Posts Tagged ‘punishment’


Desert Part 3: The Purpose of Punishment

November 30, 2008

Last time I observed that punishments are, by definition, given because they are deserved. This is the “retributive” view of punishment (although as mentioned earlier, this is the more traditional concept of “retribution” as requital rather than revenge or retaliation). Plamentz (1967), while not defining punishment to be retributive, suggests that it is only in societies which have professional judges and teachers where punishment would be seen as a means to an end, and that in “primitive” societies punishment would simply be seen as proper and fitting.

I do not mean to suggest that punishment serves no purpose beyond that of desert. I have already mentioned that it is a vital part of the concept of morality, or the concept of rules, that poor conduct should be punished. My point is that without the notion of desert, we are left with a deeply flawed concept of punishment. Lewis (1953) described punishment without desert as the “Humanitarian Theory Of Punishment”. Regarding its application to criminal justice he wrote:

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic … But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice.

Lewis argued that this theory, despite appearing merciful, would deprive criminals of their rights as human beings. The enlightened, non-retributive action, taken in response to crime would be as compulsory as retributive punishment, but not subject to the same restraints. While I hesitate to raise it to the level of human rights, I would suggest that in the education context the Humanitarian theory of punishment allows similar injustices.

Deterrence is the most commonplace, pragmatic justification for punishment. Docking (1987) observes that “the view of most teachers is that some punishment is necessary for deterrent purposes” but identifies the popularity of Bentham’s (1789) view: “But all punishment is a mischief: all punishment is in itself evil … It ought only be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil”. A purely deterrent based system of punishment can be seen as (that most incoherent of concepts) a “necessary evil”. However, deterrents can act against justice in several ways. It is not necessary to punish the guilty to deter. Punishment of those who are thought to be guilty (“the usual suspects”) or punishment of wider groups of people than simply the guilty may also deter. Whole class punishments, in which every student in a class is punished regardless of guilt, is often a deterrent even though such punishment of the innocent is utterly unjust. If punishment was truly only about deterrence then collective punishment and victimisation of undesirable elements would be the order of the day. Similarly, there would be no reason to show restraint in punishment. If students were not deterred by a particular punishment, then there would be no reason not to increase its severity, no punishment could be unfairly harsh if there was no concept of desert to suggest the punishment needed to fit the crime. Punishment as deterrent would be more brutal and less discriminating than punishment as retribution. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily make it wrong but it does give a lie to those who suggest retributive punishment is cruel or unfair when compared with punishments given only as a deterrent.

The other proposed purpose of punishment is that of “rehabilitation”. The claim is that punishments can, in some way, reform the character of the punished. There is some truth to the suggestion that punishment can teach a lesson. Wilson (1971) suggests that punishment is educative because it consists in part of “seeing the point or rightness of the rules” as “it is because the rules are right that it hurts to break them”. Plamentz (1967) identifies punishment of young and “innocent” children as intending to “train them to `feel’ as they ought”. Peters (1966) adds the possibility that a punishment might serve as a “sharp shock” which would bring an offending student “to their senses”, breaking them out of a fantasy and causing them to contemplate what behaviour is or is not socially acceptable. Others, such as Piaget (1932), suggest specific ways of punishing that might reform. However, there are clear limits (noted by most of those named above) to the extent to which such an effect might take place. It is also less than clear that punishment is educative when it is intended to be purely educative. It seems to me more plausible that it is when a punishment consists of a clear judgement of moral fault and desert that it provides most to think about and learn from.

More importantly, without desert, there is once again no requirement that the punishment fits the crime. At the moment we see inappropriately lenient punishments (eg. a verbal warning, a day off school) that are intended to “reform”. However, particularly in light of the fact that such punishments never do reform, it would be equally justified to use inappropriately harsh punishments. If a child is being punished in order to be reformed then there is no point at which they have “done their time” and can cease being punished. The only justified punishment, even for a minor misdemeanour such as dropping litter, is one that continues until it is clear that they will never reoffend. Again, a supposedly humanitarian doctrine could be used to justify the most severe punishments.

It might seem odd that I am arguing against the principles of deterrent and reform on the grounds that it would lead to punishments that are too harsh, when normally I am complaining that punishments are not harsh enough. Actually, this all takes us back to the issue of human nature. If human beings were rarely inclined to do wrong then perhaps small deterrents would deter all wrongdoing and small penalties, of the right kind, could reform the worst offenders. The lenient punishments we currently see might be compatible with deterrent and rehabilitation if the desire to do wrong was rare and weak. The fact is that human beings are prone to doing wrong. Deterrents would have to be severe and rehabilitation extensive to prevent misbehaviour completely and there is no reason why the advocates of the Humanitarian theory of punishment should be aiming for anything less than this. The retributive approach to punishment seeks justice, it hasn’t failed if some offences are still committed. By contrast, if an offence continues to occur it hasn’t been deterred, and the offenders haven’t been rehabilitated and so, according to the Humanitarian theory of punishment there is no reason to cease punishing until reoffending becomes unthinkable. Of course, what happens in practice is that those who reject desert also fail to acknowledge what human nature is like. Then and only then, when what children are like and what can be done about it are both being ignored, do we arrive at the situation our schools are now in: a state of complete and utter denial.


Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Collins, 1957, first published 1789

Docking, J.W. Control and discipline In Schools: Perspectives and approaches,Second Edition, Harper and Row Ltd, 1987

Lewis, C.S. The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, Res Judicatae 6, 1953

Plamentz, J. Responsibility, Blame and Punishment, in Laslet, P. and Runciman, W.C. (eds) Philosophy, Politics and Society: Third Series 1967

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966

Piaget, Jean The Moral Judgement Of The Child, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932

Wilson, P.S. Interest and Discipline in Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971


Desert Part 2: Punishment

November 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.

O’Donovan (2005)

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

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