Crime and Punishment

Knowing what punishment to mete out is no simple feat. Some forms of punishment may send the wrong message. For example, is it okay to solve problems with more violence? Here are some thoughts on this tough topic.

Does corporal punishment send the wrong message?

Corporal punishment and the cycle of violence.

One of the main arguments against corporal punishment is that it sends the wrong message, which is that it is permissible to solve our problems with violence. In a previous post, I considered other arguments against the practice. Recall that the form of punishment at issue is mild and infrequent, the causing of physical pain without injury. Here, I will consider the claim that corporal punishment sends this inappropriate message by looking again at what contemporary philosopher David Benatar has to say about the issue. I'll conclude with a few thoughts of my own on the practice.

In its strongest form, this argument against corporal punishment is not merely that it sends the wrong message, but that in some instances the use of such punishment involves a contradiction, and is therefore hypocritical. For example, consider a parent who physically punishes a child for hitting his sibling. The contradiction is that the child is being told that violence is wrong and this message is being communicated in part by physical violence.

According to Benatar, this apparent contradiction can be resolved. In support of this claim, consider the fact that we don't think that there is something contradictory in how we treat kidnappers. If someone is charged, tried, and convicted of this crime, they are sentenced to prison. That is, they are locked in a room and their liberty is taken away from them. But this is precisely what the kidnapper does! There is no contradiction, then, not only because of this implication, but also because there is a relevant difference between a legitimate authority (the parent or the state) enacting punishment and the action that is deserving of such punishment, or which one is seeking to curtail in the future by such punishment.

Does corporal punishment feed into the cycle of violence, even if there is no contradiction present in its use? Benatar argues that the evidence on offer that it does beget more violence is insufficient, when the use of corporal punishment is properly restricted. That is, when it is mild and infrequent, it is not clear that it has these detrimental effects.

Finally, Benatar claims that such punishment must be carried out justly. There should be due process in the family, no discrimination, clear boundaries which dictate when such punishment may occur, and specific guidelines with respect to how it is administered.

Why address this issue? First, as a moral philosopher, I'm interested in the ethical issues of everyday life--especially those connected to the family and sports. Second, the debate over corporal punishment is similar to those that often surround religion or abortion. Much heat is present, but very little light. I believe we must do our best to rationally assess the moral status of this practice, rather than getting caught up in the rhetoric of some on both sides of this issue.

Personally, I am not against the use of mild and infrequent corporal punishment in principle. I think that in practice, however, it is too often done out of anger or a need for control, rather than for the good of the child. I think one good question to ask (inspired by David Hoekema) about it or any form of parental discipline is this: "Does this reflect and reinforce trust in the family?" If yes, then that's good. If not, then there is a problem that must be addressed.

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Crime and Punishment