Corporal Punishment
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Corporal Punishment

A Philosophical Assessment

Patrick Lenta

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eBook - ePub

Corporal Punishment

A Philosophical Assessment

Patrick Lenta

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The aim of this book is to assess the moral permissibility of corporal punishment and to enquire into whether or not it ought to be legally prohibited. Against the widespread view that corporal punishment is morally legitimate and should be legally permitted provided it falls short of abuse, Patrick Lenta argues that all corporal punishment, even parental spanking, is morally impermissible and ought to be legally proscribed. The advantages claimed for corporal punishment over alternative disciplinary techniques, he contends, are slight or speculative and are far outweighed by its disadvantages. He presents, in addition, a rights-based case against corporal punishment, arguing that children possess certain fundamental rights that all corporal punishment of them violates, namely the right to security of the person and the right not to be subjected to degrading punishment. Lenta's approach is unique in that it engages with empirical literature in the social sciences in order to fully examine the emotional and psychological effects of corporal punishment on children. Corporal Punishment: A Philosophical Assessment is a philosophically rigorous and engaging treatment of a hitherto neglected topic in applied ethics and social philosophy.

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1 Introduction

This book is intended to help remedy philosophers’ persistent neglect of the corporal punishment of children, perhaps the most quotidian, frequently resorted to and widely endorsed type of violence practised in our day.1 Outside the confines of professional philosophy—in academic fields such as psychology and law, but also in the social and political arenas—the moral and legal status of the corporal punishment of children is now, as perhaps never before, “the subject of very acute controversy”.2 It is a subject that has become increasingly politicized as a result of claims that it violates children’s rights and because of increasing awareness of the allegation that it has adverse psychological effects on children. The tide of opinion is turning against this practice and a growing number of countries, more than thirty in the last decade alone, have legally prohibited corporal punishment administered by parents in addition to that meted out by teachers.3 But is corporal punishment morally illegitimate? Should it be criminalized? I propose to enquire into whether this practice is morally required, permitted or forbidden—there is nowadays abundant support for all three positions4—and to assess the strength of arguments for and against criminalizing it. I want not just to pay attention to it, but also to draw attention to what has often been disguised or obscured by habitual ways of viewing and justifying it and to correct perceptions skewed by custom and bias.

1.1. Corporal Punishment and the Philosophers

Corporal punishment is today, as it has been since time immemorial, part of the experience of growing up for most children. Although the corporal punishment of women, employees and convicted criminals has fallen into disrepute, and despite “a gradual softening of sentiments towards children” and “increasing attention to children as moral subjects”,5 corporal punishment continues to be viewed by most as a “wholesome and irreproachable”,6 and by many as an indispensable, means of disciplining refractory children.7 The view that “spanking works when other methods of correction do not” is deeply ingrained in many liberal democracies, as is the idea that in the absence of corporal punishment children’s behaviour will run “out of control and [become] increasingly anti-social”.8 Many believe that corporal punishment significantly benefits not only the children who receive it,9 but also their parents and their teachers and beyond this, that it promotes the collective good by fostering law-abidance in future adults and helping “to produce a civil, respectful and educated citizenry, which, in turn, generates significant benefits for all members of society”.10
Contributing to the widespread approbation and use of corporal punishment is the fact that although nowadays “few would go so far as to describe their children as their property, many of the convictions to which people find themselves drawn in thinking about the authority of parents over children reflect the archaic idea that the child is the chattel of the parent”.11 Also accounting for the persistence of corporal punishment is its endorsement by certain religious and cultural groups. Some Christians, for example, interpret the tenets of their faith as permitting, encouraging, and even requiring parents and teachers to use corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique.12 Further, corporal punishment would almost certainly not be so common if it were not so widely legally authorized. Despite parent-administered corporal punishment having been banned in certain nation states in response to mounting evidence of the risk of psychological harm it poses to children, and in order to bring legal regulation of this practice into conformity with international law, parents are legally permitted to hit children for the purposes of correction and control in most countries.13 Corporal punishment in schools, still viewed by many as a “necessary concomitant of education”14—because deemed to be a stimulus to industry and good behaviour, an aid to building moral character and a means of creating and maintaining an environment conducive to learning—has been legally abolished in over one hundred countries, yet is permitted in more than seventy others, including the United States, where it continues to be legally authorized in nineteen states.
“Widespread normative approval”15 of corporal punishment administered by parents and, to a lesser extent, by teachers, has combined with legal toleration of its use and other considerations, including its being a ‘convenient’ form of discipline, to create fertile conditions for its flourishing. Of all the types of corporal punishment still carried out, corporal punishment of children is almost certainly the most prevalent. Worldwide, approximately four out of every five children between the ages of two and fourteen are subjected to corporal punishment in the home.16 More than a million children are subjected to it each year in the United States alone17 where more than 90 percent of parents hit their children aged two to four, at least occasionally, for disciplinary reasons.18 Corporal punishment by teachers in schools remains “a regular feature of the school day for children across the world”.19
The position of children in relation to corporal punishment is thus precarious. The widely perceived moral acceptability of corporal punishment and its legal authorisation mean that physically and psychologically vulnerable children, whose attachments to their care-givers are strongly anaclitic, yet whose relationship to them is typically characterized by an extreme asymmetry of power, and who, moreover, typically lack meaningful exit options from either the home or the school, are at more or less constant risk of being subjected to physical violence (which may or may not be envenomed by the infliction of severe pain), often without the slightest semblance of due process, and not only for actual, but also for imagined transgressions. One might think that this state of affairs would have attracted the sustained attention of moral and social and philosophers. But in fact, although philosophers have considered the moral status of corporal punishment, their contribution to the debate about its acceptability has in most cases consisted of no more than scattered remarks.
In his history of corporal punishment, George Scott records that most ancient philosophers “were in favour of flogging children, not only as a means of inducing them to conduct themselves well and tell the truth, but also as an aid to education itself”.20 In Plato’s Protagoras, the eponymous sophist expresses the belief, which he seems to take for granted, that corporal punishment is an indispensable element of moral education: “And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of bent or warped wood”.21 Aristotle appears to advocate corporal punishment of children for at least one offence when he says in the Politics that “unseemly talk” ought to be prohibited by legislation on the grounds that it results in unseemly behaviour and that if anyone is discovered uttering forbidden things he shall “if he is of free birth but not yet entitled to recline at the common tables, be punished by measures of dishonour and a whipping”.22 St Augustine thinks that corporal punishment of children may be employed to “overcome ignorance and bridle evil desires—these evils with which we come into the world”—and to save them from damnation.23 St Thomas Aquinas, who accepts Augustine’s view concerning the essential sinfulness of children and the doctrine of original sin on which it rests, and whose conception of paternal authority and power is heavily influenced by Aristotle, says that parents “are not prohibited from striking their children for the purposes of correction, but from inflicting blows on them without moderation”.24 John Locke and Immanuel Kant, philosophers closely associated with and influential on the liberal tradition, both consider the corporal punishment of children morally permissible provided it is used infrequently and as a last resort.25 (Kant’s treatise on the education and punishment of children, the last-published Education (Ueber PĂ€dagogik), was likely influenced by Locke’s Some Thoughts on Education, which is widely viewed as inaugurating modern educational theory.26) Corporal punishment continues to the present day to attract support from certain philosophers, most notably David Benatar, who considers mild and infrequently administered corporal punishment administered by parents and teachers morally permissible on the grounds that its benefits to parents and teachers outweigh its costs.27
Most, though by no means all, philosophical opposition to corporal punishment has been directed at physical punishment in schools. Quintilian records that he “by no means approve[s]” of it on, amongst other grounds, that it is degrading (“a punishment fit for slaves”), coarsening and humiliating.28 Desiderius Erasmus attributes corporal punishment in schools to the incompetence of teachers who, in the absence of effective pedagogical techniques, rely on it to instil fear in children as a spur to diligence—“They cannot teach so they beat”—and joins Quintilian in condemning it on the ground that it treats children like slaves.29 Michel de Montaigne, commenting on the teaching practices of his day, objects to corporal punishment in schools on the grounds that it “depraves and stupefies a wellborn nature” and brings with it “dangerous consequences”.30 Jeremy Bentham appears to have thought that corporal punishment in schools, at least, tends not to result in any good.31 At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Salt, who campaigned for the social reform of prisons and schools, as well as for animal rights, condemns corporal punishment as “degrading alike to those who inflict it and to those who suffer” and as “the very sum and substance of personal tyranny”.32 Bertrand Russell deprecates physical punishment on the grounds that it is productive of naughtiness, that it teaches the “dangerous lesson” that it is acceptable to maintain authority through the infliction of physical pain, and that it “destroys that relation of open confidence which ought to exist between parents and children as well as between teachers and children”.33 Corporal punishment by both teachers and parents continues to the present day to attract occasional philosophical opposition on a variety of grounds.34
Persistent philosophical disagreement about the moral acceptability of the corporal punishment of children is unsurprising in light of the historical dearth of empirical evidence relating to its effects, not to mention the unfamiliarity of many philosophers with such evidence as there is, and given the diversity of conceptions of the good adhered to by the various philosophers who have given thought to the practice. More bewildering, though, is why with very few exceptions philosophers have not engaged in a sustained moral assessment of the corporal punishment of children. I suspect that no single consideration can satisfactorily explain this neglect: several factors are probably contributory to the deficit of philosophical attention paid to the subject.
For a start, the neglect of corporal punishment is of a piece with the neglect within moral and social philosophy, until fairly recently, of the treatment of children generally, which may in part be related to historical conceptions of children as the property of their parents or as extensions of their parents, or to vestiges of these conceptions.35 More generally, although over the past several decades moral philosophers have paid increasing attention to practical moral issues, most of it has been focused on professional and business conduct, politics, law and public policy. The topic of punishment has, to be sure, received a great deal of attention from legal, social and moral philosophers in the last fifty years or so, yet Jean Hampton’s observation that “[p]hilosophers who write about punishment spend most of their time worrying about whether the state’s punishment of criminals is justifiable”,36 rather than about the moral permissibility of punishing children, is accurate. H.L.A. Hart’s influential definition of the “standard or central case” of punishment as the imposition by legal officials of “pain or other consequences normally considered unpleasant” in response to “an offence against legal rules” and his “relegate[ion] to the position of sub-standard or secondary cases
[p]unishments for breaches of non-legal rules or orders (punishments in a family or school)”, a conceptualization lacking obvious intuitive appeal,37 can have done nothing to encourage legal and moral philosophers to pay attention to the punishment of children. Philosophers of education have, it is true, concentrated their attention on issues relating to the discipline, education and development of children to a greater extent than philosophers working in other fields, but they have tended to neglect the topic of punishment.38
So the deficit of philosophical attention to the corporal punishment of children is to some extent traceable to a hi...

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