Rewritten from the original version published 1978 in Philosophy of Education by the Philosophy of Education Society

Is There No Need For Corporal Punishment?

©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 9/3/11
I. Barbarians and Others

An educational theory, currently vociferously propounded, divides humanity into three camps. In the first camp are the barbarians who advocate or at the very least condone corporal punishment. The second camp contains the "civilized" proponents of this trisecting theory. The third camp consists of the ignoramuses who provide the civilized reason for and object of their proselytizing efforts. Excluding for the moment from consideration the ignoramuses, we find the civilized class to be merely the complement of, with seldom a compliment for, the barbarian. The theory relegates insensitivity, cruelty and child abuse to the practice of the barbarians --  and as yet to be enlightened ignoramuses --  insinuating of the "civilized" that theirs is a civilization lacking such discontents.(1)

Having chosen reason, however, to guide my thoughts on these matters, I must make my plea for the barbarian. I submit that observing an easily marked distinction between pain and anguish deflates the self-righteousness of the "civilized." Indeed, their arguments crumble, if we forgo the politically clever muddling together of the concepts punishment, cruelty, and causing of pain. It may be advisable to restrict corporal punishment, but not for solely moral reasons. Although it is a mistake to think punishment per se is educative, it may -- even as corporal punishment -- be a developmental necessity; to deprive certain groups of it may be, so to speak, "ethnicidal. " The civilized rhetoric of "humane" treatment masks an interest in social control which undermines pluralism. Finally, we can avoid using punishment altogether, but only at the risk of a monstrosity: a civilized, subtly cruel yet profound immorality the mere contemplation of which would dismay a barbarian even crueler than this author.

II. Pain and Anguish

Two aspects of ordinary pain are of interest here: the first is a sensory-informative component which I will refer to as "sensory pain." The second aspect involves an emotional component and I will refer to this aspect as "anguish." Pain, like color, is generally not sensed to be a mixture -- as the term "component" might suggest -- yet sensory pain and anguish, like the hue and brightness of a patch of color, are to a great extent independent and, in fact, involve different physiological mechanisms.(2) We can ignore sensory pain, or be distracted from its full appreciation by music or hypnosis; it does not cease to exist, rather we just experience less or no concommitant anguish. But humiliation, unlike a toothache, will go away if one puts it out of one's mind. We do not think it strange to console persons suffering the anguish of vexation, embarrassment, chagrin or remorse that they not let themselves be so bothered. For sensory pain, such a suggestion is not appropriate.

You may cause me sensory pain and yet no anguish as we play some rough sport together. Your disdaining my work may cause me great anguish yet no particular sensory pain. Inasmuch as most of us would prefer even severe sensory pain to public humiliation, it seems clear that the profoundest cruelities can as easily be practiced by the "civilized" opponents of corporal punishment as by its barbarian advocates: I may vex, embarrass, abash, revolt, humiliate, mortify or terrorize you without ever causing you an ache, a twinge, a pang, a prick, a sting or a burn. My cruelty may be none the less for my refraining from such corporal infliction.

III. Punishment and Cruelty

To shorten the exposition I will borrow criteria for punishment from Flew which have been extended by Benn and Peters.(3) A standard case of punishment, Flew offers

a. must involve an unpleasantness to the victim,
b. must be for an offense (real or supposed),
c. must be of an offender (real or supposed),
d. must be the work of personal agencies and not merely the consequences of an action,
e. must be imposed by authority (real or supposed) conferred by the system of rules against which the offense has been committed.

Benn and Peters add that the unpleasantness should be an essential part of what is intended and not merely incidental to some other aim. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, presumably non-partisan here, cruelty is a disposition to inflict suffering, or the indifference to or delight in the pain and misery of others. That punishment and cruelty are conceptually independent is easily seen by the distinctions commonly made in everyday practice, as well as in our courts between "punishment" and "cruel punishment"; also, in the distinction between gratuitous cruelty, say, the mocking of a handicapped child by its peers, and punishment, which clearly such mockery is not. In general, to punish need not be to exercise cruelty, and being cruel is not necessarily an application of punishment.

But what of Benn's and Peter's extension that the unpleasantness be an essential part of what is intended; doesn't this mean that cruelty is necessary to punishment? No. I may inflict an unpleasantness upon someone intending to punish him, that is, with the intent that the conditions for punishment be fulfilled. This is not to say that I have inflicted it intending merely that he suffer unpleasantness. A parallel may help: in some circumstances to try to hit baseballs out of the park may be to practice; in others, it may constitute an attempt to get a home run. It does not follow every home-run attempt is (or contains) a "practice hit.".

What is important to note about the criteria given for punishment is that the unpleasantness involved may well be a supposed unpleasantness. If in fact a particular felon enjoys his stay in prison, he has not thereby gone unpunished. This is a problem if punishment is thought to need be a deterrent; such an effect may be at best statistical. Specific individuals may not be deterred by anything less than the near certainty of suffering sanctions more severe than we might wish to set for the general populace. If deterrent effect is a consideration in the setting of punishment, one can appreciate the rationality of Edward Banfield's suggestion that small crimes of opportunity, e.g., pursesnatching, be summarily punished by police beating. A major problem with corporal punishment is that to be effective as a deterrent it probably requires the maintainance of an extensive executioner-class. But only wait! If our language of reward and punishment continues in its half-century-old Skinnerian degeneration, the executioner and the therapist will be indistinguishable. (Consider only the apparatus of lethal injection and its use both by state executioners and Dr. Kevorkian.)

IV. Infliction and Punishment

Inflicting pain or anguish is, in and of itself, neither cruel nor either necessary nor sufficient to constitute punishment. A doctor may hurt me in the course of treatment; I may hurt you in a scrimmage. Neither punishment nor cruelty need have occurred. I do not think, however, that the point of corporal punishment is made if the appropriate anguish is not felt by the sufferer. Indeed, the anguish and not the physical trauma is the rational aim of corporal infliction -- this is apparently missed by the proponents of a paddle in every classrom. Justifying the use of much punishment is the notion that anguish or its threat restructures our "hierarchy of motives. " Thus, rather severe legal penalties may be imposed for morally trivial offenses, e.g., mail theft, to rationalize our refrainment. And strong enforcement maintains the deterrent threat.

I don't think this theory of punishment is of educational value. It is only  philosophical wishful thinking that punishment must work to confirm for the learner the disutility of an act. Why do we punish? It is important to avoid forcing the traditional alternatives. We need not punish for either retribution or inhibition. We may punish for edification. Punishment edifies when it brings about something akin to "cognitive dissonance," a judgmental conflict caused by the fact that a loved or respected person has inflicted anguish. Only in such a circumstance can it be clear that the cause for the punishment derives from the misdeed and not from the antipathy of the punisher.

It might well be the case that the threat of corporal punishment is the only effective motivational counter to certain impulses; that its use is necessary at certain stages in the development of autonomous, i.e., self-controlled, rational individuals. However, a problem with corporal punishment is that the punisher may be seen as the cause of pain rather than as an agent of punishment; this may enable the punished to avoid remorse and to indulge in self-pity. It is harder to identify the cause of anguish as a particular person where non-corporal punishment is used; the punisher "induces" anguish, so to speak, and runs less a risk, both of retaliation and of feeling guilty for having inflicted pain upon another. Civilized refrainment from corporal punishment may be merely faint-heartedness.

It is only human to feel displeasure at inflicting anguish upon another, even if we are justified in doing so. In unsophisticated speech this displeasure is mislabeled guilt or remorse. It is neither of these. Where one in fact commits no transgression there cannot be guilt or remorse: perhaps only feelings of guilt. We may experience feelings normally associated with guilt despite the fact we are correctly performing our duty. The punisher who lacks the courage to face up to such feelings may protect himself by becoming insensitive to the misery of the punished: this is a cowardice that begets cruelty.

Medical personnel are thought cruel because they do not seem to react with the layman's intensity of feeling to the suffering of their charges. Their professional training enables them to carry on with their duties, despite the suffering their ministrations may cause. To recall a point made earlier: the widespread use of corporal punishment -- perhaps any punishment at all -- may require the "professionalization" of the punisher. But executioner becomes therapist by a simple reconceptualization: one refocuses one's attention beyond the punishment to some purported future benefit. Skinner, for example, distinguishes between one who punishes and one who "aversively conditions" in that he regards punishment as essentially backward looking, ignoring, as is his wont, an obvious counterexample: the utilitarian conception of punishment.(4) Indeed, the therapist who accepts the dogma that internal states are a function of past or present environments has no theoretical reason to be concerned with the anguish of his client. Anguish is epiphenomenal so far as the control of behavior is concerned. Some day we may, as some theorists hope, go beyond the punitive society. We will not thereby have gone beyond cruelty.

V. A Potential For "Ethnicide"

In many an educational circle "assimilation" is a taboo word and lip service is given to the notion that ours is or ought to be a pluralistic society. However, the educational system continues to function more or less surreptitiously as a homogenizer. Academic achievement is the reward for adaptibility to what is still essentially an Anglo-Germanic, middle-class ethos. We see the pressure for uniformity in the development of "needs assessments" -- one talks about "needs" in this context as though one could identify them independently of what would be politically controversial goals.(5) The same impulse towards homogeneity manifests itself as an intense interest in a psychology of universally invariant cognitive development, which in other places becomes a theory of universal moral development. Commitment, that all-too-individualistic foundation of morality, is replaced by acquiescence in the support of particular institutions.(6) In the teaching of morality no man need remain a partisan, because the legitimacy of moral education, we are told, is no less than the legitimacy of teaching the causal principle or the conservation of matter.(7)

Having been for years a teacher in a bilingual program, it was my experience that cultural differences among people resulted in their being. . .very different. This is not merely to sound that tedious theme of neo-humanistic pluralism: I eat kielbasa, you eat alcapurrias, but we can all agree that it's "different strokes for different folks." A realistic pluralism would own up to the fact that different strokes for different folks is likely to be the one thing not agreed upon. But a realistic pluralism will not find its voice in policy debate, for its words are these: you are different from me, therefore not quite so good. The public school homogenizes, willy-nilly, because the differences among people that matter, matter too much for the school to pursue their cultivation. Ethnicity undermines social control. One ethnic "quirk" is the belief that it is the teacher's perogative -- duty, even -- to administer corporal punishment. Should he shirk it, he risks losing face, the foundation of the teaching encounter. What is critical in a confrontation is that one avail oneself of all the behavioral signs by which that particular cultural group marks each stage in an escalation to the point requiring corporal punishment. The violation of certain norms in the presence of a teacher produces a tension which only physical trauma may release. The blow, if stuck, must not be too light, lest it betoken fear or lack of conviction; nor too heavy, lest it be cruel. "Respect" is what distinguishes punishment from assault; it carries a heavy conceptual burden. This is a ritual which sweeps along all participants, and its unsuccessful completion may occasion a breakdown in the respect relationships among teacher and student to the extent that learning is impeded. Such a social situation is delicate beyond the fine-tuning skills of educational policymakers at even the district level. To announce a policy forbidding corporal punishment is to place impediments upon sizable numbers of the school population; such a policy takes no consideration of the conceptions of personhood and authority that may underlie the social stability of the classroom. Children -- adults, even -- who depend upon authority figures to wean them of their need for instant gratification, to deliver them of their whims and impulses, such children are disadvantaged in their development toward ratrional self-control, deprived of the achievement by the policies of those self-righteous, ethnocentric, civilized persons who worry so much about their bodies and let their souls go to hell.

Many a student receives a frivolous notion of the wages of sin from that supposed unpleasantness that is part of the acceptable non-corporal punishment of the school: the individual attention of a respected adult. It is common, therefore, that children misbehave in order to be punished. In the schools, what is hardly an offense is dealt with by administrering what is hardly punishment. Conceptually, all the criteria may be met; but the existential core is too often hollow.

One worries about those advocating corporal punishment; just as one worries about those who oppose it. One should worry tht the advocate be self-indulgent and cruel, becoming dependent upon what is at its best a weak medicine not to be used regularly. One should worry about the opponent because he has already shown himself to be uninterested in questions of justice and all too willing to employ dangerous means to assure control, for example, drugging "hyperkinetic" children or inducing vomiting in prisoners. Will problematic cultural differences merit similar "therapy"?

VI. The Scientism of Social Control

It is not the barbarian, but the civilized whose theory is based on an atavism. Two assumptions, a psychological and a normative, merge to form what I will call here the premise of externality: human behavior is (or should be) entirely dependent upon environmental determinants. Two quite independent queries are met with this premise. Is human behavior autonomous? Answer: no. Should people be permitted independence of the control of particular environments? Answer again: no. On the premise of externality, social control becomes the predominant, if not the only rational educational interest.

We have been assured for decades that autonomy is impossible(8); but it is easy to program a computer to be autonomous, i.e., to produce outputs that are not a function solely of past or present inputs. Skinner, for example, dismissed information theory because it postulates inner processors, which he took to be ghosts in the machine.(9) But so far as machines are concerned, they are indeed "haunted"; and cognitive theorists plausibly postulate similar inner processors for humans. The nub of it is this: there is a strong, empirically-established relationship between the use of non-corporal punishment and social dependence. In general, the more punishment tends to be non-corporal, the more socially dependent is the child.(10) Children who are brought up so as to be controllable by non-corporal means (often confused with rational self-control) tend to conform readily to adult standards and are more dependent upon "social reinforcers." In the Soviet school system, for example, where social control interests predominate, corporal punishment is strongly proscribed.(11)

There is obviously something of a symbiosis here: the psychological assumption of lack of autonomy provides the "scientific" base and consequent persuasive force for the normative assumption which justifies the social control efforts of a particular institution. The institution in turn protects the psychological assumption from obsolescence. Behaviorism thrives in the intellectual backwaters of Education and Public Health. The fact that the psychological assumption is false and that the normative one has competitors is ignored by policymakers who, bereft of their scientism would suffer the anguish of a confrontation with that most unpolitical of animals, a moral decision. It is the profoundest of errors to see the dispute over corporal punishment as a confrontation between proponents of a reflective, humane, independent rationality and those of a brutish, pain-induced conformity. Both the facts and the plausible theories suggest otherwise.

VII. Avoiding the Use of Punishment

It is easy to avoid using punishment: one uses any treatment lacking a critical number of the conditions set out above for the standard case of punishment. The results, however, are not inviting. If, for example, we ignore the condition that the person who would punish have the proper authority, then we have mere assault, perhaps, or an act of revenge. Lacking an offense, the treatment is again assault, the crueler for wanting justification. Suppose there has been an offense; if the victim is not the offender, he is a hostage. The treatment is at best reprisal. Without personal agency, there is just no treatment. Perhaps those who invite us to go beyond punishment have in mind merely ridding the treatment of its unpleasantness. What could we say against a treatment, T, which was not unpleasant and which strongly disinclined the offender from repeating the offense? It is here we run into difficulties, impelled, I suspect, by both humane sentiments and the belief that causing anguish always needs justification. In response we could ask, "What is the deterrent value of T?" and we might imagine the following dialectic: to prevent, say, murder, were T to replace punishment, we would have to allow each person so inclined one murder, so we could impose T. But then, we could "pre-treat" potential offenders. However, T though painless is still an imposition; we would need to change considerably our notions of personal liberty. And consider how, in fact, potential medicines are tested, i.e. often inadequately and on coerced populations; imagine what kind of testing program it would require to establish the effectiveness of T.

At this point, the disease begins to appear preferable to the cure. And we begin to suffer the suspicion that there may be a fundamental conflict between humanitarian and civil-libertarian concerns. But these difficulties can be avoided if, when we are initially asked to entertain the possibility of T, we reject it as morally undesirable. It is morally wrong for an offender to escape the anguish of remorse, to be allowed to become remorseless, as it were. Any treatment, pleasant or not, which deprives the offender of suffering the appropriate anguish, the proper remorse, is immoral. This is true not only of the "therapies" of would-be behavioral engineers, but also of the random tortures that pass for punishment in everyday life.

I have ignored the literature of behavior modification on these many points as at worst vacuous and at best unfeasible. The concepts reinforcer, behavior, and stimulus remain the slogan words of an otiose empiricism; recent literature reveals little consensus on their meaning even among those who attempt to employ them empirically.(l2) If we take the concepts in their popular interpretation -- which alone keeps the theory alive -- then it seems unlikely that in a world of scarcity there are enough reinforcers available to keep people from behavior which derives from that very scarcity. This is by no means to underestimate the influence of theorists like Skinner in popularizing a "paradigm shift" by which formerly merely undesirable behavior is widely seen as "behavior disorder" to be "treated." As we wind down our exploration of the conceptual terrain of which our idea of punishment is a part, it is fitting that this particular concern be reencountered: in 1970, Ramsey vs. Ciccone, the court stated

Even though the treatment is usually painful or causes unusual mental suffering, it may be administered to a prisoner without his consent if it is recognized as appropriate by recognized medical authority or authorities.(13)
Having read Kuhn, dare we be sanguine about the judgment of medical authorities?(l4)

VIII. He Who Loveth Chasteneth

Why the general unease with corporal punishment? I'm not sure it isn't an honest reaction by those who, unwilling to face the anguish of a rational examination of their basic values, are thus disinclined to cause another anguish in their behalf. Where opinion replaces moral judgment and all opinions are of equal status, there is no misbehavior. Then the subtle intimidation of "love-withdrawal" techniques avoids the questions of justice that present themselves so cogently where there is a hide to be tanned. But another line of speculation may also shed some light.

It is a commonplace among bilingual educators that Anglos are less tolerant of physical contact than are Hispanics. The smell, the body warmth, the touch of a non-intimate is con sidered a contamination. Many people may be discomfitted by the thought of corporal punishment for the same reason as by the thought of sweat, garlic or kidney beans: these things -- or their effects upon our bodies -- violate our contact taboos. Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger argues that our germ theory (Watch out, you'll get his germs!) merely rationalizes these ritual concerns.(15) From the ritual, the Law has distilled theory: in 1973 the court in Kaimowitz v. Michigan Department of Mental Health wrote

The keystone to any intrusion upon the body of a person must be full, adequate and informed consent. The integrity of the individual must be protected from invasion into his body and personality not voluntarily agreed to. Consent is not an idle or symbolic act; it is a fundamental requirement for the protection of the individual's integrity. (16)
The obverse of contamination is intimacy. The contaminator rapes; the intimate makes love. To share a glass, a sandwich or a cigarette manifests intimacy. Ideally, the punisher and the punished should be intimates. Punishment then edifies because it demonstrates commitment; the punisher shows himself willing to undergo the anguish of seeing those he loves suffer, even from his own hand. As intimacy decays, punishment degenerates into its utilitarian form: at best it deters. We encounter now the utility-maximization game. Here punishment is not so much an expression of commitment and concern for an intimate as a payoff for a particular course of action. In this game, the individual is less an end and more a means. He is an example, if punished, by which the credibility of the payoff matrix is maintained.

The scale of public education, an ethic of professionalism which disdains intimacy, and the adversary rights awarded the student by the courts (l7) all work to the degeneration of punishment from an educational process to a mere mechanism of a hedonistic free-market. The flap over corporal punishment is a red herring: it serves the same end as does the compulsive interest in behavior control that continues to mistake the mummy of Behaviorism for living theory. That end is to obscure the fact that we no longer can, nor care to, educate; we have lost that tolerance of intimacy necessary to perform in a properly educative role. It is no longer a novel scenario that depicts our American fetish for odorlessness bringing us to commit grave ecological damage in the pursuit of olfactory neutrality: great waste of ever scarcer potable water, the contamination of stream and river with detergent residues, whiter whites and brighter colors and deader lakes. Like the soap suds in your favorite fishin' hole, the corporal punishment debate signals the ruin of a larger system.


1. Examples are legion; the bias ranges from blatant to subtle: Mary Ann Levine, "Are Teachers Becoming More Humane?" Research Notes, Phi Delta Kappan January 1978, Tobyann Boonin, "The Case Against Corporal Punishment", School Board Journal, August 1977; Fritz Redl, "The Concept of Punishment" in Nicholas J. Long, William C. Morse and Ruth G. Newman, eds., Conflict in the Classroom: the Education of Children with Problems (Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1971) pp. 434-41. In the twenty years since the first publication of this article, the bias has increased and fervent hyperbole has all but crowded out reasonable discussion.

2. Ernest R. Hilgard, "Neodissociative Theory of Multiple Cognitive Control Systems" in Gary E. Schwartz and David Shapiro (eds.) Consciousness and Self-Regulation: Advances in Research, Vol. 1 (New York; Plenum, 1976) 137-71.

3. S.I. Benn and R.S. Peters, The Principles of Political Thought, (New York: Free Press, 1965) p.202.

4. B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam, 1971) p.57. A tract still considered to be scientific in 1999 by legions of benighted institutional functionaries.

5. Cf. Jerry L. Patterson and Theodore J. Czajkowski, "District Needs Assessment: One Avenue to Program Improvement", Phi Delta Kappan, December 1976, p. 327 for nuts-and-bolts naivete. For general criticism see Eric Straumanis, "'Need' in Needs Assessment Studies" in Proceedings of the 1972 Annual Meeting of the Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society (Terre Haute, Ind., School of Education, Indiana State Unviersity, 1973) pp. 104-116.

6. A reconceptualization attempted in Solon T. Kimball and James E. McClellan, Jr., Education and the New America (New York: Vintage, 1966).

7. Michael Schleifer, "Moral Education and Indoctrination" Ethics 86, 2, p.159.

8. Independent internal states are excluded as a possibility in Kenneth W. Spence, "The Postulates and Methods of 'Behaviorism"' in Herbert Feigl and May Brodbeck (eds.) Readings in the Philosophy of Science, (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953) 571.

9. Skinner, Beyond, p. 15.

10. F.R. Stiphs and R.H. Walters, "Anxiety, Birth Order and Susceptibility to Social Influence", Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1961,62,716. L. Rainwater, "A Study of Personality Differences Between Middle and Lower Class Adolescents: the Szondi test in culture-personality research", Genetic Psychology Monographs, 1956,54, 3.

11. Urie Bronfenbrenner, Two Worlds of Childhood/U.S. and U.S.S.R. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1970) p. 12. Susan Jacoby, Inside Soviet Schools, (New York: Schocken, 1975) offers a less enamoured view.

12. There is rarely a conception of reinforcement shared by the many contributors to Robert Glaser (ed.) The Nature of Reinforcement (New York: Academic Press, 1971). Also, Aubrey J. Yates, Theory and Practice in Behavior Therapy (New York: Wiley, 1975) presents behavior therapy as theoretically eclectic

13. Ramsey vs. Ciccone, 310 Supp.600, 605 (W.D. Mo.1971) quoted in Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification. A study prepared by the staff of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety Third Congress Second Session, November 1974 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1974) p.8.

14. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1970)

15. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

16. Civil No. 73-19434-AW (Cir. Ct., Wayne County, Mich., July 10 1973) quoted in Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification, p. 6.

17. At the behest of the courts, many school districts have developed guidelines guarding the students' rights to due process with respect to corporal punishment. Due process in respect to non-corporal punishment is apparently not a worry. Non-corporal infliction of all kinds is overlooked in schools.