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Fisking Ian Hassall: The Arbitrary Ethical Reasoning on the Smacking Referendum

July 10th, 2009 by Matt

Recently Dr Ian Hassall gave a presentation, on the upcoming referendum on section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, entitled: How did we come to have a law that supported hitting children? This presentation defends the thesis that mild physical punishment (smacking) is wrong and should remain illegal in New Zealand. In this post I will critically evaluate Hassall’s arguments and demonstrate why they fail.

Much of Hassall’s article discusses the evolutionary, legal and religious origins of corporal punishment and while I disagree with much of his analysis, and I am sure Paul Moon would have a few things to say about his historical claims regarding early Maori not engaging in violence against children, for the sake of space, I will forgo addressing this. I will also put to one side Hassall’s caricatured picture of ‘evangelical views’ on the doctrine of original sin which does not include a teaching on the necessity of inflicting pain repeatedly on children (I intend to do a Sunday Study on the biblical teachings surrounding this issue in the near future). Strictly speaking, the origins of the practice is irrelevant; the real issue is: now that it is here, is it wrong, is corporal punishment morally permissible and should it be illegal? These are questions of morality and ethics. My critique will focus on these aspects.

Evidence Shows Smacking Does Not Harm
Hassall begins his discussion of the ethical questions by conceding, contrary to the standard assertions from opponents of corporal punishment, that “a considerable body of research” shows “no detectable harm to children who have been mildly physically punished when compared with children who have had no such punishment.” This concession raises an immediate question; if mild corporal punishment is no more harmful than other forms of discipline, which are legal and considered morally unproblematic, why then is corporal punishment singled out for censure and prohibition? Hassall puts up several arguments, I will address the most significant ones.

Equality before the Law
Hassall argues against mild forms of corporal punishment by noting that the same acts would undoubtedly constitute a crime if done to an adult;

The main argument against legally sanctioned assaults on children has never been a question of whether or not it does harm, as can be seen by applying the same argument to assaults on adults.

The law that makes it a criminal offence to assault an adult does not rely for its justification on whether or not it does harm. If evidence was lacking for any ill effects from a certain level of assault by a man on his wife, for example, it would still not be acceptable. … The central issue is not whether or not harm is done but whether or not one person is entitled to assault another.

The implicit assumption behind these appeals is that, if it is a crime to do something to an adult then it must also be a crime to do the same thing to a child. This kind of reasoning seems pervasive in the arguments of those who criticise corporal punishment. The problem is that the assumption is false.

It is a criminal offence (theft) for a man to confiscate his wife’s property without her consent; similarly, it would be a criminal offence (false imprisonment) for a man to prevent his wife from leaving her room or her house. Yet no sensible person thinks that it ought to be a crime for parents to ground their child or confiscate property when their child is acting out.

Corporal punishment does not seem different from other forms of parental discipline in this respect. Both corporal punishment, like smacking and non-corporal punishments, like groundings and confiscations, are such that if one adult did them to another they would be illegal.

The Right to Physical Integrity
A second argument Hassall raises is that children have a right to physical integrity, “the right of children to physical integrity is recognised by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Twenty-three countries have recognised this right in their law.” Now the argument that we should adopt a policy on something just because twenty-three other countries have done so is not compelling in and of itself.

Now, I accept that children have a right to physical integrity. The obvious problem, however, is that not all forms of corporal punishment damage a person’s physical integrity. Some forms, like those that inflict injuries upon their victims, clearly do but the fact that some forms of corporal punishment violate a right does not entail that all do – anymore so than the fact that some forms of non-corporal punishment, such as locking a child up in a cage without food or water, mean that all forms of non-corporal punishment are unjust. Again there appears no reason for concluding that corporal punishment is wrong or unjust by this argument.

Feeling Guilty
Hassall notes that parents sometimes feel guilty when they engage in corporal punishment. “It feels wrong and when we reflect, we know in our hearts it is wrong. What ordinary parent can recall without remorse the look of fear on the child’s face when they raised their arm to strike?” The problem again is that this is not unique to corporal punishment. What parent does not feel upset, for example, when they see their child crying hysterically as a result of being sent to their room or not being allowed to watch a TV show or missing out on an event they were looking forward to due to their misbehaviour? Once again this argument gives us no reason for singling out mild corporal punishment as wrong but not other forms of non-corporal punishment. The argument applies equally to all forms of punishment that make parents feel bad when administering them.

Normalisation of Hitting
Hassall pulls out another common argument against corporal punishment, that it sends the message that “hitting people is normal.” He notes, “if as parents we have become inured to the fear and pain we cause by hitting our children, what have we become? And if our children over the years become used to us hitting them and regard it as normal, what have they become?”

It is evident from this comment that Hassall’s conclusion is decided aprori and read into the evidence instead of being inferred from it. In the previous paragraph I noted his claim that if parents feel bad about corporal punishment then this shows it is bad, here he suggests if they do not feel this way then this also shows it is bad. In other words, no matter what the facts are, he draws the same conclusion. But more importantly, if Hassall’s argument is sound then an analogous argument shows that non-corporal punishments are unjustifiable.

If smacking children teaches them that hitting others is normal then wouldn’t grounding them teach that restricting others liberty is normal? Wouldn’t confiscating their property teach that taking others property without their consent is normal? All punishment by its nature involves subjecting someone to something unpleasant, usually without their consent, which in normal circumstances it would be wrong to do; consider incarceration or periodic detention. Given that one of the functions of punishment is deterrence, all forms of punishment involves some degree of threatening others and scaring them away from wrongdoing. Not only is this an argument against smacking, it is also an argument against our justice system.

Degradation and Indirect Harm
Hassall offers two final arguments against the legality of mild corporal punishment. The first is that mild corporal punishment causes indirect harm to children and the second is that it is degrading.

Turning to first of these arguments, Hassall notes,

The old law propped up a sense of entitlement to strike children. This sense of entitlement, in an angry person with limited self control, can be the beginning of a beating. Surveys of adults found guilty of abuse of children have revealed that usually the episode of abuse began with the intention to punish and escalated.

This is a very bad argument. Essentially Hassall is arguing that mild corporal punishment is wrong because if people with limited self-control engage in it then it will escalate into a beating. He also notes that often beatings come about as a result of such escalation. The problem here is that these facts are true of many legal and perfectly permissible activities. Spousal abuse often results following escalation of a marital argument. If a person with limited self-control argues with his or her spouse he or she may lose control and commit assault. However, it does not follow that it is wrong to argue with one’s spouse nor does it follow that such arguments should be illegal. Likewise, if people with limited self-control drink alcohol they may drink excessively, get in a car and kill someone. Many criminal offences result from an escalation of drinking; does it follow that any consumption of alcohol should be illegal?

Hassall’s main and most important argument, however, is the claim that mild corporal punishment is “dehumanising” he notes that,

Women, servants and soldiers, once subject to legally sanctioned corporal punishment are deemed in modern times to have the right to be free from assault and the threat of assault and from the oppression and dehumanisation that accompanies the entitlement of others to inflict pain upon them.

Here Hassall singles out a feature that he contends mild corporal punishment possesses that other punishments do not. In modern times, adults can be subject to legally sanctioned punishments, like fines and incarceration but they cannot be subject to corporal punishment and this is because the latter (not the former) is “dehumanising” in a way that the others are not. This, he thinks, is the reason smacking should remain illegal.

The problem with this argument is the central claim behind it, that mild corporal punishment is demeaning in a way that other forms are not. David Benatar makes the point well;

Here it is noteworthy that there are other forms of punishment that lower people’s standing even more than corporal punishment, and yet are not subject to similar condemnation. Consider, for example, various indignities attendant upon imprisonment, including severe invasions of privacy (such as strip-searches and ablution facilities that require relieving oneself in full view of others) as well as imposed subservience to prison wardens, guards, and even to more powerful fellow inmates. My intuitions suggest that this lowering of people’s standing surpasses that implicit in corporal punishment per se, even though it is obviously the case that corporal punishment could be meted out in a manner in which it were aggravated…Therefore, if we think that current practices in prison life are not wrong on grounds of degradation, then we cannot consistently say that all corporal punishment is wrong on these grounds.

Benatar’s point is that one cannot claim that corporal punishment is less dehumanising than current legal punishments which “in modern times” are legally sanctioned against adults. Once this is realised, the central premise behind Hassall’s objection collapses; he has not singled out a property that is unique to corporal punishment that does not equally apply to any other form of punishment.

I began this post noting that Hassall concedes that mild corporal punishment causes no more harm than many punishments which are both permissible and legal. I conclude, by noting that mild corporal punishment does not differ in any of the other features Hassall mentions either. All punishments done to children would be crimes if done by one private adult to another. If any punishment sends the message that one can mistreat another then all do. There are numerous perfectly acceptable practices which, when engaged in by people who lack self control, escalate into crime. Having to inflict any punishment is something loving parents find unpleasant and corporal punishment is no more dehumanising than many other punishments.

Far, from showing that mild corporal punishment, such as smacking, should be singled out for prohibition, Hassall’s argument suggests that it is no more problematic than many other forms of discipline, which good parents can and do permissibly utilise. Hassall’s moral case against mild corporal punishment then is arbitrary and appears to have little rational basis.

David Benatar “Corporal PunishmentSocial Theory & Practice, Summer 1998, Vol 24, Issue 2, accessed July 3 2009.

Fisking Margaret Mayman: The Flawed Moral Theology on the Smacking Referendum
We’re Confused about the Anti-Smacking Referendum Question
No Defences Permitted for the Accused

(This post was authored by Matt and was accidentally posted under Madeleine’s account.)

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41 responses so far ↓

  • All so obvious, and yet these people think they are being rational. What they have is an unreasonable and irrational fear of trifling pain.

    Regarding the argument that "you can't hit an adult", I agree with your rebuttal. We could also present this in another way. If we gain agreement from Dr Ian Hassall that it is fine to demand children eat healthy food, surely we can walk up to adults and chastise them for eating unhealthy food. "Is that your third chocolate bar Mr Hassall, really, you should know better. Off to your room until you promise not to be a greedy sod"

    Because we can treat all adults as if they are our children, since his logic argues vice-versa! You couldn't disagree that it would be for the betterment of the adult in question :-)

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  • It seems that conclusions drawn from feelings trump science to the point that the only accepted science is that which agrees with feelings.

    The Christian writer Steve Farrar in Point Man wrote of a young boy killed as his father watched because the father had not taught him to obey. The father's screams for the boy to stop were unheeded resulting in the boy running into the path of a moving car.

    I think Hassall also forgets that young children do not have enough life experience to benefit from a parent's reasoning and corporal punishment is a language that they readily understand.

    Thanks for this posts. It has helped me codify what my thoughts on the matter.

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  • I agree with a lot of your arguments, but then keep asking myself: Why do Christians put so much effort into defending the right to hit kids? OK – you have good arguments that it is no worse than other forms of discipline – but do you have any arguments it is BETTER than other forms. In other words: would anything BAD happen if all the parents out their stopped using hitting kids as a form of discipline and used other methods?

  • Why do Christians put so much effort into defending the right to hit kids?

    Smack kids.

    Christians claim that parents have been given responsibility of raising children, not the state.

    There is evidence that smacking is more effective and results in quicker changes of behaviour. Smacking is not about forcing children to spell correctly etc., it is about correcting rebellion.

    Good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour is punished.

    As far as keeping children away from roads and water, smacking seems the best option.

    I am not certain how much we can claim causation, but there is strong correlation with decreasing corporeal punishment in schools and worsening behaviour.

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