by David Benatar
Philosophy Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Reproduced by kind permission of the author
Originally published in Social Theory & Practice
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
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
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,
decreases 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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),
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.
WHAT WE WENT THROUGH WAS STATE SPONSORED TORTURE
I doubt if anything will ever remove this from our minds in the many forms it takes:
embarrassment,cowardice,helplessness,resentment,anger and in the end....RAGE....
For you with spouses and children let them read this and understand why you feel the way you do: