When someone announces that they are against corporal punishment, especially of children, the reasonable question to ask is which part they object to: “corporal”, or “punishment”? Making this distinction instantly reveals a problem not much pondered by these advocates for a kinder, gentler … what, exactly?
If the problem is with the “punishment” part, I do not have much I can say. That people do bad things – and, what is particularly necessary to the argument, things they know are bad – is an obvious fact of life. If you do not agree that a person intentionally doing wrong deserves punishment – not just some “correction” to return to a “good life”, or even an impartial detention to “protect society”, but actual retributive punishment – we are not talking eye-to-eye. We are not living in the same perceived moral universe.
But suppose you admit that punishment is, however occasionally, deserved and appropriate. Exactly what punishment is preferable to corporal punishment? Emotional humiliation? Social shaming? As a matter of fact, I would not necessarily condemn these measures either, depending on the offense; but I am trying to make a point here: punishment hurts. It, by definition, is not pleasant.
Humans are, as it happens, corporal beings; that is, we have bodies. As far as we can demonstrate conclusively, it is not certain that we objectively have anything beyond our bodies, many emotions, thoughts, and so on being linked more and more to brain functions. And most pertinently, most of the bad things we do, as it happens, we do physically with those bodies. The hand that reaches out and sneaks the candy bar off the shelf is material, not psychical; the mouth that tells lies about little sister is made of muscles and bone, not emotion or even mind – even if the mind (and what exactly is that?) may have made the decision to lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise misbehave. It is only appropriate – at least in the abstract, philosophical sense – that punishment meted out for these misdeeds also be physical.
Like just about anything humanity does, we find unwise and evil people abusing the practice. However, an abusive father says about as much about corporal punishment as an accident cause by brake failure says about car travel: namely, it tells us that something went wrong with something common and useful. Plausible criticisms of corporal punishment would have to run along these lines: either that another punishment is more appropriate in a particular case or in all cases; or that, recognizing that one secondary purpose of punishment is correction, another correction or punishment is a more effective corrector. If you object to punishment altogether, nothing except its pervasiveness recommends corporal punishment for particular objection; if you accept punishment, corporal punishments are the most obvious and natural ones to deal out. This probably goes for adult vandals as well – taking one thing with another, a solid caning seems rather more humane than locking up a man or woman even for six months.