OPINION: by Geoffrey PartingtonNews Weekly
The pros and cons of types of punishment
, July 6, 2013
Perhaps the greatest revolution in education during the last half century, at least in most Western societies, has been the virtual elimination of physical force or corporal punishment in official education. For many centuries, Jews, Christians, Muslims and sceptics had accepted the Biblical injunction that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.
In recent years, in many Western countries, bans on hitting children have spread from schools to homes. Parents may be reported by neighbours to the police, should they be suspected of any smacking.
Yet about two-thirds of Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Americans and the peoples of Great Britain and Ireland support legalising corporal punishment in moderate form and also humane methods of capital punishment. In contrast, about three-quarters of the parliamentarians in the same countries oppose corporal and capital punishment under any circumstances.
Opponents of corporal punishment usually claim there are adequate humane substitutes as deterrents to bad conduct in and out of schools, although some of those opponents would oppose corporal punishment even if it could be shown to be an effective deterrent, because it is intrinsically wrong to inflict pain, especially perhaps on children.
By the 21st century, however, most of those substitutes have also been condemned as inhumane in similar terms to corporal punishment. Detaining children against their will, or making them stand in corners of classrooms or outside the principal’s office, is frequently described as an infringement of the human rights of the child. To give children “lines” to write is said to put them off books and reading.
And what if such measures have no effect? The ultimate penalty is ironically what the recalcitrant offenders often wanted in the first place: exclusion from school. The truancy issue is especially sensitive in Australia, because the worst truancy is found among indigenous children. It is very rare that a public authority will punish in any way Aboriginal families whose children are persistently truant.
In many schools, infliction of pain is now a one-way process: violent students inflict considerable pain on other students or on teachers, female as well as male, but no physical retaliation is permitted. Aggressors can feel secure, but victims can often anticipate only to being roughed up again. Confidence in the protection of official authority is often very weak.
Yet, as the late philosopher John Wilson argued, the very notion of a rule collapses unless there are unpleasant consequences for breaking them. Without a sanction, a rule is merely advice that may or may not be followed. Wilson listed as advantages of corporal punishment as compared with other types of deterrent:
a) It is cheap and easy to administer.
b) It is effective as a deterrent, because nobody likes physical pain.
c) Fear of physical pain will characteristically motivate a person not to offend.
d) It is adaptable, in that different amounts of pain can be inflicted on different people for different offences.
e) It is fair for all, since all people, apart from a very small percentage of masochists, are similar in their dislike of pain.
f) It need cause no permanent or irreversible damage.
Any harm done by corporal punishment is usually instantly obvious, to the recipient, the administrator and to any witnesses, whereas alternatives, such as solitary confinement, forced labour, sarcasm and verbal violence may have much longer-term effects.
The effectiveness of corporal punishment is disputed, but so is that of every other sort of deterrent. Is it fair to those students who attend school out of a desire to learn, that their school days should needlessly be made wretched by violent classmates? Is it not an incentive to those currently obeying laws and rules to join a gang of bullies?
Similar experiences often produce very different states of mind. World War I is a major case in point. The enormous and, in retrospect possibly needless, loss of life, desensitised many to pain and suffering and helped to create the harsh politics of bolshevism and fascism. It also made pacifists of many people and made existing opponents of corporal and capital punishment even more hostile to those practices.
In the two countries in which I have lived for most of my life, England and Australia, the gap has become very wide between elite and mass opinion. In every parliament in them there is a large majority opposed to capital punishment and corporal punishment administered by any agency of the state. On the other hand, an equally large majority of voters supports the restoration of corporal and capital punishment.
An excess of Christian compassion may have undermined tough and robust attitudes towards crime. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, admiration for the Samaritan seems to have been displaced by concern for childhood hardships experienced by the thieves who robbed and bashed the injured traveller.
The father’s special treatment of the Prodigal Son demonstrates to many people that God does indeed move in mysterious ways. The father not only forgives the Prodigal Son, but kills the fatted calf in order to feast him on his return. That decision is painful, indeed infuriating, for brothers who stick at their posts and carry out their duties.
The many decades in which the English were most inclined to praise their country as the land of freedom were mainly times in which capital punishment was in frequent use and sometimes very cruelly administered. Most people thought then that, since death is in almost all circumstances a painful business, and that victims of murder are likely to have suffered more than others, extra pain was needed to uphold the sword of justice.
Since English law dispensed with capital punishment, it also happens that far fewer people than of old boast of their nation’s freedom. This may be merely post hoc (after this) and not propter hoc (because of this) as well, but maybe not.
There are two main reasons to support capital punishment.
One is that the executed never offend again, whereas murders carried out by previously sentenced murderers, both in prisons and out, seem to increase from year to year, and subsequent media coverage supplies new funds for the relatives of the killers. The other is that it remains the most effective deterrent. Murders almost always increase significantly in number when capital punishment is abolished, as in South Africa.
Many abolitionists also support voluntary euthanasia. Advocates of voluntary euthanasia claim that the process can be painless and dignified. Why not use the same process in capital punishment?
A more respectable argument is that mistakes sometimes happen. This is true. And even though the number of killers never sentenced vastly outnumbers those wrongly convicted, the existence of any at all suggests that we should imitate Scottish criminal law in this respect. Then there could be one of three sorts of verdicts: “guilty”, “not guilty” and “not proven”, the last one being for cases that seem nearly certainly proved.
Dr Geoffrey Partington was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education, and is about to publish two books he has authored, Making Sense of History and Making Sense of Education. The above article is one of the chapters from the second book.