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Corporal Punishment

by David Benatar

Philosophy Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Reproduced by kind permission of the author

Originally published in Social Theory & Practice

1. Introduction

Opponents of the corporal punishment of children are rightly critical of its extensive use and the severity with which it is all too often inflicted. They have been at pains to show that corporal punishment is not used merely as a last resort, but is inflicted regularly and for the smallest of infractions.1 They have also recorded the extreme harshness of many instances of corporal punishment.2

I have no hesitation in joining the opposition to such practices, which are correctly labeled as child abuse. Where I believe that opponents of corporal punishment are wrong is in saying that physical punishment should never be inflicted. The popular as well as the educational and psychological debates about corporal punishment are characterized largely by polarization. Those who are opposed want to rule it out entirely. Those who are in favor tend to have a cavalier defense of the practice that is insensitive to many reasonable concerns about the dangers and abuses of this form of punishment.

It is surprising that the moral question of corporal punishment has escaped the attention of philosophers to the extent that it has. In this paper I want to consider the various standard arguments that are advanced against corporal punishment and show why they fail to establish the conclusion in defense of which they are usually advanced -- that such punishment should be entirely abandoned. However, in doing so I shall show that some of the arguments have some force -- sufficient to impose significant moral limitations on the use of corporal punishment -- thereby explaining, at least in part, why the abuses are beyond the moral pale.

After examining and rejecting the arguments that corporal punishment should be entirely eliminated, I shall briefly consider some positive arguments for corporal punishment before outlining what I take to be some requirements for its just infliction. However, before turning to any of this, some preliminary remarks will help to focus the subject matter I shall be discussing.

a. What is corporal punishment?

Corporal punishment is, quite literally, the infliction of punishment on the body. Even once it is differentiated from "capital punishment," "corporal punishment" remains a very broad term. It can be used to refer to a wide spectrum of punishments ranging from forced labor to mutilating torture. My focus in this paper will be on a form of corporal punishment that seems to me to be the pivotal area of controversy -- the infliction of physical pain without injury.3

I am not suggesting that this is the most problematic form of corporal punishment, but I shall focus on it because it seems to be the mildest level of corporal punishment at which the disagreement enters. Furthermore, the infliction of pain without injury appears to be the variety of corporal punishment that is at stake in the debate, even though opponents of corporal punishment make frequent reference to those instances of corporal punishment that result in injury.

Corporal punishment goes by a variety of names including, but not limited to, "beating," "hitting," "spanking," "paddling," "swatting," and "caning." Some of these terms are generic, others are specific to the severity of the punishment or the instrument used to inflict it. I shall use some of these terms interchangeably as general terms for corporal punishment.

b. Corporal punishment in homes and schools

There are a number of settings in which corporal punishment has been used, but my focus will be on homes and schools. These places share a number of important features that together set them aside from other possible settings for corporal punishment. In both homes and schools children are punished by adults -- either parents or teachers. Similarly, in both contexts punishment is often inflicted without formal trials and often for nonstatutory offenses -- offenses that are not proscribed by some home or school statute, but that are rather deemed (at least in the more justifiable cases of punishment) to be moral wrongdoings.

There are some significant differences between the home and school settings. Parents are more likely to have their children's interests close to heart and to love and care for them. Parents are also more likely to know their children better than teachers know their pupils. Teachers, after all, have relatively little contact with their pupils and the little they do have is usually in large classes. While some people are opposed to corporal punishment anywhere, even by parents in the home, others oppose only its practice outside the home. They might suggest that the differences between the home and the school are morally relevant and show why corporal punishment would be acceptable in the home but not in the school.

I do not think that the differences support this conclusion. Institutional punishment can never replicate the close connections of the family situation. That has some disadvantages and some advantages. One of the advantages is that the judgment of behavior and decision about punishment will not be blinded by love. (How many parents would sentence their homicidal offspring to lengthy prison terms? -- "He's a good boy really!")

Moreover, not all institutional settings are equally impersonal. Schools are much more personal than state courts. Teachers know their pupils better and are likely to care more for them than judges do for the accuseds that stand before them. Punishment in schools can thus be seen as serving a useful educational purpose. It facilitates the move from the jurisdiction of the family to the jurisdiction of the state, teaching the child that punishment is not always inflicted by close people who love one and know one. This is not to say that teachers, like judges, should not inquire into relevant aspects of a wrongdoer's background before inflicting a severe punishment.

2. Responding to Arguments Against Corporal Punishment

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. This is because the traditional theories of punishment in themselves do not commit one to accepting or rejecting corporal punishment.

A number of issues mediate the application of the theories to the question of corporal punishment. For example, for consequentialist theories of punishment, the relevant considerations include the effectiveness of corporal punishment, either as a deterrent or reform, and the extent of any adverse side effects. For retributivists, punishment is justified if it is deserved. Retributivists are not concerned about the consequences of punishment, but they do consider the means of punishment. Thus, an important question for them is whether corporal punishment is an unacceptably cruel or degrading form of punishment.

Retributivism per se says nothing about what constitutes an unacceptable form of punishment, just as utilitarianism itself cannot tell what kinds of punishment are effective or harmful. Thus we cannot turn to the theories themselves for answers to these questions. I shall not probe the theoretical foundations or venture any view about which theory of punishment is correct. This is because I take the theoretical background to be largely beyond the scope of this paper. There is a vast literature on whether punishment can be justified and I cannot hope to contribute to that here. Instead, I restrict my attention to the question of corporal punishment.

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.4

a. 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,"5 or at least increases the risk that those who punish will "cross the line to physical abuse."6

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. Research into possible links between corporal punishment and abuse has proved inconclusive so far.

Some studies have suggested that abusive parents use corporal punishment more than nonabusive parents, but other studies have shown this not to be the case.7 The findings of one study,8 conducted a year after corporal punishment by parents was abolished in Sweden, suggested that Swedish parents were as prone to serious abuse of their children as were parents in the United States, where corporal punishment was (and is) widespread. These findings are far from decisive, but they caution us against hasty conclusions about the abusive effects of corporal punishment.

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. If it did have this entailment, then, for example, the consumption of any alcohol by anybody prior to driving would have to be condemned on the grounds that some people cannot control how much alcohol they consume before driving. Just as we prohibit the excessive but not the moderate use of alcohol prior to driving, so should we condemn the abusive but not the nonabusive use of corporal punishment.

b. 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. It will have to be shown that it is unacceptably so before it can be judged to be wrong on those grounds. If, by contrast, "degrade" is taken to embody a judgment of wrongfulness then a demonstration that corporal punishment is degrading will suffice to show that it is wrong. But then the argumentative work will have to be done in showing that corporal punishment is degrading because it will have to be shown that it amounts to an unacceptable lowering of somebody's standing.

Either way, the vexing question is whether corporal punishment involves an unacceptable lowering of somebody's standing. Here it is noteworthy that there are other forms of punishment that lower people's standing even more than corporal punishment, and yet are not subject to similar condemnation. Consider, for example, various indignities attendant upon imprisonment, including severe invasions of privacy (such as strip-searches and ablution facilities that require relieving oneself in full view of others) as well as imposed subservience to prison wardens, guards, and even to more powerful fellow inmates. My intuitions suggest that this lowering of people's standing surpasses that implicit in corporal punishment per se, even though it is obviously the case that corporal punishment could be meted out in a manner in which it were aggravated. If corporal punishment is wrong because it involves violating the intimate zone of a person's body, then surely the extreme invasions of prison inmates' privacy, which seem worse, would also be wrong.

It is true that corporal punishment involves the application of direct and intense power to the body, but I do not see how that constitutes a more severe lowering of somebody's standing than employing indirect and mild power in the course of a strip-search, for example. It is true too that the prison invasions of privacy to which I have referred would be inflicted on adults whereas corporal punishment would be imposed on children, but again I fail to see how that difference makes physical punishment of children worse. In the case of young children especially, it seems that the element of shame would be less than that of adults given that the capacities for shame increase between the time one is a toddler and the time one becomes an adult. Therefore, if we think that current practices in prison life are not wrong on grounds of degradation, then we cannot consistently say that all corporal punishment is wrong on these grounds.

c. 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.9

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. One opponent of corporal punishment who has provided data on even mild and infrequent physical chastisement is Murray Straus.10 His research, which is much more sophisticated than most earlier investigations into corporal punishment, does lend support to the view that even infrequent noninjurious corporal punishment can increase one's chances of being depressed.

However, for two reasons this research is inadequate to the task of demonstrating that mild corporal punishment is wrong. First, the studies are not conclusive. The main methodological problem is that the studies are not experiments but post facto investigations based on self-reports.11 Murray Straus recognizes this12 but nevertheless thinks that the studies are compelling.

The second point is that even if Professor Straus's findings are valid, the nature of the data is insufficiently marked to justify a moral condemnation of mild and infrequent corporal punishment. For instance, the increase of depression, according to his study, is not substantial for rare physical punishment. The increments on his Mean Symptoms Index of depression are only slight for one or two instances of corporal punishment during one's teen years. The increments are somewhat more substantial for three to nineteen incidents of corporal punishment but, surprisingly, for twenty to twenty-nine incidents the Mean Symptoms Index falls again nearly to the level of two episodes of corporal punishment.13

The chances of having suicidal thoughts, according to this study, decrease marginally with one incident of corporal punishment during adolescence, then rises slightly for three to five episodes of corporal punishment. For ten to nineteen instances of physical punishment the likelihood of having suicidal thoughts is approximately the same as it is for those who are not beaten at all during adolescence. The probability increases markedly for more than twenty-nine episodes of physical punishment during one's teens,14 as one would expect when many beatings are administered. Professor Straus does not provide data about how physical punishment during (preteen) childhood affects the likelihood of depression, which would have been interesting given that one might expect corporal punishment to be psychologically more damaging to adolescents than to younger children.

Given that even the data suggesting that very rare instances of mild corporal punishment do have some negative effects also suggest that the effects are not substantial, there is a strong likelihood that they could be overridden by other considerations in a consequentialist calculation. In other words, showing some negative effects is not sufficient to make a consequentialist case against all corporal punishment. Other considerations, including possible advantages of corporal punishment, would have to be taken into account. Moreover, because the available evidence shows no serious harm from mild and infrequent corporal punishment, there seem to be poor grounds for suggesting that for retributivists the punishment should be regarded as unacceptably severe.

d. 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.15 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 cause 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. Studies show that most people have been sexually aroused, either in fantasy or in practice, by at least some mild masochistic activity, such as restraint or play fights.16 Thus, some masochistic tendencies seem to be statistically normal. That does not preclude their being undesirable, but it is hard to see how, in an era of increased tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation and practice, we can consistently label mild masochism as perverse. If such inclinations increase opportunities for sexual pleasure without concomitant harms, then there is at least a prima facie case for the view that such inclinations are not to be regretted. And if one objects to those masochistic inclinations that seek gratification in more serious pain, injury, and bondage, there is no evidence of which I am aware that mild and infrequent corporal punishment fosters such inclinations. The available evidence linking corporal punishment and masochism makes the connection only with milder forms of masochistic fantasy and practice.

It is, of course, a concern that some parents or teachers might derive sexual gratification from beating children, but is it a reason to eliminate or ban the practice? Someone might suggest that it is, if the anticipated sexual pleasure led to beatings that were inappropriate -- either because children were beaten when they should not have been, or if the punishment were administered in an improper manner. 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. 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.

e. 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.17 One teaches the child that if one dislikes what somebody does, it is acceptable to inflict pain on that person.

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.18 In the short term, those who are physically punished are alleged to commit violence against other children, against teachers and against school property.19 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 ad absurdum. The argument about the message implicit in violence seems to prove too much. If we suggest that hitting a wrongdoer imparts the message that violence is a fitting means to resolve conflict, then surely we should be committed to saying that detaining a child or imprisoning a convict conveys the message that restricting liberty is an appropriate manner to deal with people who displease one. We would also be required to concede that fining people conveys the message that forcing others to give up some of their property is an acceptable way to respond to those who act in a way that one does not like. 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.

There is a possible response to my arguments. Perhaps it is true that, conceptually, the message that punishment conveys is more sophisticated. Nevertheless, those who are beaten do commit violence against others. It might not be that they got this message from the punishment, but that being subject to the willful infliction of pain causes rage and this gets vented through acts of violence on others.

This brings me to my third response. There is insufficient evidence that the properly restricted use of corporal punishment causes increased violence. Although Murray Straus's study suggests that there is a correlation between rare corporal punishment and increased violence, the study has some significant defects, as I noted earlier, and the significance of his findings has been questioned in the light of other studies.20 Nevertheless, Professor Straus's findings cannot be ignored and they suggest that further research, this time of an experimental sort, should be conducted. 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.

f. Corporal punishment, pupils, teachers, and authority

Next there is a cluster of arguments about the relationship between corporal punishment and teacher-pupil relations.21 These arguments make reference to what physical punishment says about such relations, what it does to them, and the impact that this has on education.

First, it is claimed that for a teacher to employ corporal punishment indicates that the teacher has failed to discourage pupil wrongdoing in other ways -- by moral authority, by a system of rewards, or by milder punishments.

I am sympathetic to the claim that far too many teachers fail to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect between their pupils and themselves. They lack the ability or the inclination verbally to communicate expectations to children -- first gently and then more strenuously. They do not first employ milder forms of punishment but rather resort to the cane in the first instance. Some might not believe in rewarding good behavior, only in punishing bad. However, from the claim that corporal punishment often indicates teacher failure, we cannot infer that it necessarily demonstrates such failure or even that as a matter of fact it always does.

It is true that when the teacher resorts to corporal punishment this indicates that his prior efforts to discourage the wrongdoing failed. However, there is a big difference between this, a failure in the pupil, and a failure in the teacher. In either case it is true, in some sense, that the teacher failed to discourage the child from doing wrong -- failed to prevent failure in the child. However, it is not a failure for which the teacher necessarily is responsible. I am well aware that the responsibility for children's wrongdoing is all too often placed exclusively at the door of children themselves, without due attention to the influences to which they are subjected. However, there is a danger that in rejecting this incorrect evaluation, teachers (and parents) will be blamed for all shortcomings in children.

This argument can be strengthened further. If we say that corporal punishment indicates the failure of prior efforts, then we must concede that the immediately prior efforts -- say, detaining the child -- equally indicate the failure of the still earlier efforts --admonition -- that indicate the failure of yet earlier efforts -- moral example. Once we see this, it becomes clearer why, although it is the case that earlier efforts may have failed, it is not sufficient to say that the failure is in the teacher. To reject this would lead to the conclusion that the teacher is responsible for the child's not following the teacher's moral example. We can now also see why the argument that corporal punishment indicates failure is as much an argument against any of the prior attempts (except the first) to prevent wrongdoing.

Just as school corporal punishment is seen by its opponents as originating in failed pedagogical relationships, so it is believed to compromise them further. Thus it is perceived as exacerbating the very problems from which it arises. The pupils, it is said, begin to fear their teachers and view them as enemies rather than concerned custodians charged with furthering their well-being and development, both mental and otherwise. Education does not thrive in an atmosphere in which children live in fear of those who teach them.22 This opens the way for another objection in this cluster of arguments-that physically punishing children leads to an unquestioning acceptance of authority. If children fear their teachers, they are unlikely to ask questions or challenge views that their teachers present to them. The idea here is that children can be beaten into submission to authority.

Again, I have some sympathy for these arguments -- if they are seen to be making the weaker claim that sometimes (even often) teacher-pupil relations are damaged by corporal punishment. I agree too that children can and have been beaten into unquestioning acceptance of authority. Where teachers regularly resort to using the cane and then use it with excessive force, I can well imagine their relationships with their pupils being compromised. Teachers who regularly and severely hit pupils are feared, not respected (though characteristically such teachers are unable to distinguish between the two). In such circumstances it would not surprise me at all if the inquiring, critical capacities of children were dampened or extinguished. However, I disagree that these are inevitable consequences of corporal punishment per se. I cannot see any reason for thinking that infrequent and mild corporal punishment would be likely to have any of these effects.

Furthermore, we should note that it is not only corporal punishment that can impact negatively on the educational relationship. Children who are frequently detained, banished from the classroom, or even rebuked (especially when this is done scathingly and publicly) can suffer feelings of alienation from their teachers. One does not have to resort to sticks to force children into submission. The tongue can do just as well. My argument here is not to justify one evil by the existence of another. The point is that just as in these cases we attack the excesses not the practices themselves, so should we attack only the abusive use of corporal punishment.

It makes a big difference not only how frequently and severely corporal punishment is inflicted, but also the kinds of behavior for which it is administered. Where children are beaten for expressing unpopular ideas or for asking too many questions, the argument that it will lead to subservience to authority is greatly strengthened. Similarly, if children are paddled for not displaying servile deference to teachers, the relationship between them and their teachers is sure to suffer. However, if children are punished for genuine wrongdoing -- lying, cheating, stealing, bullying -- then the message is that this behavior is unacceptable. Teachers can foster critical inquiry and support the right to express even unpopular opinions, while at the same time punishing genuine wrongdoing. Children are able to distinguish between these.

g. Corporal punishment does not deter

Some opponents of corporal punishment have suggested that it is not an effective form of punishment because it does not deter those punished from further wrongdoing. If the argument were sound, it would be significant for those whose justification of punishment is consequentialist. However, the argument would have no force against a retributivist theory, according to which a punishment can be deserved whether or not it is effective.

Some of the arguments for why corporal punishment does not deter draw on research that suggests that for punishment to be effective it must meet certain conditions -- conditions that would be impossible (and perhaps also undesirable) to fulfill. Thus, it is argued that effective punishment must follow wrongdoing instantaneously.23 It is also claimed that for punishment to be effective it would have to follow every (or, at least, nearly every) act of wrongdoing,24 and therefore would have to be inflicted even more regularly than it already is. It has been suggested too that punishment that is inflicted by surprise is more effective than punishment that is expected. Insofar as the research methodology is sound and actually supports these conclusions -- conditions that I do not think are met -- the conclusions would apply equally to other forms of punishment. In other words, the argument is not specifically against corporal punishment, but against punishment generally. This implication is all too often not made explicit.

Deterrence is not an all-or-nothing matter. A punishment might have some deterrent effect without being extremely effective. Once this is recognized, the mere continued existence of wrongdoing does not demonstrate the failure of punishment as a deterrent, as many have thought. To know how effective punishment is one must know what the incidence of the wrongdoing would be if prior punishments for it had not been inflicted. To establish this, much more research needs to be done. However, there is already some evidence of the deterrent effect of corporal punishment, at least with very young children.25 Such findings cannot be considered decisive, but neither can they be ignored.

Finally, while we might expect increased frequency to improve the deterrent effect, there is good reason to think that the reverse might be true. The expressive function as well as the aura surrounding a particular form of punishment might well be enhanced by inflicting it less often. If one uses physical punishment infrequently, it can speak louder than if one inflicts it at every turn. The special status accorded it by its rare use might well provide psychological reason to avoid it out of proportion to its actual severity.

h. Do the arguments gain strength in numbers?

Up to now I have considered in turn each of the objections to corporal punishment. I have argued that each by itself fails. Do they gain any strength in numbers?

We need to distinguish between two ways an objection may fail: 1) because it rests on premises for which there is insufficient or no evidence; or 2) because the premises, although substantiated by sufficient evidence, do not lead to the desired conclusion. Objections that fail for the first reason cannot be strengthened by association with others. They fail whether they stand alone or in company. For example, if there is no evidence that corporal punishment causes severe masochism, then the evidence is not increased because there is some distinct argument that says something quite different about corporal punishment.

However, it is another matter where an objection is flawed because although there is evidence for its premises, the premises are insufficiently strong to support the objection. If, as I have argued is not the case, the evidence were compelling that mild and infrequent corporal punishment slightly elevated the chances of violent physical abuse, then, ex hypothesi, the premise that such corporal punishment has this effect would be substantiated. However, this premise by itself would be insufficient to demonstrate the wrongfulness of corporal punishment. A mere increase in the chance of abuse is inadequate by itself, but it might be one consideration that, when added to others, contributes to a satisfactory case against corporal punishment.

I have argued that the objections to mild and infrequent corporal punishment fail because there is insufficient evidence for their premises. Accordingly, they are not stronger when considered together. I have indicated that some recent studies suggest that further research might yield satisfactory evidence. Other studies, including a review of 35 peer-reviewed empirical investigations about the outcomes of corporal punishment by parents cast doubt on this.26 But if further research does assuage these doubts and bolster the premises of the objections to corporal punishment, then a further question will arise: Are the harms that the research demonstrates sufficiently strong, when considered together, to render the practice morally wrong? But until we have the data this question cannot be answered.

3. Considering the Case for Corporal Punishment

Having rejected the arguments that support the total abandonment of corporal punishment, I shall now raise some positive arguments for preserving the option of limited corporal punishment.

a. Corporal punishment punishes only the guilty

It has been argued that one advantage that corporal punishment has over other forms of punishment is that it punishes only the guilty.27 Detaining students often places a burden on parents who fetch children from school. They are then required to fetch the detained child at a later time, which may be inconvenient. If the parent has more than one child at the school, then detention of one of the children can result in two separate trips to the school. These consequences seem unjust to some because not only the guilty suffer.

I think that this argument has some force. In other words, there might well be certain instances in which this morally relevant consideration will tip the balance in favor of inflicting corporal punishment, rather than opting for some other form of punishment. However, there will often be other competing considerations. These include the concerns about the dangers of frequent use of canings. Thus, if excessive use of corporal punishment would lead to unacceptable psychological damage, then inflicting an alternative form of punishment might be justified even if it imposes some burden on family members.

Members of a family do not stand in isolation from one another. They are affected by what each of the others does and by what happens to each. When one member of a family performs a meritorious deed or has some good fortune, others in the family benefit. Similarly, if someone in the family does wrong or suffers some harm, this negatively affects the others. To a certain extent these "spill-overs" are an expected and legitimate part of family life.

Here we see an important distinction arising, one which is conflated by the argument that corporal punishment punishes only the guilty. It ignores the distinction by using the term "punish" in a weak sense. It claims that by detaining a wrongdoer, we also punish his family. But, of course, we do not punish the family. The detention may well cause the hardship, but that is quite different from punishing it. Punishment is not simply the suffering of hardship. First, it must be imposed. It is at least a matter of controversy whether the hardship is imposed on the family, or whether it is merely an unfortunate consequence. Second, the hardship the family suffers carries none of the condemnation that punishment conveys.28 Some, but not all, of the force of the argument at hand is derived from glossing over these differences.

b. Corporal punishment in the scale of punishments

A more compelling argument in favor of the limited use of corporal punishment is that it plays a significant role on the scale of punishments. In the context of a school, it fills an important position between punishments like detention on the one hand, and expulsion on the other. There is some value in having a scale of punishments of discernibly increasing severity. It is true that some scale could be introduced without corporal punishment. One might, for example, replace corporal punishment with detention of longer duration. However, having different forms of punishment that vary in severity can enhance the expressive function of punishment by making the varying degrees of condemnation more explicit.

c. Being beaten is not a good in itself

Corporal punishment has another advantage. Many teachers are concerned that assigning extra work or requiring community service ought not to be used as punishments. This is because work and community service are seen by teachers as being good in themselves. While a child might not want to perform these activities, and so requiring them would be to inflict a hardship, one would be reinforcing the child's resistance to these practices. Not only would the child continue to dislike working or helping in the community, but he would come to associate these activities with punishment. This is why some teachers, when punishing children, prefer to require activities like detention or writing lines that are not good in themselves and are unpleasant. In this regard, corporal punishment is like these latter activities. It differs from these others in the intensity of its unpleasantness. This consideration reinforces the argument that corporal punishment occupies an important place in the scale of punishments. It becomes a significant substitute for something like community service.

d. Child-rearing and parents' liberty interests

We have seen that there is room for reasonable people to disagree about the value of corporal punishment in rearing and educating a child. Contrary to the views of those who oppose all physical punishment, it is not implausible to think that such punishment, if inflicted under the appropriate conditions, might do some good. If corporal punishment does indeed have some benefit, then this would be lost if the practice were abandoned. From the perspective of public policy, prohibiting corporal punishment would constitute a serious interference with the liberty interests of those parents who judge the possibility of corporal punishment to benefit their children. Such liberty interests would be overridable if there were compelling evidence of the harmfulness of corporal punishment, but the inconclusive data we currently have provide no such grounds.

4. Some Requirements for the Just Infliction of Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment can be unjust in a multitude of ways. Here I shall discuss a partial list of conditions for just corporal punishment.

a. Infrequent pain without injury

Given the overwhelming evidence about the evils of frequent and severe beatings, they should be judged to be wrong. If children are to be hit it should be only infrequently and then so as to cause pain without injury.

If one accepts the pain without injury view (or something close to it), there are a number of conditions that will be important. One of these is the site on the body where the punishment will be administered. We would have to rule out those parts of the body where injury is likely to result. Attention would also have to be given to the implement used. Implements that are more prone to cause injury would be ruled out. Finally, the number and intensity of the blows would have to be calculated to avoid any chance of injury. The difficulties of measuring force are often cited. One would have to err on the side of caution. The courts are often called upon to pass judgment on questions of "reasonableness," even "reasonable force." There is no reason why, with more appropriate legislation to provide guidelines, similar judgments could not be made in cases in which excessive corporal punishment is charged.

b. Nondiscrimination

It is well known that often minority groups and especially males receive a disproportionate share of corporal punishment.29 In some countries, corporal punishment of females is outlawed, while it is legal and widely practiced on males.

If corporal punishment is to be just, it must be inflicted without consideration for differences in race and sex. If girls are not caned for the same offenses for which boys are caned, then the boys are the victims of discriminatory treatment. Discrimination against women and girls in many areas has justifiably been an object of concern. However, there has been scant attention to those social practices that discriminate against men and boys. It seems clear to me that the discriminatory use of corporal punishment on the basis of race and sex is immoral. I should like to think that little if any argument is required to convince people in our society of this.

However, I cannot discount the possibility that some will think that gender differences are relevant. Some might suggest, for example, that girls ought to be treated more gently than boys because girls have a more delicate constitution. I do not see how this kind of view can be reconciled with the widespread views in western society that it is wrong to treat people differently on the basis of gender (or racial or religious) stereotypes. While some girls may be more delicate and sensitive than some boys, some boys are more delicate and sensitive than some girls. To treat people differently on the basis of gender rather than on an individual basis is to engage in unfair discrimination. I realize that not all societies share this view. It would be beyond the scope of this paper to examine which view is correct, though my sympathies are clear. Societies that do accept the liberal principles of nondiscrimination must consistently apply these principles.

Treating males and females equally with regard to corporal punishment would have the added benefit of countering the cult of machismo that sometimes surrounds physical punishment. If females are known to be subject to the same punishments, there will be nothing specifically "manly" about a caning. This may even increase the deterrent effect of the punishment because boys would feel less need to prove themselves by inviting it, and girls would know that they were not immune. Equally punishing boys and girls undermines rather than perpetuates gender stereotypes.

c. Due process

Due process is important for any theory of punishment. On a retributivist theory, for any punishment to be just it must be inflicted only on guilty parties and then only in proportion to the wrongdoing. Due process is required to determine innocence or guilt and its extent. Utilitarians are also concerned about punishing only the guilty and in proportion to wrongdoing, even if their concern about these conditions is merely instrumental and so theoretically overridable.

Due process is no less important for punishments inflicted on children in families and schools -- primarily for reasons of justice but additionally for the purposes of teaching moral lessons about retributive justice. It would be a mistake, however, to think that we are required to institute fully fledged trials before independent judges, with defense attorneys and prosecutors, before punishment is justified in homes and schools. That would be impractical and invasive of the privacy of families. It seems sufficient for a parent or teacher to inquire into a matter in order to establish the facts and to allow a child to defend himself against the accusation of wrongdoing.

d. Timing

There is some debate about the appropriate timing for punishment of children in general. Some think that it should follow as soon after the wrongdoing as possible in order to make explicit the connection between the offense and the punishment. In the case of very young children I am inclined to agree. They, like the animals on whom "punishment" studies are done, are unable to draw the connection between a wrong done at one time and a punishment inflicted much later. However, I believe that children at school already have the capacity to understand that a punishment inflicted now can be for a wrong committed at some significantly earlier time.

There are two additional reasons to favor (somewhat) delayed punishment. First, it allows time for due process. It would be completely inappropriate to rush into punishment without the necessary inquiries. However, the second reason provides important grounds for delaying corporal punishment. This is the idea that it would be wrong to beat a child in anger. Some think that this is precisely the only time when one should hit a child -- to eliminate the aura of a cold-blooded assault,30 or to show the child that the beating was a natural reaction to the wrongdoing. Quite to the contrary, I think that we need to avoid spur-of-the-moment beatings of passion. They are and appear to be more of a loss of temper and control than a punishment.

Similarly, the punishment must not be and look like a reflex reaction to wrongdoing. Not only would beatings in anger remove the possibility of due process, but they would also teach the wrong lessons about what just punishment ought to be -- cool and methodical, not passionate. Children are likely to be punished more often and more severely if it is done in anger. The parent or teacher should allow some time to elapse before inflicting corporal punishment. With tempers cooled and the perspective of some temporal distance from the event, the punishing adult is in a better situation to conduct a fair inquiry and determine an appropriate punishment. The child also has the opportunity to reflect on the wrongdoing prior to the punishment. Children, like adults, are often more susceptible to repentant feelings during the period between doing wrong and being punished than in the time following punishment.

e. Safeguards

It might be asked what safeguards could be introduced in order to prevent unjust corporal punishment. In schools there are numerous possibilities. First there could be restrictions on 1) the offenses for which the child may be physically punished; 2) the implement used to inflict the punishment; 3) the number of blows; 4) the places on the body to which such punishment may be administered. These and other requirements could be monitored in a variety of ways. For example, it could be required that all punishments and reasons for punishments be approved by the principal, or that a teacher other than the punisher be present during punishment, or that parents be notified of all physical punishments. School psychologists or inspectors could interview children from time to time about punitive practices.

Punishment within families is less easily monitored, at least if we are to respect people's privacy. But because it is even more difficult to monitor parental compliance with an unqualified ban on corporal punishment than it is to monitor parental compliance with a ban on only severe physical punishment, this monitoring problem provides no support for the elimination of all corporal punishment in homes. Rather what is called for is a sensitization of those (such as doctors and teachers as well as children themselves) who are well placed to detect abusive punishment. That is the very mechanism we use to detect other forms of abuse of children.

5. Conclusion

I have argued that corporal punishment is not always immoral. With appropriate restrictions and safeguards, it is sometimes permissible. There is a danger that the position I have advanced will be misunderstood. This danger lies partly in the polarization of views about corporal punishment, such that those who hold the polar views are not sensitive to an intermediate position. However, it is also partly attributable to the form this paper has taken. I have suggested a battery of arguments against the opponent of corporal punishment. Some positive arguments for this form of punishment were also raised. This may create the impression that mine is a vigorous defense of beating children for wrongdoing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the first instance, my arguments, although lengthy, have been directed against a radical yet commonly held view -- that corporal punishment should never be inflicted. I have sought to show that this position is untenable, even though the arguments for it do show that frequent and severe physical punishment is morally wrong.

Second, although I think that corporal punishment is sometimes justified, I nevertheless feel uncomfortable about the idea of people being punished physically. I have a distinct distaste for the practice, and in the years that I taught school children I never resorted to corporal punishment. It may seem, then, as though my moral intuitions do not match my theoretical commitments. However, I think that an unease about corporal punishment is perfectly compatible with my theoretical position. There are many unpleasant practices that, although sometimes justified, should never be gleefully embraced. For example, it is sometimes justified to take another person's life, as in the case of self-defense, yet even in these circumstances we would judge the killer to be morally defective if he enjoyed or even failed to detest his killing of the aggressor. A killing is to be regretted even when it is justified.

Finally, many of the arguments about corporal punishment rest, at least in part, on empirical questions. Indeed, as I have said, these are difficult matters to settle. My view is that the empirical data, insofar as I have understood them, are insufficient to defend the extreme view that physical punishment should never be administered. Nevertheless we should remain open to the fruits of further research and be prepared to adapt our views accordingly.31


1. For an horrific list of offenses for which school children in South Africa have been physically punished, see T.L. Holdstock, "Violence in Schools: Discipline," in Brian McKendrick and Wilma Hoffmann (eds.), People and Violence in South Africa (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 348, 349. There is extensive record of the kinds of offenses for which children in American schools have been subject to physical punishment. See, for example, Adah Maurer, "It Does Happen Here," in Irwin Hyman and James Wise (eds.), Corporal Punishment in American Education (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979).

2. The most well-known case that was brought before the United States courts is that of Ingraham v. Wright. Briefly, the facts of the case are that on 6 October 1970 a group of pupils at Drew Junior High School in Florida were slow in leaving the stage of the school auditorium when a teacher asked them to do so. The principal, Willie Wright, Jr., took the pupils to his office to be paddled. One pupil, 14-year-old James Ingraham, refused to accept the punishment. An assistant principal and an assistant to the principal held Ingraham prone across a table while Wright hit the child over twenty times with a paddle. The beating caused a hematoma, from which fluid later oozed. A doctor had to prescribe painkillers, laxatives, sleeping pills and ice packs. The child had to rest at home for over ten days and could not sit comfortably for three weeks. There are numerous other instances of corporal punishment in American schools that are less well known but no less serious.

3. I mean here physical injury. To include psychological injury would be to rule out many objections to corporal punishment -- those that suggest that all physical punishment results in psychological injury. I want to reject this view, but by argument rather than stipulation. I am happy to stipulate the absence of physical injury because the claim that all corporal punishment results in such injury is more demonstrably false.

4. There is a further argument -- that corporal punishment violates constitutional provisions against cruel punishment. I shall not attend to this argument here, but I do so in "The Child, the Rod and the Law" in Acta Juridica, 1996, pp. 197-214; repr. in Raylene Keightley (ed.), Children's Rights (Kenwyn: Juta and Co., 1996).

5. Adah Maurer, "The Case Against Corporal Punishment in Schools," in John Cryan (ed.), Corporal Punishment in the Schools: Its Use is Abuse (Toledo: University of Toledo, 1981), p. 22.

6. Murray A. Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families (New York: Lexington Books, 1994), p. 81. He does concede, however, that not all studies have supported the idea that abusive parents use corporal punishment more than nonabusive parents (p. 84).

7. For references to both kinds of study, see Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them, pp. 83-84.

8. Richard J. Gelles and Ake W. Edfeldt, "Violence Towards Children in the United States and Sweden," Child Abuse and Neglect 10 (1986): 501-10.

9. E.g., Holdstock, "Violence in Schools: Discipline," pp. 356, 357; Richard Dubanoski, Michel Inaba, and Kent Gerkewicz, "Corporal Punishment in Schools: Myths, Problems and Alternatives," Child Abuse and Neglect 7 (1983): 271-78, p. 274; Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them, chap. 5.

10. Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them.

11. E.g., John Rosemond, "Should the Use of Corporal Punishment By Parents Be Considered Child Abuse? -- No," in Mary Ann Mason and Eileen Gambrill (eds.), Debating Children's Lives: Current Controversies on Children and Adolescents (Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications, 1994), p. 215.

12. Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them, p. 167.

13. Ibid., p. 70. The (adjusted) increase for one episode of corporal punishment is only two points on the index. For two episodes of corporal punishment, there is a decrease of nearly one point on the index. The index then rises five points for nineteen instances of corporal punishment.

14. Ibid., p. 73. I have described the data that were adjusted to control for other variables.

15. See, for example, Adah Maurer, "Corporal Punishment," American Psychologist (August 1974), p. 621; Holdstock, "Violence in Schools: Discipline," pp. 358-59; Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them, chap. 8.

16. Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them, pp. 126-29.

17. E.g., Irwin Hyman, Anthony Bongiovanni, Robert Friedman, and Eileen McDowell, "Paddling, Punishing and Force: Where Do We Go From Here?" Children Today 6 (Sept.-Oct. 1997): 17-23, p. 20; Adah Maurer, "The Case Against Corporal Punishment in Schools," p. 19.

18. Maurer, "The Case Against Corporal Punishment in Schools," p. 20.

19. Dubanoski et al., "Corporal Punishment in Schools," p. 274.

20. Robert Larzelere, "Should the Use of Corporal Punishment By Parents Be Considered Child Abuse? -- No," in Mason and Gambrill (eds.), Debating Children's Lives, pp. 204-9.

21. E.g., Holdstock, "Violence in Schools: Discipline," pp. 353-54, 360-61; Hyman et al., "Paddling, Punishing and Force," p. 20.

22. E.g., Holdstock, "Violence in Schools: Discipline," p. 353; Dubanoski et al., "Corporal Punishment in Schools," p. 273.

23. One study cited by opponents of corporal punishment is that of Richard Walters and Lillian Demkow, "Timing of Punishment as a Determinant of Response Inhibition," Child Development 34 (1963): 207-14. The study is not specifically about corporal punishment. The punishment used was a loud unpleasant sound from a buzzer.

24. Hyman et al., "Paddling, Punishing and Force," p. 19.

25. Robert E. Larzelere, William N. Schneider, David B. Larson, and Patricia L. Pike, "The Effects of Discipline Responses in Delaying Toddler Misbehavior Recurrences," Child and Family Behavior Therapy 18 (1996): 35-57.

26. Robert E. Larzelere, "A Review of the Outcomes of Parental Use of Nonabusive or Customary Physical Punishment," Pediatrics 98, Supplement (1996): 824-28.

27. Graeme Newman, Just and Painful: A Case for Corporal Punishment of Criminals (New York: Macmillan, 1983), p. 43.

28. However, as in other forms of punishment, there may be a moral stigma for the family.

29. E.g., Steven Shaw and Jeffrey Braden, "Race and Gender Bias in the Administration of Corporal Punishment," School Psychology Review 19 (1990): 378-83.

30. George Bernard Shaw, cited with approval by Gertrude J. Rubin Williams, "Corporal Punishment: Socially Sanctioned Assault and Battery," in Cryan (ed.), Corporal Punishment in the Schools, p. 37.

31. I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers whose comments have helped me improve this paper.

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