financial tributes (such as lunch money). There is a vast moral difference here and there is no reason why children should not learn about it. Punishing children when they do wrong seems to be one important way of doing this. To suggest that children and others cannot extract this message, but only the cruder version that the objection suggests, is to underestimate the expressive function of punishment and people’s ability to comprehend it. This brings me to my third response. There is insufficient evidence that the properly restricted use of corporal punishment causes increased violence. Note again, however, that even if it were shown that there is some increase in violence, something more is required in order to make a moral case against the corporal punishment that causes it.
On a consequentialist view, for example, one would have to show that this negative effect is not overridden by any benefits there might be to corporal punishment.”
[continued next week]