Friday, October 11, 2019

Child discipline

1. I agree with Hsiao that spanking is morally justifiable, and I salute his courage in defending an unfashionable but biblical practice. 

2. I'm not a child psychologist, but I doubt that the effectiveness of spanking is primarily due to physical pain. Indeed, that view can lead to excessive punishment. In my observation, the impact is more psychological than physical. 

3. I agree with him that punishment should be defined in terms of wrongdoing, guilt, retribution, and just desert. To classify deterrent, corrective, or remedial action as punitive sows confusion by using the same label for different kinds of actions that may operate from opposing assumptions. It's best to reserve the term "punishment" from retributive justice. 

4. One problem with the classification is that it begs the question of whether spanking is fundamentally punitive. If you define punishment in retributive terms, and you classify spanking as corporal punishment, then by definition, the nature, aim, and justification of spanking lies within that moral framework.

This is not to deny that spanking is sometimes punitive. But it prejudges the nature, aim, and justification of spanking to classify it as corporal punishment. I think we should drop that classification as the umbrella under which we analyze spanking since wrongdoing and culpability are not always the salient consideration. Rather, we should classify spanking under the broader, generic rubric of corporal discipline. This isn't a euphemism, but allows us to avoid a reductionistic understanding of its nature, aim, and justification. 

5. We might differentiate between two objectives for child discipline:

i) Moral conditioning

ii) Deterrence conditioning

Everything is not about morality; some things are about prudence. Teaching kids to be prudent. To avoid hazardous activities when they're too young to appreciate the danger. Where children are concerned, retributive punishment isn't the only justification. When you swat a little child who plays around the stove, that's not about just desert or exacting retribution but deterrence, and that's due to the cognitive immaturity of the child. Due to his condition of diminished responsibility, his hazardous action in that situation can't be blameworthy. It doesn't merit blame. He doesn't deserve punishment. 

Don't automatically shoehorn the warrant for spanking into a retributive paradigm. The warrant for the corporal discipline of children does not require guilt or wrongdoing on their part as a necessary precondition. Although children can do willfully malicious things, that's not the only motivation for their misconduct, and so it's an overgeneralization to assume the only defense of spanking is just desert for wrongdoing. In some cases, spanking conditions a child to avoid risky behavior when he's too young to appreciate the danger. It teaches him to associate the behavior with unpleasant, memorable consequences–spanking! Although he's too young to perceive and fear the danger of the action, he's not to young to fear discipline. That provides a disincentive until he's mature enough to appreciate the risk. He's too young to directly gauge the danger, but he's not too young to indirectly associate the forbidden action with discipline. 


  1. ///When you swat a little child who plays around the stove, that's not about just desert or exacting retribution but deterrence, and that's due to the cognitive immaturity of the child.///

    I don't know Steve. Seems to me like parents should respect the child's choice to identify as a burn victim.

    1. I started to laugh and this and then had a moment when I realized that, if I were most anywhere but here, I'd have to ask if that comment was meant seriously.

    2. JT, just go ahead and laugh, that’s how it was intended!