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An Argument Against Spanking

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An argument against spanking

1. Introduction

It's likely that you, like me, were sometimes spanked by your parents. A 1995

Gallup poll

found spanking to be used by 74% of U.S. parents of children aged 17 or younger. But there is

ongoing public debate over spanking. A lot of the debate concerns whether it should be legal. I

shall not address this question, but rather whether spanking is morally permissible. I shall argue

that it is not. I shall not argue that it should therefore be illegal. (Even if spanking is wrong, a law

against it might constitute an undue intrusion of the state into the private sphere.)

In public debate, spanking is often unhelpfully conflated with severe punishment such as beating

with a belt or even child abuse. By 'spanking' (or 'smacking', as it is known outside North

America) I shall mean open-handed striking of the buttocks, such as to cause only moderate and

short-term pain, and causing no injury or lingering marks. Spanking is thus a mild form of corporal

punishment. I shall focus on spanking by parents, but my argument applies to any person

who might spank a child, such as school personnel. (See n. 29 for some remarks on a specific issue

relating to institutional spanking.)

Within philosophy, the usual argument against corporal punishment stems from the 'liberationist'

view that children deserve the same rights as adults. This view implies that since adults

have a right against being struck, even mildly, then so do children. However, as Laura Purdy

says in her case against liberationism, such a policy seems not to be in the interests of children

themselves, whose immaturity requires their parents to exert far more control over them than

would be required for an adult. Even if children do have a right against severe corporal punishment,

it seems unlikely that such a right would extend so far as to rule out spanking. After all,

parents need some way to control their children, and spanking looks no more harmful than other

punishments such as being sent to one's room or going without dessert. So if those punishments

are acceptable, why not spanking? Spanking is, of course, painful; but so is a polio vaccination.

Pain is sometimes necessary. Accordingly, even writers with liberationist sympathies are often

unwilling to disallow spanking.6 Given its disciplinary effectiveness and the implausibility of the

idea that there could be a right against it, spanking appears morally acceptable.

I do not think matters are so simple. While I doubt that children have a right against spanking,

the idea that spanking is justified by its disciplinary effectiveness reflects a simplistic picture of

the harms it might cause. The picture considers only whether spanking itself causes direct harm

to the child. I agree that such harm, if it exists at all, will indeed be negligible. What is overlooked,

however, is the potential for spanking to escalate into more severe corporal punishment,

of a sort which plainly is harmful.

My argument in this paper is almost anticipated in a remark by Purdy, who notes that "if it

turned out that on the whole children do better without physical punishment, prohibiting it could

be justified by showing that its use invites abuse."7 I would amend her suggestion to say that if

corporal punishment invites abuse, then judging it morally impermissible would require only that

we show that children do no worse without it - not necessarily that they do better. I shall argue

that analysis of the risks of spanking indeed supports its impermissibility.

My goal, then, is to sketch a non-rights-based grounding for the impermissibility of spanking.

I have already implied that I am skeptical about children's having a right against spanking, but I

shall remain officially agnostic on the existence of such a right. I wish only to show that spanking

can be seen to be impermissible even without an appeal to such a right. My approach is primarily

consequentialist but also has affinities with virtue ethics, for it emphasizes the moral importance

of avoiding bad habits in one's behavior towards one's children.

2. Spanking and harm

First, let me say what I will not be arguing. Some say that spanked children are more likely to

be aggressive or antisocial as adults.8 Extensive research, however, has not decided whether cor

poral punishment is any more likely than non-physical punishments to cause such a long-term

outcome.9 So I shall not rely on a claim that spanking has such effects. Of course, if it does turn

out to have such effects, my argument will be strengthened.

Instead of the effect of spanking on the child's behavior, I shall focus on its effect on the behavior

of parents and other adults. Spanking's wrongness, I shall argue, arises primarily (if not

exclusively) from the fact that by encouraging the corporal punishment

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