There was an interesting debate segment today on Fox News on the topic of Corporal Punishment, or “paddling.” You can see the debate, hosted by Megyn Kelly at the bottom of this post. (cf also Washington Post article).
Not having been born yesterday I realize that the concept of spanking children is controversial to say the least. Paddling children in school is almost unheard of today though I was surprised that it is still legal in over twenty states.
Prudential Judgment – The question of paddling and the use of corporal punishment in certain cases exists in an area of decision making known as “prudential judgments (or decisions).” Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues and I recall from Thomistic Philosophy that it was defined as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Essentially Prudence is the virtue whereby we are able to properly judge, using sound reason and moral principles, the best way to come to a desired end. That it is called an act of judgment means that we have a decision to make as to best means to an end using the virtue of prudence.
Now “prudential judgments” are not mathematical in the sense that they may vary from person to person. Reasonable men and women may differ within limits as to what is the best means to attain a given end. This is because circumstances may vary from case to case and from culture to culture. Prudential judgments consider many factors such as the individuals involved, the various means available, the circumstances that both precede and follow from an action, age and or gender factors, cultural norms, moral norms and the like. Hence, as already stated, reasonable people may often differ in prudential judgments.
I point this out because I have noticed that many people treat the question of paddling or similar forms of corporal punishment as something that should be an absolute moral norm. Either they think it should be absolutely and in all circumstances banned or they think it is something that should be prescribed in accord with biblical or other traditional norms. I think the moral absolutism is more common on the anti corporal punishment side but it does exist on both sides.
Corporal Punishment is a Prudential Judgment – In discussing a topic like this it seems important that we should remember that we ARE talking about a prudential judgment. Parents will often make different judgments about whether this form of punishment is helpful unto achieving the end (e.g. discipline or maturity) which they seek. Since there are many variables in each situation there will be different approaches. If we see the debate in this light it may be more possible for us to allow variability without all the harshness. (It should be clear that severe beatings causing serious or permanent harm are to be excluded from any notion of prudential judgment).
There are many other issues in our culture which involve prudential judgment. But we seem to live in a culture where we want to make lots of rules for each other. There ARE rules that are essential to make but there are also many areas that admit of variability within limits. (Even our recent discussion on modesty admits of certain prudential judgments within limits).
Other things in the Church admit of prudential judgment such as what kind of music to allow in the liturgy, how and when to apply the Church’s social justice tradition to specific issues, how and when bishops should discipline lay people or clerics who stray from Church teaching, what is the best catechetical method, etc. We are surely free to try and influence each other’s thinking and priorities but we also do well to keep charity in mind since, in prudential judgments, reasonable men and women may differ.
As for corporal punishment I will say it worked for me. I was paddled in school and occasionally spanked at home. My parents did not often spank us but when we were young there was what I would call a judicious use of it. In school I was taken to the Principal’s office and paddled on several occasions in my errant youth. I once recall that Mr. Bulware the principal turned the school PA system on once while I was paddled. This is because I and another boy started a school yard brawl and I and the other instigator were publicly paddled to dissuade others from such actions. For me these paddlings had a salutary effect and my behavior improved. The Principal was skilled in that he did not seriously harm me but my back side stung enough that I was encouraged to avoid the paddle in the future. As I say it several such paddlings to bring the lesson home but I learned that misbehavior had embarrassing and unpleasant consequences.
Now this is MY story I do not say that every one’s experience was mine. Comments are open and you will surely have your own thoughts. But remember, this is a matter of prudential judgment and reasonable people can and do differ.
In the video debate you will see all the women are respectful of each other though one wants to impose, through federal legislation, a ban on paddling. She is free to attempt that of course but here is where I wonder why our culture insists on legislating in prudential matters. What do you think?