Has just punishment had its day?

Has just punishment had its day?

Fr Matthew Kirby

The issue today of how best to handle bad or evil behaviour remains a contentious one, whether for families, churches, schools or society at large. Fr Matthew Kirby, an Anglican Catholic priest and an experienced educator, addresses the topic of just punishment and its role today from a Christian perspective.

Father Kirby is a senior physics teacher and acting science co-ordinator at the St Mary's Campus of All Saints College in Maitland, NSW.

There has been a move in education away from using such terms as good and evil, right and wrong, discipline and punishment, and towards terms like appropriate and inappropriate, classroom management and behavioural modification.

It would appear that these are not merely used as euphemisms and circumlocutions, as many other examples of educational jargon are. They represent a fundamental philosophical shift. No longer are certain actions seen as simply bad and to be rejected or punished because of that. These are considered to be merely "out of place" in particular environments, and so to be prevented by various forms of persuasion or manipulation.

For example, what once may have been termed "gutter humour" or a "filthy joke" (not just an earthy one) and therefore deserving of rebuke is now more likely to be discouraged as "inappropriate in the classroom" - the clear implication being that it's OK in the playground as long as no teachers are around.

Similarly, if such actions by students are persisted in after a warning, instead of imposing a punishment which is designed to match the gravity of the offence, teachers are expected to institute a system of consequences which dissuade repetition and, if at all possible, are related in nature to the type of offence.

For example, too much talking in class might lead to writing an essay on why it is wrong (or counterproductive for learning) to speak while the teacher is trying to explain something. Or, children caught writing on the desks, must clean up that mess.

Now, some of these consequences may have been given as punishments in the past anyway, but the difference in approach has an overall effect nonetheless. Its stated goal is to concentrate on the behaviour rather than the student. Sometimes an appeal is made to the principle that a student's self-esteem must not be damaged, and it is claimed that punishing persons rather than establishing consequences for behaviours will lead to such damage.

What I want to suggest is that this whole approach is based on false assumptions, rife with practical problems and, in the end, profoundly damaging to the human dignity of our students.

The philosophical errors evident in this modus operandi are as follows:

* It is fundamentally amoral in its appraisal of human acts.

* It treats students as machines whose behaviour needs to be modified by positive and negative reinforcements - rather than as human persons who make choices with moral significance and which therefore should be the subject of praise or rebuke.

* It is unreasonably ashamed of the concept of someone deserving punishment or reward. It cannot see that even if the only connection between a bad behaviour and a painful consequence is the equity between the badness and the pain, then that is justice, and that is sufficient.


The difficulty the philosophy has here is threefold.

Firstly, badness is not even on the radar-screen. There is no such thing, really, and even the word evil cannot be used without inverted commas around it.

Secondly, fair retribution is lumped with personal revenge as intrinsically immoral (ironically, given the amoral analysis of everything else).

Thirdly, since a consequence cannot be linked to a behaviour by a concept as "primitive" as retributive justice, it must be linked only by one or both of two ways. The consequence may make repetition of the "inappropriateness" less likely or the consequence may undo the damage done by the behaviour, but that is all.

* It refuses to accept that bad actions do reflect on the agent. And it overestimates both the importance and fragility of human self-esteem.

Some of the practical results of this flawed ethical pedagogy are these:

* Students are encouraged to see no intrinsic moral significance in their actions, and so are pushed towards a shallow understanding of their humanity.

* Students are encouraged to see no justice in the rules set down by authorities, including the school. "Why should I stop doing this if it's not actually wrong?" If, in trying to discourage chatting at the expense of working, we can only appeal to enlightened self-interest - "You need to do your work to get the benefits of this class" - then what if they answer that they do not need to do well in your subject to get to the place they want, or that they can get to the standard they require even with the chatting? You could point to the disruptive effect on others, but what if they are consensual partners in the talking and say they are not worried about it?

* Students will also either be discouraged from seeing justice in the "consequences" for breaking rules if we are reticent to call them punishments or penalties, or they will (probably rightly) still interpret consequences as punishments, but thus see our labelling as hypocritical.

* Teachers are unreasonably limited in the range and availability of disciplines they can impose, and so classrooms become more chaotic and teachers more frustrated. Learning suffers.

Those who doubt that retributive justice is still valid should answer the following questions. Do mass murderers deserve to be punished? If they do, how can we consistently say, as a matter of principle, that lesser sins do not? If negative consequences only exist to prevent further infractions or to repair damage, why do we not support exactly the same consequences for unintentional as for wilful acts?

From a Christian perspective, what sense can we make of Christ's solemn warnings and rebukes, unless we accept he believed certain people deserved punishment? Clearly, retributive justice is not passé. Indeed, it is morally indispensable.

One objection to this line of arguing might be that retributive justice has been superseded by mercy under the New Covenant.

There are a number of related misconceptions in this. The fact that "mercy rejoices over justice", as St Paul puts it, does not make retributive justice bad, it just means mercy is an even higher good. Mercy requires a background of justice.

If no misdeed is ever punished, then mercy is not perceived as a gift but as a right, or it may not be perceived at all: a clear failure in education. Also, automatic deletion of punishments (even if only after confession and expression of repentance) will encourage humans in their moral weakness to abuse the system by developing good acting skills instead of genuinely facing up to their guilt.

Nevertheless, even if repentance is real and forgiveness is freely and fully given, the Catholic tradition teaches that some degree of punishment may still remain in order to discipline and develop the soul, through the offender voluntarily accepting and undergoing suffering, although it can be argued that the retributory aspect is then subsumed by the reformatory or restorative aspects.

Actions and character

Another objection to my reasoning might be that separating criticism of the behaviour from that of the person is a valid application of the Christian principle: "hate the sin, but not the sinner." But we are not talking about hate, we are talking about punishment.

Of course Christians must love all people, even those who offend against them, but this does not preclude punishing the guilty, as punishments need not be motivated by or associated with hate. And it is not loving to lie to people by implying that their actions have nothing to do with their characters.

The fundamental thing that needs to be realised is that retributive justice is an intrinsic good, and is to be practised without shame or apology. This does not mean the punishment, or infliction of "pain", is intrinsically good. It is the parity between this and the offence that is good. It is, after all, the relationship of parity that is the justice. As long as the degree of punishment fits the crime, an important element of justice has been satisfied.

If the type of punishment in itself can undo any damage done or make repetition less likely, then that is even better. But it is not essential. It is better that retributive justice be satisfied than that punishment be foregone because the ones available do not fulfil other roles as well. And it is better that punishments be presented as such, along with the associated concept of deserving, and not merely experiencing, negative consequences.

Notwithstanding what is said above, it should not be forgotten that part of the reason "punishment" has become a dirty word is that in the past some educators used it excessively and as a poor substitute for effective teaching. If we think the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, we must beware of trying to pull it back too far in the other, lest we fail the test of justice again.

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