Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

The Ethics of Corporal Punishment

by Henry S. Salt

The subject of corporal punishment is one which, though often discussed, is usually discussed in vain, for its real issue lies too deep for purposes of controversy. The mere utility of flogging, as a deterrent from evil-doing, may, indeed, be matter for argument, and its advocates may be rashly content to take their stand on its efficacy; but to its opponents this method of reasoning can never be fully conclusive, for however clearly they may grasp the proofs that history gives of the uselessness of flogging, they must feel that, even if it were effective, there are other and higher reasons for condemning it; whatever its success might be, its cost would be deemed too great. In so far, then, as the practical failure of corporal punishment is urged by humanitarians, as in Mr. Collinson’s recently published treatise on “Facts about Flogging,” such argument is merely auxiliary to the main one; it is fatal to the claims of corporal punishment, if it be established, but the counter-argument is not fatal to the humanitarian view. I would therefore briefly refer the reader to Mr. Collinson’s pamphlet for the most thorough exposure of the futility of flogging that has ever been written, and pass on to the proper subject of this artic1e—the immorality of flogging as a means of punishing offenders.

In all civilized, or to speak more correctly, semi-civilized races, like our own, a question arises as to the continuance or discontinuance of certain ancient customs that have descended from a barbarous past, and are repellent to the more refined modern feeling. Corporal punishment is one of these immemorial customs, once widely practiced and accepted as a matter of course, now the subject of very acute controversy in several departments of life, and regarded with the strongest detestation and abhorrence by an increasing number of social reformers. What is the origin of this intense dislike of a practice which is still lauded, in some quarters, as wholesome and irreproachable, and what can account for so marked a diversity of opinion?

Doubtless the hatred of corporal punishment is, in its origin, instinctive. We feel that there is something of a degradation in its infliction—degrading alike to those who inflict it and to those who suffer—and this sentiment is confirmed, on further reflection, by the teachings of history and experience. For flogging, when we give careful thought to it, is seen to be the very sum and substance of personal tyranny—the quintessence of all that is opposed to the growth of human freedom. It is an epitome of that love of dominion, mental and physical, which is the mortal foe of the natural movement; and we find accordingly that the protest against the lash, like the protest against slavery, has grown up, step by step, with the modern enfranchisement of thought. This aspect of corporal punishment was well expressed, more than a century ago, in that once overrated but now much underrated work, the “Political Justice” of William Godwin.

“Corporal punishment is an expeditious mode of proceeding, which has been invented in order to compress the effect of much reasoning and long confinement, that might otherwise have been necessary, into a very short compass. In another view it is difficult to express the abhorrence it ought to create. The genuine propensity of man is to venerate mind in his fellow-man. With what delight do we contemplate the progress of intellect, its effort for the discovery of truth, the harvest of virtue that springs up under the genial influence of instruction, the wisdom that is generated through the medium of unrestricted communication! How completely do violence and corporal infliction reverse the scene! From this moment all the wholesome avenues of the mind are closed, and on every side we see them guarded with a train of disgraceful passion, hatred, revenge, despotism, cruelty, hypocrisy, conspiracy, and cowardice. With what feelings must an enlightened observer contemplate the furrow of a lash imprinted upon the body of a man!”

In this, as in so many other matters, Godwin was a true pioneer of modern ideas; but if his judgment be suspected, as that of a revolutionary “doctrinaire,” let me refer the reader to the similar opinion of that high old Tory, De Quincey, who certainly cannot be charged with any lack of respect for constitutional authority.

“All corporal punishments whatsoever,” says De Quincey, “and upon whomsoever inflicted, are hateful and an indignity to our common nature, which (with or without our consent is enshrined in the person of the sufferer. Degrading him they degrade us. . . . Thanks be to God, in this point at least, for the dignity of human nature, that amongst the many, many cases of reform destined eventually to turn out chimerical, this one, at least, never can be defeated, injured, or eclipsed. As man grows more intellectual, the power of managing him by his intellect and his moral nature, in utter contempt of all appeals to his mere animal instincts of pain, must go on pari passu.”

Here, then, I think, is the true ethical objection to corporal punishment; it is the supreme negation of free thinking; the symbol of the slavery of the mind. I do not, of course, mean to say that it is equally detestable in all its forms; for in practice there is, no doubt, a vast difference between its degrees, and the sense of proportion which Horace long ago advocated in the infliction of the lash,

“Ne scuticâ dignum horribili sectere flagello,”

must equally be observed by humanitarians in their denunciation of corporal punishment itself. But the principle is the same throughout, from the flogging of Russian “intellectuals” by brainless Cossacks and police-agents, to the flogging of ignorant children, and even of the lower animals, by those who are their guardians and keepers—whatever the authority that prescribes the act, legitimate or illegitimate, established or usurped, the act itself is always repugnant to a refined moral sense, is always apprehended as being of itself an evil, and only to be justified as “the lesser of two evils” under the faulty social conditions in which we live.

What, then, is the origin of this widespread repugnance, and of the passionate detestation in which the practice of corporal punishment is held by not a few men and women who are no more liable than their fellows to the charge of “sentimentality”? It were hard to say; but in this connection the psychopathic, as well as the ethical, side of the question must not be wholly overlooked, for there is no doubt that there is such a mental disease as “flagellomania,” and police-court records have frequently shown that the cry for flagellation has its vicious, as well as its cruel, aspect. It is not, of course, to be supposed that the well-meaning persons who clamor in the press. for “more flogging” are conscious of this fact, but the fact remains, and has to be faced; nor is it merely fanciful to suggest that the hatred of flogging in every shape and form may be partly due to a recoil from such sensual craving for the infliction of pain on others. There are well-known instances of suicide, or attempted suicide, on the part of those whose self-respect has been outraged by the lash; and De Quincey has pointed out that as many women have rightly preferred to die than to be dishonored, so in the case of the other sex, where corporal punishment “is its peculiar and sexual degradation,” there is nothing blameworthy in such self-vindication. At any rate, the term “morbid,” so often applied to those who act or think in defiance of the vulgar opinion in this matter, is an absurd misnomer, for the morbid tendency is altogether on the other side.

But why, it will be asked, if there is this disreputable element in flogging, is the practice approved and advocated by so many healthy-minded persons? The answer is to be found in the fact that the prevalence of corporal punishment in English schools is responsible for a tone of mind, at once tyrannical and servile, which prompts our public-school men to applaud the infliction on others of what they have themselves undergone. It is the old story of the fox who has lost his tail. How unreasonable it is of the lower orders, so runs the complaint of the well-educated pro-flogger, to object to their children being birched by a burly policeman or schoolmaster, when his sons are “swished” at Eton and do not feel it to be a disgrace; and he often goes on to state, with the utmost complacency, that he himself—whose present condition, mental and moral, can obviously leave nothing to be desired—was several times birched in his youth! The conclusion is irresistible. The country is going to ruin, morally and intellectually, for want of a more general application of the birch!

And what is the precise nature of this sound and ennobling discipline? In one of the standard books about the greatest of English public schools, Mr. Brinsley Richards’ “Seven Years at Eton,” there is a graphic account of the flogging system by one who had personal experience of it, and whose evidence cannot be ignored as that of a mere faddist and “outsider.” Here is an extract which may, perhaps, serve to explain why so many good people can see nothing indecent in a practice into which they were themselves initiated as boys:

“When I first came to the school, and was told how culprits were dealt with, I fancied I was being hoaxed. I never quite believed the stories I heard until I actually saw a boy flogged, and I can never forget the impression which the sight produced upon me. . . . Several dozens of fellows clambered upon forms and desks to see N. corrected, and I got a front place, my heart thumping and seeming to make great leaps within me. Next moment, when he knelt on the step of the block, and when the Lower Master inflicted upon his person six cuts that sounded like the splashings of so many buckets of water, I turned almost faint. I felt as I have never felt but once since, and that was when seeing a man hanged. It is true that the eyes and nerves soon get accustomed to cruel sights. I gradually came to witness the executions in the Lower School not only with indifference, but with amusement.”

Let us further quote a sentence in which Mr. Brinsley Richards describes his own state of mind, when he too had been to the block: “I rose from my knees completely hardened as to any sense of shame either in the punishment I had undergone, or in others of the same kind which I might have to suffer thereafter.”

It is not surprising that men who have themselves been “hardened” in this way, or who live in a society which accepts and extols such “discipline,” should be untrustworthy judges of the morality of subjecting other persons to such punishments; for just as tattooed savages are eager to induce every stranger to submit himself to their rites, so it is with these well-bred brethren of the birch, on whose minds a belief in the necessity of flagellation has been stamped by schoolboy tradition. What else could account for the revelations that take place from time to time of the “ragging” scandals in the army and navy, where, except in the rarest cases, young English officers have tamely submitted to humiliations which any foreign officer would have died rather than endure? Naturally these flagellated gentlemen do not see anything indecent in corporal punishment, for the very sense of decency (in that particular relation) has been birched out of them in their youth.

In this matter, as in not a few others, the instinct of the English working classes, which regard corporal punishment as a personal disgrace, is far truer and less morbid than that of their so-called superiors. Working men have at least never submitted their minds to these gross indignities, but have rightly regarded such punishments as forcibly imposed on them and their children by alien laws which they had no share in making. The poor lads, in the Royal Navy and elsewhere, who have attempted suicide rather than undergo such outrage, have proved themselves to be possessed of far more dignity and self-respect than the young aristocrats of the Guards. To acquiesce in such things is a sign not of manliness, but of callousness—of a lower, not higher, state of moral development.

I lay stress on this question of the corporal punishment of the young, not only because it seems to furnish a clue to a right understanding of the ethics of corporal punishment as a whole, but also because I would protest against the common assumption that while the flogging of men is at least a grave responsibility, and the flogging of women is an abomination, the flogging of children, the weakest and most helpless class of all, is a wholesome and meritorious practice, which needs no more serious justification than to quote—and quote incorrectly—a dubious saying attributed to Solomon many ages ago. Humanitarians maintain that all flogging is an abomination, whether its victim be a man, a woman, or a child; but that it is perhaps most injurious in the case of a child, because at that age the ethical sense is more liable to be permanently confused and distorted by a lesson in personal violence as a substitute for moral persuasion. To beat the feeble and defenceless is an act which, in every other relation, is seen at once to be unspeakably cowardly and mean; it is also extremely likely to implant in the mind of the child who suffers it a tendency to act in a similar manner when the conditions are reversed, and when the slave is grown into the tyrant. Who shall say how much of the cruelty of adult life is due to the object-lessons of childhood?

It is an unpleasant fact that, in spite of the general and gradual decrease of corporal punishment in England, there has been a reactionary attempt in several quarters, during the past few years, to increase the flogging of the young. For example, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made the deplorable mistake, in 1900, of promoting a bill (fortunately defeated) for the wholesale whipping of juvenile offenders at the discretion of magistrates; and the National Union of Teachers has made every effort to retain for its members the privilege—for it is regarded a privilege rather than a disgrace—of being empowered to thrash the ill-fed children in board schools. In schools, in reformatories, in police-courts, in the Royal Navy—everywhere there is the same craze for rod and cane as heaven-sent implements of education, and the same complete forgetfulness of those wise words of Sir Benjamin Richardson, which every teacher should know by heart:

“To me, as a physician, nothing is more tainted with injurious iniquity than the corporal punishment of children, which proceeds to teach what is believed to be wrong by the instant infliction of physical pain. To the punished and punisher alike the system is as mischievous as it is barbarous. On the punished it brands hate, or servility, or palpitating fear. On the punisher it brands coward, tyrant, hasty adjudicator of rights and wrongs; while it so perverts the judgment that he who would scorn himself if he struck a woman will think the act right if a child be the object of its infliction.”

When we turn to the case of adult offenders against the law, we find the same insensate cry for a recourse to bodily pain, regardless of the fact that such punishments have been “tried” ad nauseam in the past, and have merely succeeded in brutalizing the people who imposed them, without deterring the criminals against whom they were aimed. During recent years the correspondence columns of the “yellow” press have teemed with letters demanding the lash as the sole adequate penalty for Hooligans, wife-beaters, dynamiters, train-wreckers, burglars, ill-users of children or of animals, and various other types; and the latent or open ferocity which many of the writers betray is quite as hideous and appalling as the crimes which they seek to avenge. Take for example the plea deliberately made by the Rev. Raymond Blathwayt for the punishment of certain violent forms of crime—“that when a powerful brute beat a poor, inoffensive woman whom he had never seen before, and beat her in such a way that she sank dead at his feet, such a man should himself be officially flogged to death.” It is undoubtedly a terrible blot on our civilization that violent crimes should be perpetrated by brutal and unthinking ruffians; but is it a less sinister fact that a man of culture and education should desire to repay violence with torture? I purposely use the word “torture,” because it is absurd to pretend that torture has been abolished in a society which defends itself with the cat-o’-nine-tails, which is in the most literal sense as much an engine of torture as the rack, or the boot, or the thumb-screw. Witness the following description, taken from the Sydney Bulletin, of a flogging with the “cat”:

“As they bared the prisoner’s back the officials spoke in half whispers, but as soon as the subject was strapped to the frame, with arms and feet spread wide, one called out with startling loudness, ‘Fifteen lashes!’ Immediately the f1agellator stepped forward, whirled the knotted thongs once around his head and brought them whistling down across the white shoulders. The stroke was dealt with the precision of long practice, and the victim, taken by surprise, caught his breath with a gasp and strained desperately at the unreleasing bonds, the muscles of his shoulders and arms quivering convulsively in the effort to free his limbs and get one solacing writhe under the sudden, unavoidable, tormenting sting. Failing this the wretch threw back his head and screeched forth the pent and raging resentment of his body, with an intonation hideous, heart-piercing, and unforgettable. The sound was comparable to nothing else in nature; it expressed all that is meant by despair and mortal agony.

“The other strokes followed in orderly mechanical sequence, and I watched them every one. At each stripe the tortured wretch howled anew, but above his screams could be heard the shouts of the man whose duty it was to count the strokes and, between, the vicious ‘sing’ of the lash and its gruesome ‘splash’ upon the wealed flesh. At the ninth stroke the doctor ordered the hangman to vary the direction of his blows. He did so, after staying to run his fingers through the clotted lashes and to flick the gouted blood from them upon the floor. The five last strokes were punctuated only by deep, rhythmic sobs from the victim, who now seemed to be numbed and stupefied by pain.

“When it was finished, they covered up his face and body and took him quickly away to the hospital.”

Less inhuman, no doubt, than the cat-o’-nine-tails, but perhaps even more degrading in its effects, is the prison birch, which some English judges have of late shown a tendency to prescribe for the punishment of adults, especially of those convicted of being “rogues and vagabonds” under the infamous Vagrancy Acts, once nearly obsolete, but now revived again in this enlightened age. It is difficult to imagine anything more loathesome, or insulting to our common manhood, even in the case of a criminal tramp, than this abominable judicial practice of inflicting the birch on men.

But it is said that we cannot degrade these scoundrels who are already so deeply degraded in crime. The statement itself is untrue, and even if it were true the argument founded on it would be false. There is no living being who is so sunk as to be beyond the reach of human sympathy and aid—not even the gentlemen who think and speak so vilely of their fellows—but even if it were so, if there were a criminal who had reached the lowest conceivable depth of bestial shame, it would none the less be a bestial act to subject him to the lash, because of the insult thereby offered to the general dignity of mankind. Here again the words of De Quincey are full of significance:

“Corporal punishment is usually argued with a single reference to the case of him who suffers it; and so argued, God knows that it is worthy of all abhorrence; but the weightiest argument against it is the foul indignity which is offered to our common nature lodged in the person of him on whom it is inflicted. His nature is our nature; and supposing it possible that he were so far degraded as to be unsusceptible of any influences but those which address him through the brutal part of his nature, yet for the sake of ourselves—no, not merely for ourselves, or for the human race now existing, but for the sake of human nature, which transcends all existing participators of that nature—we should remember that the evil of corporal punishment is not to be measured by the poor transitory criminal, whose memory and offence are soon to perish; these, in the sum of things, are as nothing; the injury which can be done him. and the injury which he can do, have so momentary an existence that they may be safely neglected; but the abiding injury is to the most august interest which for the mind of man can have any existence—viz., to his own nature; to raise and dignify which, I am persuaded, is the first, last, and holiest command which the conscience imposes on the philosophic moralist.”

It is amusing, in so far as anything can be amusing in so painful a subject, to observe the various futile arguments that are again and again put forward in defence of the brutalities of the lash. One of the silliest of these fallacies is to charge the opponents of corporal punishment with being more concerned

to protect the criminal than the victim of the crime, and to ask them whether they would not desire the wrong-doer to be flogged if they themselves had been the sufferers by his deed. Yet presumably the reason why civilized societies have abandoned the use of the rack is not that they sympathize unduly with the criminal, but that they have come to regard the rack as an improper form of punishment; and so, in like manner, it will be with the use of the lash—it will be abolished, not from mere pity for the offender, but because it is a vicious method of correcting him. And what could be more comical than the assertion made by the advocates of flogging Hooligans to death, that the relatives of the Hooligan’s victim would readily say “yea” to such a course? “You can only treat a brute as a brute,” says the Rev. Raymond Blathwayt, “and I am quite sure that the husband, brother, or father of a woman so murdered, whether he were a peer from Mayfair or an artisan from Battersea, would heartily agree with me in so arguing.” Perhaps

so. But it is also possible that the relatives of the murdered woman would agree as heartily to the use of boiling oil or melted lead for the “brute’s” extinction; though in that case the Rev. Raymond Blathwayt—curiously enough—would be grievously shocked! The theory that the nature of the punishment to be inflicted on a criminal should be fixed to gratify the exasperation of his victims is one that will hardly commend itself to modern jurisprudence. We see how that system works in some of the Southern States of America, where, under lynch law, an offending negro is said to have been tied to a tree, drenched in paraffin, and burned alive.

But of the many sophisms urged in favor of corporal punishment the most plausible (and the most impudent) is that which contrasts the undoubted evils of imprisonment with the pretended beneficence of the lash, and then assumes that flogging is the more humane alternative. “What else are we to do with him?” asks the philanthropic flagellant, who, unable to bear the thought of sending a law-breaker to prison, is eager to score his back with the rod. Now, in the first place, imprisonment, even in the present state of our prisons, is less barbarous than flogging; it does not so utterly break a man’s spirit and destroy his self-respect. And secondly, it is the very persons who oppose corporal punishment who have been foremost also in working for the amelioration of the prison system; so that they, at any rate, are not responsible for what barbarity it may still retain. It is the obvious duty of the State to turn its prisons into reformatories, instead of drawing from their present unsatisfactory condition disingenuous excuses for inflicting yet another form of torture on those who are convicted of crime. The true alternative lies not between the lash and the cell, but between the brutal old methods of which the profloggers are the champions and the newer, more rational methods to which humanitarians appeal.

There is one thing, and one only, that can be truly said in favor of flogging. It “saves time”—that is, it saves time at the beginning to lose it at the end. It is a “short cut”; and, like many other short cuts, it aptly illustrates the proverb, “More haste, less speed.” For a society which will not spend labor on reclaiming and reforming its offenders, it is no doubt “economical” to flog them; but the economy is of the pennywise, pound-foolish order which re-creates the evil it would destroy. It may, under present faulty conditions, and in certain rare cases, be the lesser evil to flog some man or boy who has offended (and why not equally some woman or girl?) in the absence of any more rational plan of procedure; but it probably not deter that particular offender, and it will certainly not deter other offenders, from repeating the offence. The lash is, in fact, a mere fictitious makeshift for genuine correction; it attempts by the hasty, slipshod method of bodily pain-giving what can only be effected by mature reason and thought.

To conclude, then: Corporal’ punishment, as the very antithesis of moral suasion and the compact embodiment of brute force, is an outrage on what should, above all things, be held sacred—the supremacy of the human mind and the dignity of the human body. It would be quixotic to hope that all use of physical violence, odious though it is, could be at present dispensed with, in a society which is but half emerged from barbarism; but this form of it, at least, the most barbarous, because the grossest and most sensual, must be uprooted and abandoned, before any true measure of civilization can be attained.

Published: International Journal of Ethics, October 1905 - Volume 16, Issue 1