A Critical Examination of the Arguments for Spanking
The subject of spanking is no-no topic for polite conversation, and has, in general, been put with many other subjects in the “do what’s best for you” category of aesthetic preference. But I don’t think it really ought to be considered merely an aesthetic preference. On its face, it seems much more like something that requires a moral value judgment, particularly for those who hold to the non-aggression principle.
Given this, here are my thoughts on the topic. First and foremost, parental spanking appears on its face to be a violation of the non-aggression principle, as it is the imposition of one’s will upon another by the means of physical force. Some libertarians attempt to argue that spanking is not a violation of the non-aggression principle on the grounds that the child is a guest on the property of the parent and therefore has consented to be subject to the rules of the parent. This may be true in some cases, but not in all, as a great many children are simply too young to give consent, and spanking is sometimes used outside the home on property that does not belong to the parent.
Not only do the arguments which attempt to put spanking in harmony with the non-aggression principle seem to be lacking, but in general and on the whole, spanking seems to violate the general societal principle that people ought not hit others. There are certain situations in which hitting may be appropriate (for instance, as a defense against an attacker), but by and large, hitting is bad, and any justification of hitting must be philosophically sound (as is the defense justification) and operate under very specific conditions.
Not only is hitting usually considered bad, but people who are larger and stronger generally have an additional ethical requirement toward the smaller and weaker. We may, to some extent, excuse a man who picks a fight with another man his own size, but a man who goes out of his way to pick fights with those who are smaller and weaker than he is would never be afforded the same kind of leniency. The bar of moral behavior is higher in situations where one participant has a physical advantage, and in the case of a parent and child, that advantage may be great, up to an order of magnitude in some cases.
As a result of these general principles, the burden is on spanking advocates to show that spanking is a morally legitimate and functional method. They must show that spanking is in harmony with the non-aggression principle, and they must also explain why it is exempt from the general principle that hitting is not a good way to get what one wants.
To be clear: it is not sufficient to give just any old reason to show that spanking is ok; advocates of spanking must give good reasons, reasons which trump the default bias against spanking. The burden of proof is on them to show why the regular moral prohibitions against hitting children, and hitting in general, do not apply to spanking. But those good reasons – the logical explanations – are rarely, if ever, given. Instead, we usually get from them a series of bad arguments, which fail either as a result of logical errors, or because they are shown empirically to be false. If an argument is shown to be logically or empirically false, we are obligated to discard it at once, no matter our good feelings toward the argument. And if the arguments in favor of the practice of parental spanking are shown to fail, then we are obligated to discard the practice with the same haste. What follows is a list of common failed arguments in favor of parental spanking of children followed by brief responses.
Spanking has been done for generations, it is a well-accepted part of the culture, and most households use the practice.
None of these facts have any relationship to the validity or usefulness of spanking. That many people do something or that something has been done for a long time simply are not logically valid reasons for continuing to do that thing. This is shown by the defunct institution of chattel slavery. Nobody would argue for the legitimacy of slavery based on its long history. Until recently, outright child abuse was the norm, was a well-accepted part of culture, and had been used for generations. Yet we would not consider child abuse valid for these reasons.
I was spanked as a child and I turned out perfectly fine.
This is perhaps the most absurd common line of reasoning justifying spanking. There’s simply no way to compare the real result against the hypothetical situation that would have resulted from a childhood free of spanking. There’s no way to know what could have been. Even if we ignore this unsolvable problem, we run immediately into another more serious one: the fact that a person thinks it’s ok to hit small children is prima facie evidence that they did not, in fact, “turn out perfectly fine.” To the contrary, it indicates that something has gone horribly wrong. It is evidence of a profoundly damaged psyche – exactly in line with what should be expected as a result of a childhood sprinkled with hitting.
This faulty reasoning is reminiscent of a scene in the 2002 movie ‘Orange County’ in which the protagonist’s drug-addicted drop-out older brother, perpetually in a chemically induced stupor, say, just before passing out, “You’re overreacting, dude. I didn’t get into college, and check me out! I’m kick-ass!” It really is that obvious. It is nonsense and I don’t buy it.
A variation of this is that a child’s behavior improved as a result of spanking, or that the child is flourishing more. This is simply not something that can be proved. There are no control groups. There is no way to go back and time to verify that it is spanking that is doing the trick. There is no window into the inner workings of a child. But even if there was some way to know that spanking had a positive effect on a child, it does not follow that spanking itself is defensible. Perhaps the spanking is only slightly less bad than what came before it. There may be other parenting methods which produce yet a better result. It is as if a serial killer who no longer murdered his victims, but merely physically tortured them claimed that physical torture was ok because his victims lives were improved relative to what they would have been if he murdered them.
Children need discipline.
Those who use this justification are conflating two distinct concepts – spanking and discipline. There are many ways to discipline children. It may be true that children need discipline, but to argue that spanking is the only way to successfully discipline children is to demonstrate a lack of creative problem solving and critical thought. A child who has received no discipline at all may be a little tyrant, but this is not the result of not being spanked. Beside this, studies are beginning to show a clear picture: children who are spanked tend to be more aggressive, volatile, and prone to addictive and self-destructive behaviors than children who are not spanked. This is not consistent with the theory that spanking is an effective discipline method.
Spanking is used because children aren’t capable of reason.
If children aren’t capable of reason, then spanking cannot be effective. A child who isn’t capable of understanding the relationship between cause and effect will not be able to connect the spanking in any way with the wrong action. It will seem to him arbitrary and random. If a child is old enough to make this causal connection, then he is old enough to engage in reason, as an understanding of causality necessarily requires the capacity to reason. If a child isn’t capable of reason, then spanking is ineffective. If she is capable, then spanking is unnecessary, and surely hitting a child when other, equally effective methods are available is unjustifiable.
Spanking can be used when the child is in grave physical danger.
This is a very strange claim – “In order to protect my child from physical pain I will inflict physical pain on him.” It fails outright under the weight of its own preposterousness. And not only this, but it’s not at all clear why the child should be punished for being in a dangerous situation. Surely it is the responsibility of the parent to ensure that the child is not placed in situations of extreme physical danger. That is the very purpose of parents – to keep their children out of harm’s way until the children have enough experience to keep themselves out of harm’s way. To spank a child who is about to touch a hot stove or wander out into traffic is to punish the child for the parent’s failure. This is obviously unjust.
As a corollary to this, there isn’t a clear situation in which spanking a child is necessary to keep him out of harm’s way but in which simply grabbing the child out of the way won’t keep the child from harm. At this point, some people object that it is appropriate to slap a child’s hand away as they are reaching for a hot stove. This may be true, but it’s a red herring – we’re not talking about moving a child out of harm’s way – we’re talking about spanking them. This non-sequitur is an attempt to shift the discussion, to make excuses, and to obfuscate the legitimate objections to parental spanking.
Many bad arguments do not add up to a good argument. Arguments which rely on faulty reasoning or a rejection of empirical facts must be rejected, no matter how many are strung together in a chain.
It may be that there are perfectly upstanding and valid reasons for spanking a child, but as far as I am aware, none have yet been discovered. And I’m certainly not going to spend any time trying to discover them, particularly since it’s been my observation that children don’t require spanking to become healthy and productive members of society. Those who advocate for spanking must bear the responsibility of defending their position, and if they fail, they must change their stance on the issue. If they do not, then we can reject their false claims that their spanking advocacy is a reasoned and defensible position.
Without better arguments than have been discussed in this post, no spanking advocate ought to be taken seriously or considered honest in their claims that they have the interests of the child in mind.