An argument against spanking

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An argument against spanking
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  Final MS version. Published in  Public Affairs Quarterly , 24  (Jan. 2010), pp. 65-77. An argument against spanking Gary Bartlett, Central Washington University 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. i  But there is ongoing public debate over spanking. A lot of the debate concerns whether it should be legal. ii  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 beat-ing 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. iii  Spanking is thus a mild form of cor- poral 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 is-sue relating to institutional spanking.) Within philosophy, the usual argument against corporal punishment stems from the ‘libera-tionist’ view that children deserve the same rights  as adults. iv  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, v  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 punish-ment, 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   An argument against spanking 2  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. vi  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 over-looked, 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.” vii  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 spank-ing can be seen to be impermissible even without an appeal to such a right. My approach is pri-marily consequentialist but also has affinities with virtue ethics, for it emphasizes the moral im- portance of avoiding bad habits  in one’s behavior towards one’s children.   An argument against spanking 3 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. viii  Extensive research, however, has not decided whether corporal punishment is any more likely than non-physical punishments to cause such a long-term outcome. ix  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 be-havior 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 of children, it raises the likelihood of  severe  physical punishment – punishment of a kind which even spanking’s defend-ers admit is harmful. While spanking in itself   may not be substantially harmful to the child, if it can lead caregivers to escalate their punishments then that ought to be given weight in a moral evaluation. The spanking parent him- or herself is at the greatest risk of escalation, but the effect might also occur across individuals. Spanking fosters an environment in which corporal punish-ment is normal and accepted. Seeing other parents spanking their children may suggest spanking as an option to parents who are not otherwise inclined to spank; and it may reinforce the legiti-macy of spanking to parents who already use it, giving them a sense of self-assurance which may lead them to escalate their punishment beyond mere spanking. My argument has two steps. The first is to argue that spanking can escalate into more severe  physical punishment. This step is empirical, so I cannot defend it conclusively; but I will never-theless make a case in §3 that the risk of escalation is real. The second step is to argue that the risk of such escalation in  some  cases constitutes reason to hold all   spanking morally impermissi- ble. I make this argument in §4 and §5.   An argument against spanking 4 3. Spanking and the risk of escalation The risk of escalation is greatest for the spanking parents themselves. There is evidence that spanking can escalate into severe punishment and even abuse. A recent meta-analysis found a “medium to large” effect of corporal punishment on a child’s likelihood of becoming a victim of  physical abuse, x  supporting the idea that parents can begin with the former but end up in the lat-ter. Reports from abusive parents suggest that many individual instances of abuse begin with an attempt to control a child’s behavior through corporal punishment. xi  Child psychologist Edward Zigler states that “one of the single most important determinants of child abuse is the willingness of adults to inflict corporal punishment upon children in the name of discipline.” xii  The escalation may well be unintentional. The difference between spanking and more severe  punishment, even if clear in the abstract, is much less clear at the moment of punishment, which of course usually occurs when a parent is frustrated or stressed. The child may become somewhat inured to milder blows, thus promoting a gradual increase in force in order to ‘get the child’s at-tention’. For the parent there will likely be no obvious sign at the time – in the experience of the degree of force used, or in the child’s response – that a blow is too severe. If it leaves a mark, the  parent may see this later and conclude that she ‘overdid it’; but even if the mark is noticed and correctly attributed to the corporal punishment, this might not change the parent’s disciplinary  behavior. Working against such a change is spanking’s immediate effectiveness at stopping mis- behavior. The only effect of corporal punishment that the above-mentioned meta-analysis found to be larger than the one for physical abuse was the one for immediate compliance. xiii  Spanking works , and so its application by the parent is immediately reinforced. Thus the conditions are in  place for it to be repeated. And if escalation occurs, the more severe punishments will still be re-inforced by cessation of the misbehavior. So a parent who has become used to spanking his or her children may slip over the line to severe or even abusive striking. Further, it is not just one’s own  disciplinary attitudes and behaviors that may be shaped by one’s actions. Both folk wisdom and psychological research say that people ‘get used to’ things   An argument against spanking 5 they see regularly. In what social psychology calls the ‘mere exposure’ effect, xiv  repeated expo-sure to something leads to more extreme attitudes towards it. A stimulus that is initially disliked  becomes even less liked, while positively-valenced and neutral stimuli become more  liked. Thus if a person often sees spanking carried out by other parents, then unless the person already has a negative attitude toward spanking, she or he will likely develop an increasingly favorable attitude toward it – and perhaps toward corporal punishment in general, since the distinction between spanking and more severe treatment is not a clear one. Of course, the effect of witnessing spanking as a third-person observer will likely be weaker than the effect of being the spanking agent. Further, most spanking occurs in the home, unseen  by non-family members. Nevertheless, one can still see parents spanking their children in super-markets and malls, which supports an awareness that corporal punishment remains accepted. This awareness may help to maintain the use of corporal punishment. Zigler suggests that when laying blame for incidents in which attempts at discipline become abusive, we should look to the society that accepts corporal punishment. xv  Some philosophers have tried to incorporate such so-cietal influences into their moral theory. Larry May argues that we should attribute a degree of  shared   agency and responsibility for individual actions that have been made more likely by a climate of attitudes in a community or society. xvi  It is just this sort of morally-relevant influence that I have in mind. While it is clearly too strong to say that a parent who spanks her child is in-dividually responsible for the severe corporal punishment administered by a parent of another child, I would suggest that the first parent does, by her actions, contribute to a climate of ac-ceptance of corporal punishment. If the community is collectively responsible for that climate, then each spanking parent in the community shares in that responsibility, and thus shares some indirect responsibility for any severe corporal punishment that might occur under the influence of that climate. To sum up this section: I have suggested that spanking, even if harmless in itself, increases the likelihood of severe physical punishment, both by oneself and by others. This conclusion is tentative, for it is based in empirical considerations that are subject to debate. Nevertheless there
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