Monday, February 16, 2015

On spanking

My recent Canberra Times column was on spanking kids: 'Smacking children as punishment asks for a certain brutality'. A sample:
Even if spanking were a foolproof method of producing virtuous progeny - and it most certainly is not - this would not mean parents ought to do it. The corporal punishment argument too easily slips into neat instrumentalism: if it works, do it. Yet the efficacy of something does not make it right. A deed can be useful without being good. 
This is partly because the measure of something working well depends on what it's working for. In other words, ethics involves debate, not only about the means, but also about the ends. The goal of corporal punishment is often cowed obedience, and this is a trait I do not value highly. It has little worth in our family or, in my limited experience, in the workplace or public sphere. Respect for authoritative conduct is another thing altogether, and requires more than demonstrations of brute force. 
But instrumental justifications of spanking are also lacking because they ignore questions of character. To be frank: I don't want to be the kind of man who hurts a smaller, weaker person. I don't expect to be our children's friend: I am their custodian. I do have to advise, second-guess and discipline them, often unpleasantly. But deliberately striking them, whether coolly or in a rage, takes advantage of their weakness. Even if done for their own good - and, again, this is problematic - it asks for a brutality I choose not to embody. Controlled violence in self-defence against a threatening peer? Sure. Violence against a 25-kilogram grade one? No. I'll find my "dignity" elsewhere.
(Illustration: Giorgio Conrad)


Damon Young said...

John said...
Strangely your site says you welcome comments and then provide no contact address.

Spanking: you say "But deliberately striking them, whether coolly or in a rage, takes advantage of their weakness. "

Any exercise of authority involves taking advantage of weakness. Whether you reason with them and take advantage of the weakness of their debating skills, or whether you are the government taking advantage of the individual's weakness against the power of the state, all authority comes down to this.

"The goal of corporal punishment is often cowed obedience, and this is a trait I do not value highly."

Uh huh. But it's not as if this is the obvious choice at stake. It's hardly the case that the parent thinks to themselves whether they should choose cowed obedience or voluntary obedience. The apparent choice is cowed obedience or no obedience. I don't think you'll find a person on the planet arguing the benefits of cowed obedience over voluntary, thus you are putting forward a dilemma that nobody faces.

Of course the obvious reason for using corporal punishment on children is that they lack the mental faculties for reasoned debate and the wisdom for choosing wisely. So any comparisons between this scenario and the workplace is not valid.

"Yet the efficacy of something does not make it right. A deed can be useful without being good."

Very true, but having read a bit of your blog, I don't believe your intellectual position is such that it could prove which is which. On what basis will you demonstrate that spanking is not right if someone asserts to you it is?

Don't get me wrong, I have no idea whether spanking is the best method of bringing up children. But I can see a ton of flawed arguments when I see it.
February 16, 2015 at 4:18 PM
Damon Young said...
Thanks, John. I appreciate you taking the time.

Yes, I do welcome feedback. But when I had my email public it sometimes attracted correspondence that wasn't as reasonable (or, I presume, well intentioned) as yours. Usually commenters go via the university.

I'm not sure all exercise of authority is 'taking advantage'. The phrase implies, not only some asymmetry, but also some abuse of this asymmetry. When I argue with our kids, I try to do so in a way they understand, giving them an opportunity to defend themselves. Yes, I have advantages, but I don't use these to avoid their perspective. By contract, they simply cannot defend themselves against a strike. I'm abusing my strength and speed instead of trying to make them understand, or be understood.

On the second point, I disagree. Our kids have learned to obey reasonably. Not always, but increasingly often. That is, they recognise that, in some circumstances, they have to defer to our authority because we have experience and capacities they don't. They don't need to fear us to do so.

(But as I noted in the column, this might vary with character and circumstance.)

On the last point, what do you mean my 'intellectual position'? This is interesting, and I'm genuinely intrigued. It might well be that my intellectual orientation prevents me. But you'll need to elaborate a little more.

Do you have an email address we can follow this up with? Happy to do it here, but it's a clumsy medium, and the system keeps asking me to prove I'm not a robot.

Damon Young said...

February 16, 2015 at 5:06 PM
John said...
You don't define what you consider to be "abusing" strength rather than trying to make them understand. For example, I take it that our military strength is greater than ISIS, but we choose to go in there and force our view on them rather than sending them a sternly worded letter. Why is that not an abuse of strength? What is your distinction between use and abuse?

Of course any parent except the most unreasonable will attempt to reason with their child. No little Johnny, hitting your sister is bad, etc. Unless we are talking about the most extreme of parent, I take it that those avenues were exhausted.

I'm glad your children have learnt to obey "increasingly". Yes, little Johnny hit his sister again today, but he is "increasingly" understanding why that is bad, so probably in 5 years time, maybe he will have, through his own improved perspective refrain from hitting his sister. Not sure I am fully happy with your "increasingly" perspective.

The other thing is that self righteous parents always assume that all kids are the same, and if someone else's kids aren't as good as yours it must be because the parents failed. Firstly, I don't accept that. Secondly, even if true, not all parents can reach the heights of others, simply because they just don't have the skills to, and are unable to do otherwise.

By your intellectual position, I just note that it seems to have an anti religion bias, so that makes me wonder what foundational principle you appeal to when you talk about right and wrong. Right and wrong is the domain of religion. All else is about what is expedient and what works.

No that is not me you linked to.

February 16, 2015 at 5:14 PM
Damon Young said...
Thanks again, John. It's not a distinction between use and abuse. The distinctions are between kinds of use. ISIS is being met with force because it uses force, and requires force to be overcome. This is not true of most children. Your analogy is misplaced.

On exhausting avenues, your assumption might not be valid. Parents can believe they have no alternative, without exploring them. The point is not that it is impossible for situations to arise that require force, but that sometimes humans don't seek other alternatives before doing so. (In this case, your analogy might be less misplaced.)

Your description is accurate. Our children have improved their perspective.

As for being "self-righteous", I note explicitly that some children, in some circumstances, might require spanking. I don't see this as a parental failure. Perhaps you weren't speaking of me. But if so, your charge is false.

On right and wrong being "the domain of religion", I suspect we're at an impasse. I'm not anti-religion (I was just reading Pseudo-Dionysius & Aquinas, though not for the same purpose), but I am critical of some religious practices.
what your foundation for asserting it might be.

Damon Young said...

February 16, 2015 at 5:39 PM
John said...
Of course children use force. They try and obtain what they want using all the force that is available to them, which thankfully is limited, but nevertheless, I really don't understand your claim that they don't use force.

It may well be the case that parents have other alternatives. That being the case you would have to (a) prove the alternatives are better. (b) prove that the alternatives are practical (c ) prove the alternatives work in all cases (d ) come up with an education plan so that all parents are equipped to apply them.

Until you demonstrate all 4, you're just being a self-righteous so and so. Just scalding parents for being bad, when you haven't come up with a plan B.

Even more so, since it seems you've now conceded that spanking might be necessary in some circumstances. Yes dear parent, I suppose you can spank sometimes, but now you're a bad parent for it. Double guilt complex.

You now concede that some children might require spanking. That sounds like a back down from your initial claim that it was a matter of right and wrong, and you seemed to be saying, well yes spanking might work, but we shouldn't do it anyway because it is an absolute moral issue. Now... I'm not sure what you're saying. You seem to have fallen back to the position that nobody actually disagrees with except those even more radical than you, namely that corporal punishment is an unfortunate necessity, when it is... well.. necessary. That's not exactly an interesting observation anymore is it?

Religion: I don't think the issue is whether you are "anti" religion, the issue is that I suspect you don't believe in any religion. That being so, I don't see how you can refer to right or wrong, and what your foundation for asserting it might be.

February 16, 2015 at 6:41 PM
Damon Young said...
Thanks again, John. If you reread the original column, you'll notice that I recognised that spanking might be justifiable in some circumstances. "Nonetheless, some experts have argued that mild corporal punishment, judiciously used, can correlate with better behaviour. Whether it is superior to all other alternatives is another matter entirely, and the literature suggests that other forms of discipline are equally effective. Still, with these predictions it pays to avoid neat, universal assertions. Perhaps some children, in some circumstances, on some occasions, might benefit from corporal punishment. It is an empirical matter." Perhaps you missed this on the first reading.

On your a-d assertion, you're a little off the mark. I don't have to prove anything. I have to cast doubt on the efficacy of spanking (which, following the evidence, I've done), and be aware of alternatives where appropriate. Proving these will work in all cases is neither here nor there, since I've not made that claim. I've simply questioned a common assumption, and the practices that go with it. As for your 'education plan', I'm offering moral reflection not a pedagogical policy. You also provide no evidence that practicality and education compel parents to smack (rather than, for example, mistaken ideas about efficacy). For these reasons, your request is misguided.

On religion, thanks for being a little clearer. But again, your point about 'right and wrong' goes nowhere. If you cannot see how ethics is possible without religion, perhaps your definition of ethics is lacking (you've not given one). Perhaps you've not looked into non-religious ethical theories. I don't know. You're welcome to make your case for the existence of your specific god, and the ethics that necessarily follows, but I can't guarantee it will merit my time and energy. After all, I have children to raise.

Damon Young said...

February 16, 2015 at 7:12 PM
John said...
Well here is the problem I have with your article. We could divide parents into 3 groups. The groups who don't believe in spanking, and who you are preaching to the converted. The parents who firmly believe in it, in which case the full extent of your argument is "the literature suggests" plus "it is morally wrong". The former is too brief a summary to sway even the feeblest minds, and the latter is unsubstantiated. The 3rd group would be those parents who spank because it seems to be the only thing that works for them, but perhaps they feel a bit guilty about it. For them, they are in the worst possible case. You offer the scalding of supposed moral offence, but no solutions beyond "the literature suggests". So all they are left with is a severe guilt complex, but no path to anywhere else. So what does this article achieve?

I think if you want to be published in a national newspaper, you should offer more. Maybe like telling us to read this book or that book and a bibliography. Maybe quote a respectable source. It wouldn't hurt if you used the advice yourself on your own kids and it worked. All you seem to have achieved is cast some very very vague moral doubt on the respectability of a large portion of the population, leaving a vacuum in your wake.

Is ethics able to be decided without religion? Tell us plainly then, is it unethical to spank your children? Are people who do it devoid of ethical behaviour in this matter? If you say yes, I think you've contradicted some of your earlier statements that spanking might be necessary. If you say no, then you've conceded that people will differ on the ethics of this situation, and thus you have neutered your moral high ground of claiming we must not spank because of the moral imperative. Choose your poison.

February 16, 2015 at 7:49 PM
Damon Young said...
When I've not cited sources, usually curious readers will ask for the research or, better yet, seek it themselves. (Since their interest is in understanding more.) In this case, I had a limited number of words, and I made the argument instead of citing the reports or summaries. Readers who spank their children may have been unaware of the evidence either way. This might prompt them to seek it. If so: my job in this short column is done. As for the vagueness, you've not been able to substantiate this.

Your final dichotomy is misguided. Aristotelian virtue theory, for example, provides no simple rules for morality. Aristotle, in turn, influenced Aquinas. Both were wary of universal rules for everyday behaviour. As a religious man, you might find it helpful to read (or reread) Aristotle's ethics or Aquinas's Summa Theologica. Precisely because these questions, as Aristotle and Aquinas point out, cannot be decided abstractly, I've provided a prompt for parental questioning. They can reflect in their circumstances, with this new information and argument. There is no poison to choose.

Damon Young said...

Seriously, I don't think there will be many parents who didn't ask themselves the question already whether spanking is the best way to go. Presumably they already thought about it and answered in the affirmative, if they are the target of your article. If you don't want them to shut down their intellect with the thought "oh no, not another do-gooder", I would think you would need to pull out a startling new fact, a fascinating anecdote or something.

If you think merely raising this eternal question YET AGAIN is sufficient to improve the universe, I would ask whether adding another layer of doubt to the parental consciousness is really helping. I certainly know I lay awake at night plenty of times wondering if I was parenting right, but without any answer to my self question.

As for Aristotle's virtue ethics, his claimed starting point is to act virtuously in accordance with one's upbringing, and in accordance with practical everyday knowledge of virtuousness.

By both these criteria, there is no obvious answer where spanking leads us. Most of us were spanked in our upbringing, and everyday experience says that parents spank their children. On this route lies no answers whatsoever to the spanking conundrum. That's if we leave aside the question of whether the reader accepts (or even heard of) Aristotelian virtue ethics, not to mention that you didn't bring it up.

You still haven't chosen your poison. Will you tell us explicitly that you consider spanking unethical, or will you back down on that line of thought and admit it to be ethical? If the former, can you really argue based on Aristotle that many or most parents don't act ethically towards their most loved ones? How could you prove such a thing without religion? If you choose the latter, didn't you just torpedo your own premise?

Damon Young said...

You miss the point about virtue ethics. This was a reply to your assertion of universality in ethics: everyone ought to do x, because x is always good. There was no need to mention virtue ethics in the column, because this point was not immediately relevant. Now it is. Having said this, a careful reader might've noticed the shift from consequentialism to other schools. Also, your summary of Aristotle puts too much emphasis on experience and too little on reflection on this experience. Aristotle argued strongly for reflection on the value of goods, and the vision of humanity these contributed to. 'I was spanked' is not enough.

And with that, John, I'm done. I've replied to your points, but you've had enough of my attention. Thanks again for your efforts.

Damon Young said...

For anyone reading, that penultimate comment is from John, not from me. I had to paste it from another post.

One Sleepy Dad said...


I caught your article in the CT and it kind've felt like you had been edited down for column inches. So it was with interest that I read your exchange with John to gain more insight to your way of thinking.

I fall firmly in the camp against spanking. I have a couple of kids, the oldest is seven, and none of them have ever been spanked. They are model kids and are often praised as such from outsiders, but the nature/nurture quotient that produced these little people is impossible to untangle ... we may have lucked out and just got good kids.

Here are some of my thoughts, parts of which I have lifted from a blog post I made about the subject a few years ago.

Of the people I have spoken to that spank, they usually fall into these (non-exclusive) categories:

1. They spank because that's how they think a child is disciplined
2. They consider it a religious virtue

I think neither reason is adequate, and both show a distinct lack of thought on the issue.

When I first became a father I didn't know how to discipline a child. Automatically my thoughts fell to spanking because that's how I was raised. But then I decided that a bit more thought ought to go into it. Generally speaking, whenever I find myself falling into a behaviour of my parents', I consider it time to re-examine the issue entirely!

I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't spank. Here I outlay my thoughts, most of which are anecdotal and wouldn't win me any debating ribbons.

The first reason I came up with is that I didn't want to teach my children that violence is the final word for, or a solution to, a problem. Spanking a child removes the opportunity for reasonable discussion about the issue at hand. Trying to do so after a spanking is not possible because the child is no longer receptive after a thrashing.

I also thought back to my childhood. I was spanked and it hurt in more ways than one. I distinctly remember lying to my parents (on many occasions) in order to avoid a spanking. Corporal punishment erodes the trust between child and parent. It causes children to fear their parents. And in all things, I endeavour to raise my children to be fearless and fundamentally happy (nod to Lord Russell).

Children are the smallest, most vulnerable people in our society. They are also the only people that we're actively encouraged to hit. If a work colleague, friend or my wife does something I don't like, I'm not going to use force against them to correct their ways. And if I tried, you can be sure that Johnny Law will pay me a visit swiftly. That we would hit these little people, who trust us implicitly, should be a cause for great shame in our society.

I also believe you can teach a child right from wrong without spanking. A child behaves well if they feel valued and that they have a good standing in their social environment. Nobody feels valued when they are on the end of a spanking.

As for the second group, the religious hitters, well, I don't put too much stock in the foundations, ethics or utility of religion. Hitting a kid out of obedience to a religious text is a thoughtless and cowardly act.

On obedience, I teach my children that disobedience is fine. Obedience is a handy tool that should be employed as long as it's beneficial. Yes, my kids should respect and obey their teachers (for example); it keeps them in school with all the educational and social benefits afforded. But if the chaplain tells Master Seven to meet him in his car, the obedience should stop there. It is worth noting that many great advances in all societies have come about through acts of civil disobedience.

I'll add, and probably much too glibly (and possibly unfairly), I think people can be ethical DESPITE religion. But I probably shouldn't be expressing undercooked thoughts on ethics on a blog run by an esteemed philosopher ... I fear I have waded in beyond my depth. :)

Well, that was a bit more than I thought I'd write. So, I thank you for your indulgence.