The Moral Case for Corporal Punishment

spanking

(The following is a guest post by philosopher Timothy Hsiao)

Is it ever morally okay to spank children as a form of punishment? According to the University of Chicago‘s General Social Survey, over 70% of Americans think that it is. However, many academics say no. Corporal punishment, they argue, is impermissible because it is linked to diminished developmental outcomes in children. Owing to this point, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement saying that parents should not ever spank their children.

Opponents of spanking rest their arguments on the implicit assumption that punishment is justified by its effects in improving life outcomes. This assumption, however, can and should be challenged.

In order to assess the morality of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, we need to first gain some clarity on the nature and purpose of punishment. Ethicists have traditionally distinguished between three purposes of punishment: retribution, correction, and deterrence. Of these three, retribution is regarded as the most fundamental. This is because punishment is chiefly a matter of justice: it is about giving a wrongdoer what he or she has come to deserve. Retribution, then, seeks to balance the scales of morality by inflicting deserved harm upon a wrongdoer. Correction and deterrence, although desirable, are not essential to this goal. Indeed, both of these functions must presuppose retributive justice, for we cannot punish someone for the sake of correction or deterrence unless they first deserve it.

What all this means is that an act of punishment can be morally justified even if neither correction nor deterrence are achieved. So long as retribution is brought about, justice has been served. Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do our best to bring about these goals, only that they’re secondary purposes that enhance punishment. Ideally, all three elements will be present in an act of punishment. However, in many cases such a goal just isn’t feasible. Even so, that shouldn’t stop us from punishing someone. A recalcitrant criminal may never be corrected or deterred, but that doesn’t mean that it would be wrong to punish him.

With these points in mind, the case for the moral legitimacy of corporal punishment is quite simple and straightforward. Corporal punishment involves inflicting physical pain in response to an act of wrongdoing. In that regard, it satisfies the retributive purpose of punishment quite plainly. Justice is being done in that the wrongdoer receives a deserved harm as a way of balancing the scales of morality. A child who is spanked gets what he deserves, and that is what serves to make the act of spanking him morally permissible, irrespective of whether the spanking corrects him or deters future misbehavior.

This is not to say that spanking doesn’t correct or deter. On the contrary, physical punishment is a powerful incentive in getting one to reconsider his actions, both in the past and in the future. Indeed, the mere threat of a paddling is often enough to get children to knock it off, even if only outwardly. In that sense, spanking also serves an educative purpose, in that it seeks to teach children the difference between what is acceptable and what is not. Moreover, inflicting physical pain is an excellent way to instill knowledge about the gravity and significance of wrongdoing.

Now let us suppose that the critics are right that corporal punishment leads to diminished future outcomes in children. Why should this serve to make corporal punishment wrong? The whole point of punishment is to inflict a harm, and so in that sense every act of punishment is by definition harmful. That’s just what punishment is. But more to the point: punishment is not about reforming or correcting the individual who is punished. Although it is certainly good if reformation or correction is achieved, this is not essential. As I noted, punishment is fundamentally a matter of retributive justice. The child who is spanked gets what he deserves, and in that respect corporal punishment is good even if he is worse off in the future because of it.

The idea that corporal punishment is somehow unjustified because it leads to diminished future outcomes in children is a puzzling one. We do not take this same approach when it comes to other kinds of punishment. After all, sentencing a hardened criminal to life in prison may diminish or harm his future life prospects, but it would be ridiculous to say that his punishment is therefore unjust. He deserves it! Now obviously I’m not trying to compare children to hardened criminals. The point is simply this: the purpose of punishment isn’t to improve your life outcomes. It’s about inflicting upon you a harm that you have come to deserve. If that harm makes you worse off, well, that’s kind of the point.

Perhaps the objection is that corporal punishment is unnecessary. One might argue that we have other ways of punishing children that are just as effective, so corporal punishment is not needed. I have two responses to this. First, it depends on what is meant by “effective.” Effective at what, exactly? As far as retributive justice is concerned, I’d say that the act of inflicting physical pain is far more effective than other kinds of punishment. Maybe other forms of punishment are more effective at correction or deterrence, but as far as retribution is concerned, it’s hard to beat a good ol’ paddling. Second, even if corporal punishment is not required, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be justifiably exercised as a legitimate form of punishment. Nobody is saying that parents are obligated to spank their children, only that they may do so.

And lest you think that my points apply only to spanking children, the points here can be applied to all kinds of corporal punishment — including those oriented towards adult offenders. Given all the overcrowding in our modern prison system, perhaps it is time that we bring back traditional forms of punishment such as flogging and caning. Indeed, this is just what Peter Moskos argues in his excellent book In Defense of Flogging. Moskos, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, proposes that we give some criminals a choice between a prison sentence and several lashes from a cane. Such an alternative would be cheaper and more humane than mass incarceration.

Ultimately, punishment is a matter of justice, not correction, rehabilitation, or deterrence. Viewed from this lens, there is nothing wrong with corporal punishment. It still has a place in civil society.

Timothy Hsiao is Instructor of Philosophy and Humanities at Grantham University. His articles have appeared in journals including Public Affairs Quarterly, the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and Philosophia. His website is timhsiao.org.

3 responses to “The Moral Case for Corporal Punishment

  1. This is basically the exact same idea expressed by C.S. Lewis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxwnHVr192A.
    The concept of punishment as justice has deeply influenced me in so many ways and clarified a lot about how God works that wasn’t obvious to me before. Thank goodness I came upon it!

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  2. Professor Hsiao’s argument does seem to offer a clear defense of a view I have heard voiced among some (non-philosopher) parents, and I think it has helped me articulate a worry I have about that view.
    Suppose retributivism is a plausible view for moral agents – beings, like many adults, who are morally responsible and worthy of praise or blame for what they do. Does it follow that retributivism is plausible to apply to children, who are not yet moral agents but who are on the path to becoming them?
    I don’t see how it would. Being responsible for shaping someone who is not yet a moral agent into a moral agent gives you different responsibilities than you would have if you are responsible for responding to moral mistakes by (more fully) responsible moral agents. This doesn’t mean that children are never worthy of praise or blame for what they do or that adults are always fully responsible moral agents. But it does point to a difference between our relationships to our own children, on the one hand, and the state’s relationship to adult law-breakers, on the other, that is very relevant to our justification of punishment, including spanking. Once this difference is noted, the claim that retributive justice is the most important consideration when it comes to children seems much less plausible and I’d hope people would have a good response to that worry before they start spanking their children.
    Indeed, I wonder if spanking – at least as used severely or in combination with highly authoritarian and shaming attitudes – could impede a person’s ability to make make responsible choices. If the goal is to develop children into virtuous agents, and virtue requires making decisions based upon reasons rather than “because that’s what I was told,” then it’s worth wondering if spanking impedes the goal of helping children develop into virtuous people. So, even if someone with a highly authoritarian view of parenting could somehow view enacting retributive justice as the most salient aspect of parental responsibility, I wonder if this would have costs that even they would have reason to regret.

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  3. This article begs the question in the first sentence:

    “Is it ever morally okay to spank children as a form of punishment?”

    …Why is “punishment” an appropriate lens through which to view relationships between parents and children, in the first place?

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