Desert Part 2: PunishmentNovember 26, 2008
No concept has been at the centre of more heated debate in education than punishment, and no concept has been more undermined by the collapse of ethical thinking. Almost every aspect of punishment has been challenged, dismissed or redefined at one time. It is obvious to children, and to most parents, that a punishment is a painful, unpleasant or undesired experience, given to somebody as a result of a judgement of what they deserve in return for their poor conduct. This is not obvious to educationalists, human rights lawyers, educational consultants or psychologists. For some this is the rejection of the very concept of desert; for others it is simply a lack of intestinal fortitude with regard to the (often unpleasant) act of punishing. It is hoped that difficult judgements and personal responsibility can be avoided. Of course, punishment, like desert and sin, is an indispensable moral concept. If an action is not deserving of punishment it is in no way wrong. Even without explicitly referring to morality it is still the case that if a rule can be broken without the possibility of a penalty, it is no longer a rule. Punishments define moral boundaries, without them we are utterly lost and so we can never have a coherent morality without punishment.
Attempts to challenge a concept as indispensable as punishment often turn out to be little more than word games. For this reason we should consider the correct understanding of the word:
The name `punishment’ means `requital` or ‘return,’ deriving from an Indo-European root meaning `exchange’ and therefore not very remote semantically from the term `retribution` which means ‘giving back’… It is common to refer to a `retributive theory of punishment’ a paradoxically redundant expression that would seem to mean a `penal theory of penalty’… Punishment is best understood as a judgement enacted on the person, property or liberty of the condemned party … it is an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context. A rational act of condemnation it is neither irrational like impulsive revenge, nor inactive, like reflective disapproval, but an `expressive act’ or `communication’. It is not a private act, but an authorised act undertaken in the defence of the order of society, an act of social definition.
Sometimes it is claimed that punishment can be replaced with “positive methods”, i.e. encouragement and rewards. While rewards for complying can motivate, withdrawal of rewards still constitutes a punishment. Indeed, many, perhaps most, punishments could be described as a withdrawal of some comfort or convenience. Inevitably punishment is still occurring under systems of “positive” behaviour management but in a more costly and impractical way.
Another game that is played with the word “punishment” is simply to implicitly, or explicitly, redefine it in ways that make it automatically an aggressive, or immoral act. This has already happened to the synonym “retribution” to the extent where it is now widely seen to mean “revenge” or “retaliation” rather than a requital. Examples of this are very common when one looks at the work of the behaviour management industry. It is common place to take concepts that are part and parcel of punishment and then suggest they are actually an alternative to the cruelties of punishment:
Here, an “expert” claims that a consequence is different from a punishment:
Consequences are a respectful, fair, democratic response to misbehaviour. Unlike punishments they don’t ridicule, they don’t embarrass, they don’t humiliate and they aren’t unfair… Consequences are different because they focus on the behaviour being displayed, not on the child. All too often teachers slip into labeling young people because of their behaviour and this has the effect of making punishments seem like personal attacks.
Here another “expert” claims that discipline is an alternative to punishment:
Many parents think that punishing a child will teach him or her discipline, but this is not the case. Punishment and discipline are two very distinct concepts and they should not be used interchangeably as they so often are… Discipline helps children realise what has gone wrong, that they have become out of control and that they need to regain control before an activity can continue. This is done in a positive and consistent manner so that children can see the pattern of what is appropriate behaviour and what is inappropriate behaviour … Discipline does not seek to simply call out children’s faults or misgivings (which very often is the basis of punishment), and instead uses praise for appropriate behaviour to gain results. Discipline is also never physical (while punishment very well may include swatting or smacking), sarcastic, belittling or disrespectful…Ignoring misbehaviour and encouraging positive alternatives, putting a child in open-ended time out to allow him or her to regain their self-control, discussing inappropriate actions and how to make up for them, using sticker and star charts to map good behaviour and giving a child two positive options for future actions are all methods of discipline that help re-direct children to more appropriate behaviours.
Both writers allow for penalties to be enacted, or rewards to be foregone, but both claim that these are not the same as punishments. Inevitably there is no clear definition of what punishment is, just the repeated implication that it must be humiliating, painful and unfair. One assumes that this allows the writers to retain their own right to punish, but to condemn others for the self-same act.
A less condescending variation on this is those schools who claim that their discipline system is based on choice and consequences. It is hoped that by emphasising choice children will see sanctions as something they can avoid rather than a vindictive act on the part of teachers. I would tend towards the view that this is a good thing to try and communicate, although my experience of such schools is that students continue to see those sanctions as, at best, punishments or, at worst, victimisation. However, it seems to be an utter misunderstanding of what a punishment is to suggest that calling a sanction a punishment makes it any less of a matter of choice. We choose what we deserve, just as surely as we choose a consequence given without an explicit concept of desert. Punishment, far from removing the notion of choice, enhances it by placing it entirely within the moral arena, the ultimate arena for personal choice and responsibility. A punishment is a choice and a consequence, and it is the type of choice and consequence children are most likely to be familiar with.
Another, more academically respectable, way to redefine punishment is that used by behaviourists. As with rewards, they wish to remove the element of moral desert from the concept and classify it only by its effect on behaviour, so for instance Nuttin et al (1968) describes punishment as “a … negatively valued event contingent on an action or series of actions”. By this redefinition, anything that is worth avoiding which may result from your actions is a punishment. This may seem plausible, due to the fact that there are similar colloquial usages of the word (one might refer to a boxer taking “punishment” in the ring) but when applied in this context it leaves us (as behaviourism always does) with a moral vacuum where concepts have lost their purpose. Without desert punishments are essentially purposeless. The only way around this is, of course, if new purposes are contrived.
We shall consider these next time.
O’Donovan, Oliver, The Ways of Judgement, Eerdmans, 2005
Nuttin, Joseph and Greenwald, Anthony G. Reward and Punishment in Human Learning, Academic press, 1968