MonoRealism Philosophy Site

The Little People

Part C: Punishment and Crime

In Part B we discussed the rights and responsibilities of children and parents. We now extend this to the questions of discipline and legal issues.

Force Majeur

To what extent do parents have the right to discipline their children, particularly with physical punishment?

To avoid confusion, it is important to recognise that there are three aspects to the use of force by parents to control their children.

First is "control": simple controlling force such as dragging a screaming toddler to the car, making a child go to its room or enforcing TV-viewing rules. Second is "cuffing": immediate "stop that!" action taken to stop what the child is doing right now, as in a shake or a smack in the heat of the moment. Third is "punishment": action taken after the event not for prevention of the act itself, but to hurt them for having done it and hopefully prevent a repetition, as in "grounding" a teenager or the old "six of the best" caning at school. Also, note that in each of these there is a choice between actions which do or do not cause physical pain, for example "cuffing" using a smack vs. a shout.

So the question of discipline is which of these actions are appropriate and when. The answer comes from the basic principle we've been discussing: the nature of parenting is rearing a person from mindlessness to rationality.

When a child is very young and effectively an animal, reason is by definition futile. All they understand is immediate consequences, and therefore, the same principles apply as with other animals. A lioness with a cub will pick it up and carry it, or cuff it to "teach it a lesson" (which works by making the immediate price exceed the immediate benefit in the cub's perception). The immediate is all it understands – and all a young child understands. Thus until a child has a functioning mind, it can only be controlled by simple physical domination. Of course, only sufficient force to achieve the desired outcome is defensible, of the same order as the lioness cuffing her cub: enough to dissuade without causing actual harm. That is, a smack not a beating. Equally obvious is that punishment at this stage is futile: a child needs enough of a mind to understand the link between its past behaviour and the later punishment before it can have any beneficial effect or justification.

However, to the extent that a child can and does reason, reason is the appropriate way to deal with it. Thus as a child gets older and its mind develops, explanation becomes more important and desirable than imposition of your will. That is important for two reasons. Not only is it the appropriate way to deal with a rational person of any age, but part of the training of a thinking being is to show how thinking beings should live together. And the correct way to deal with others is by reason, not by arbitrary orders enforced by greater power. The best place and method for that training is the example of your own behaviour, especially in how you deal with them. An example is worth far more than a thousand words, especially when it is the example of a parent.

Implicit in reason being the appropriate way of dealing with a thinking being is that it is only appropriate with such a person. If a child lapses into an inability or refusal to listen to reason, treating them like the animal they are acting as may be appropriate (depending on the severity and duration of the lapse). That also is a valuable lesson: that whether you are treated as a thinking being or an irrational animal depends on which one you choose to be! Children need to learn that the best way for them to show that force is unnecessary in dealing with them is to show that it's not all they understand.

A general principle of justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. Thus punishment involving significant physical pain is not justifiable, except when the child itself has committed violence against others. Even then, retaliation generally would be appropriate only if that was all the child understood. The aphorism "spare the rod and spoil the child" is a false dichotomy, as if the only alternatives are physical punishment and permissiveness. It is true that to allow a child to live according to its whims while protecting it from the consequences is likely to spoil it, by giving it the impression that its whims are omnipotent and it can get away with anything. Far from children having a right not to be punished, parental control is implicit in the contract between them. But in general, the appropriate punishment is removal of privileges, not physical assault. Privileges are anything you give your children over and above their basic needs. Usually, of course, children are showered with privileges because their parents love them: and equally, children tend to have an infinite appetite for such privileges. Thus the effectiveness of withdrawing them as a means of punishment.

Furthermore, in a rational morality people are motivated by values not by fear: therefore discipline by withholding values rather than by the threat of pain is important both for its own sake and as an example to the child. Imposing your will on a child is often necessary: but the lesson in the child's mind should be this is how I must act to gain values, not I am afraid to disobey my parents' orders. One of the most important things you can give a child is a benevolent view of life, in which life consists of achieving values, not avoiding pain: of living, not escaping death.

Any punishment, whatever its form, must be commensurate with the "crime." This is both simple justice, and (not coincidentally) simple motivational psychology: the cost must exceed the perceived benefit, without being so excessive as to be demonstrably unfair. Playing in the mud after being told not to deserves much lighter punishment than beating up another child. Injustice never accomplishes anything of value, for anybody.

What it boils down to is simple recognition of reality. To the extent that a child acts like an adult, they should be treated as such, and to the extent that they act like a child or animal they should be treated likewise. Discipline and guidance is essential for carrying out the parents' side of the implicit contract: but the type of discipline depends on the maturity of the child and the requirements of justice.

It's the Law

Our earlier discussion of the rights and responsibilities of parents and children was based on the nature of the entities and their relationship. That is, on reality. It is not surprising, then, that people's emotional and psychological tendencies lie in the same direction – those qualities having evolved in the context of the same basic reality. That is, parents love their children and vice versa.

So it is a reasonable expectation that parents will want the best for their children. That is a consequence of love. Furthermore, provision of that best is basically up to them, as they are the ones providing the care. As in other things, it is the role of philosophy to guide them in that task. However, there is an implicit but nonetheless real contract involved, and so the law comes into it: basically to protect the rights of the child (who is rarely in a position to violate the rights of its parents).

The fundamental right is to live by your own judgement. The problem here for the philosophy of law is to reconcile the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, with the rights of children not to have their lives ruined as a consequence.

Some contracts limit your right to act on your own judgment, such as when you are an employee who has to follow your employer's policies and orders to at least some extent (of course, you chose to accept that restriction). However, this does not apply to the implicit contract between parents and children. That contract derives from the metaphysical nature of adults and children, and there is nothing in that which demands parents give up their judgment on how to fulfil it. Indeed, the pertinent nature of adults is their ability to deal with reality, which derives from the use of their mind. Thus the contract demands that they raise their children according to their own best judgment, which implies not sacrificing that judgment to the beliefs or demands of other people.

Thus, the law cannot attempt to override parents' wishes in terms of what may or may not be "better" for the child. In matters of judgment such as that, it is the parents' judgment which counts. This includes such things as the kind of education they should have, the activities they should engage in and, to a degree, how they are disciplined.

Where parents' rights end is where objective, permanent harm begins. Just as the right to live by your independent judgment does not include the right to decide to live by violence – because there can be no contradictions between rights – so the right to raise your children according to your judgment of what is best for them does not include the right to deliberately harm them or to fly in the face of manifest reality. While everybody has a right to live and risk their own life however they like, opposing reality in a fundamental way revokes your right to judgment affecting a dependent human being.

A critical point here is that it is not a light matter to go against the parents' judgment. Provable harm must be involved, and the touchstone is the metaphysical nature of man. Statistical probabilities that doing X probably had a 10% advantage over doing Y in 55% of cases studied is useful information for parents on which to base their judgments, but does not justify a law to enforce X and ban Y. On the other hand, imprisoning a child in the basement or feeding them on air flies in the face of the demonstrable requirements for the development of human beings as such: no matter how sincerely the parents feel about it.

As with the legal definition of an adult, it is a task of the philosophy of law to fully delineate what parents may and may not do. It is the task of general philosophy to determine the basic principles on which such delineations are to be based. And the fundamental principle is that parents have not only the right but the obligation to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds determined by the basic nature of human beings.