Concerning any debate on Corporal Punishment

This contains some material from an earlier post, but a. I thought it might be clearer here given the context, and b. given the sudden rise of this ridiculous issue, I thought it important to restate…

1.   This is a moral argument, and they can be slippery.

The slipperiness of moral arguments is what makes the possible rise of this debate so dangerous. It can appear that we have nothing certain, no foundations on which to build an argument, and thus doubt can be sown in the minds of reasonable people. This lack of certainty, I would argue, stems from the fact that (at least) four of the areas where we might normally seek certainty, are closed to us:

Firstly, one cannot justify anything moral in terms of consequences since any attempt to calculate or speculate upon the future utility or happiness caused by an action is chicanery.[1] This is that it is an absolute and not a relative issue. The question does not concern ends, it concerns means, and thus one cannot either justify, or criticise CP in terms of an If… then… argument. It is not something that can be justified or criticised by evidence, since such evidence would require everyone to agree that achieving an end would override moral concerns about the means of achieving it. And we won’t. To legalise corporal punishment would be wrong, full stop. That’s it.

Secondly, if one tries to express a moral rule, the difficulty is that it is very difficult to frame a moral rule in a manner which precludes any exceptions. Legal rules are in constant need of interpretation by judges, for example. (I cannot, however, think of any sensible exceptions to the moral rule expressed above.)

Thirdly, moral arguments often appear to be entirely subjective. For example, anyone who has taught children about the Golden Rule do as you would be done by, will be familiar with the following kind of criticism: but what ‘if I like being punched’ or ‘I wouldn’t mind being hit’. G. E. M. Anscombe argued that this (Kant’s) position relies on one ‘legislating for oneself’.

Fourthly, moral arguments are often notoriously vague. Were we to take a virtue theory approach, i.e. it would in no way ever be virtuous to hit a child, then we leave ourselves open to the charges that we cannot define ‘virtue’ naturalistically, scientifically etc… If we were to take a consequentialist approach, we might need a definition of ‘greatest good’ or ‘greatest number’ or ‘utility’ or ‘pleasure/pain’. Whilst I would agree with each of these arguments, the reason why I would agree with them because I disagree with legalising CP, and not because of their cogency.

2.   Something is ‘absolute’ if we cannot conceive of the opposite.

Instead, I would take the following position: moral rules are best understood as being like (if not exactly the same as) the rules governing sense and nonsense – i.e. they are what they are, and unjustifiable. If someone were to claim to me that CP was justifiable, I simply would not understand what they were talking about.

I am certain that I could not support the legalisation of CP. This certainty, in-line with the description of moral rules just mentioned, I will define as inconceivability of the opposite, as incredulity. If someone told me that ‘legalising CP would be a good idea’. I would then assume something like the following:

  1. The person is telling a (bad) joke
  2. I have missed a key part of the story or context (e.g. the person cannot speak English and has just repeated a sentence verbatim without understanding it)
  3. The person is lying to themselves
  4. This person has lived a life so different from mine that renders communication impossible.

If I can rule out (1), (2) and (4) I would be left with (3). I would posit, that this sensation of incredulity is the nearest that we can get to any kind of certainty in an argument – the feeling that we simply cannot understand why the other person is saying what they are saying. However, this sense of certainty about the proposition in question is not final, it hangs in the air only so long as one is not provided with a context which renders the proposition conceivably true. Since I cannot think of such a context, it remains inconceivable to me. I cannot say the proposition is objectively untrue, since I cannot possibly know whether any such context will come about. However, that does not mean that this position is not postmodern or relativist in the sense that anything goes – anything goes only if the context exists which allows it to go. Since I (honestly) feel this sense of incredulity, then I can justifiably take my position that ‘it is inconceivable to me that legalising CP would be a good idea’ to be brute fact[3] (here, I shall define a brute fact is one which appears so obviously true that it is not in need of justification – but it does not mean that it is true outside the context in which it was uttered, and it does not mean that exceptions cannot be found in the future.)

3.   If a Lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ [4]

A difficulty would arise comes if people genuinely see different moral obligations  – if they make different moral judgements. I would argue that this is less frequent than one may assume. The rules of language are embedded in our practices. If our practices are shared then so are our rules. These rules also govern our use of moral terms, and thus, one can no more label a moral action as virtuous than misuse any other word. If one ever does have a disagreement with another to the point of brute fact and one is convinced that they are not joking, mentally ill, self-deceiving or that one has not missed out a key point, then it is not a disagreement concerning facts, it is a disagreement in one’s practices and entire form of life. The Piraha people of the Amazon allow their toddler children to play with large knives[5], I cannot be in any position to judge them for that though, because we share so little in terms of practices. If I lived with them for years, then perhaps we might be able to establish some shared criteria by which we can discuss the matter, but till then, I can say nothing. If we ever meet aliens, however, there is every chance that their forms of life are so different to ours that communication will be as minimal as that between humans and lions. Our practices evolve around our needs, and if we don’t have shared needs then we will struggle. Between teachers, however, I would expect that our forms of life are similar enough, our everyday practices are similar enough that we can establish shared criteria, recognise the same brute facts and see the same obligations manifest in life. Hence, although I have not spoken to any CP supporting Texans, I suspect that they would either be lying to themselves, telling a (very bad) joke, or I (or they) will have missed a key part of the story or context.

4.   Suggestions re. moral arguments

Bearing this in mind, I think that the only way to argue is to state what one believes to be the brute fact, and put the onus on someone in favour of CP to convince one:

  • ‘It is inconceivable to me that it would be a good thing to reintroduce corporal punishment to the UK.’

If, one holds this to be a moral issue, then any argument that they make must be necessarily true, not merely heuristically, or ‘evidence suggests’ true. Therefore, one can establish every statement that they make as an if…P then…Q and criticise accordingly. To neuter an if… then… one simply needs to provide an exception that renders it conceivable that P and not-Q, e.g.

  • If we reintroduce CP, then behaviour will improve.
  • Of course, it is conceivable that behaviour will not improve with CP. Some of the worst behaved students come from homes where they are hit, and it clearly does not improve their behaviour.
  • (To which they may reply something stupid like, I was hit at school and it never did me any harm. – to which one might be tempted to reply that that is manifestly not the case.)

And again, I know that I have used this quotation before, but it is one of my favourites, and I think that it has an incredible value here, and sums up my position more eloquently than I ever could:

At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.

The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.

This profound and childlike and unchanging expectation of good in the heart is not what is involved when we agitate for our rights. The motive which prompts a little boy to watch jealously to see if his brother has a slightly larger piece of cake arises from a much more superficial level of the soul. The word justice means two very different things according to whether it refers to the one or the other level. It is only the former one that matters.

Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, ‘Why am I being hurt?’, then there is certainly injustice. For if, as often happens, it is only the result of a misunderstanding, then the injustice consists in the inadequacy of the explanation.[6]



[1] For a most robust and complete ‘takedown’ (to use the modern parlance) of consequentialism see: G.E.M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy, 33.124 (1958), 1.

[3] I am using the term in the sense used in Anscombe. There are other uses of the term, but it should suffice to say that in this post, I am simply referring to that which it would be inconceivable to deny.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967) p,223.

[5] Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (London: Penguin Books Limited, 2013). p.198

[6] Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology (London: Penguin, 2005). pp.71-72


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