Opponents of the Corporal Punishment of Children

Published: 2021-09-14 23:15:10
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Corporal Punishment
by David Benatar
Philosophy Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Reproduced by kind permission of the author
Originally published in Social Theory & Practice
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1. Introduction
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 in injury.

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