The Second Condition for “Legitimate” Punishment

                 2. Lack of intent to change behaviour:

                 Retribution and punishment, while distinct in text and speech are linked in the real world in such a way that separating them is impossible. They go hand in hand. When a wrong is committed, we impose some nastiness upon the person who did it, both as punishment, so as to change his behaviour, but also as retribution, which has two functions. Paraphrased from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

                 The nobler one being that retribution, some pain upon the criminal, ensures that the innocent victims of crime are not suffering more than the perpetrators. This, whether it deincentivizes further crime or not, at least provides some balance of pain in the world. The other function is pragmatic, and appeases our less noble selves, the desire for revenge. Perhaps those are not really different things after all, but in any modern state, or an organization like a school, it is revenge by proxy, which is preferable to street justice.


Bedau, Hugo Adam and Kelly, Erin, “Punishment”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.


                When we act upon a transgressor, we nearly always are doing both things, punishing and exacting some retribution. Conflating them is constant, nearly universal, and it becomes something we never have to think about. We put some pain on someone who is misbehaving, and both functions are served. But what about the times when punishment fails to be served, when authority or intent can’t be supported? I think, at the psychic level, that if the authority is lacking only in the mind of the punished, and he happens to be an adult, the retribution that remains is not all bad. It only results in a second best solution in a criminal justice related situation where really, things are rarely ideal. It is true, probably in the majority of cases of adults being subjected to justice and punishment, that the person was probably fully aware of the law and the penalties and only retribution and incapacitation are indicated. Still, anyone speaking about those situations in terms of punishment, public officials or lawyers, may be viewed as being somewhat less than completely honest, and possibly counting on the easy conflation of the several ideas. As to intent, however, if we consider that adults already know all about their crimes and their penalties, the intent to change behaviours becomes suspect at best. In the case of repeat offenders, regular, guilty customers of the criminal justice system, without an effort toward rehabilitation any pretence of behaviour modification should be abandoned altogether, due to the documented failure of previous ‘punishments’ to change it.

                 In child-rearing situations, though, retribution is harder to justify, and rightly so.

                It is one of the main points of this project that even ‘proper’ punishment of children is bad enough for them and for society, which I plan to show, let alone putting any sort of hurt on children without so much as an attempt at changing the unwanted behaviour. Retribution, practiced upon children, is counter-intuitive to the acceptable goals of society; clearly, in that stage of life and development, education must be the priority for any action adults take with the young. With no more productive lesson, pain for pain’s sake is not something we should be teaching. However, many children can also fall into the role of ‘repeat offender’, seeming to require endless punishment. In that case, as with adult criminals, the excuse of the intent to change behaviour cannot be supported. At some point, we have to admit it’s not working, and just not admitting it doesn’t count; our denial won’t transform retribution upon children into productive punishment. In this sense, retribution upon children may well be in itself a definition for abuse.

                Psychic harm is an individual thing, an internal matter, so to speak. Subjective. When we exert a stimulus upon someone, it is not up to us what response will be generated in that person, we cannot determine psychic responses based upon our intentions. If the stimulus of legitimate punishment and abuse are identical, undifferentiated by our intentions, we can expect the same suite of responses: fear, confusion, trauma, in a word, damage.

                 But, what if our child is not having either of these doubts, what if he is a believer?

                 What if the child sees the imposition of unpleasantness upon him as authorized and proper, suppose the child knows he is guilty as charged, he knows the punisher is the correct and appropriate person to administer his punishment, and he knows the punishment itself is appropriate and just . . . then what results?

                Education, moral direction, respect?

                 Of course, this is rather tongue-in-cheek, we see the disconnect here, the logical problem with this example. It is very difficult to imagine why a child who agrees about his crime, and agrees about his punishment, and acknowledges the authority of the person administering his punishment would ever require that punishment in the first place. All the information to be gleaned from the situation he already has, there is nothing he needs to be taught. If, knowing it all, he still finds a compelling reason to commit his crime, we can assume he has done some risk analysis, weighed the costs and benefits, and proceeded. It’s reasonable to assume he thought the odds of getting caught were small, or the benefit of his misdeed was big enough to outweigh the chance of getting caught, whatever the odds, or possibly that some other harm would come to him that is even more unpleasant than the penalty if he didn’t do the crime, a worse consequence from some other agency. The point is, this scenario is a false one. In real life, the punished are not conscious and willing in their punishment. In the mind of the punished, it is seldom fair and reasonable; the punishments we receive rarely seem just to us. The idea that a punished child, a punished person, understands and agrees about his crime, his punishment, and the authority of the punisher, is a fallacy. To the punished, it is all abuse, to some degree or other. If we understood and agreed with our penalties, we wouldn’t need them.

The First Condition for “Legitimate” Punishment

1. Lack of proper authority:

The practice of punishment is a very specific, legitimate sort of abuse; are its effects very different though? Considering the case of children, and assuming that retribution is not supportable when practiced upon children (which I will elaborate upon later), let us postulate a scenario, one where some person is imposing something unpleasant or aversive upon a child, we may make some observations:

If it’s the authorized person punishing a child, then what results?

For the child, education, moral direction, and respect for authority, society and the rules, because he knows he is being corrected by a caring and trusted adult? I believe these are purported to be the goals of punishment.

And if it’s the unauthorized person dishing out unpleasantness, what results then?

For the child, trauma, confusion, fear, potential damage to the psyche? Certainly many people would at least consider that to be something between a possibility and a probability, depending on the severity of the unpleasantness and a number of other variables.

And what if it looked identical not to a passing stranger, or to us, as omniscient observers, but what if it looked exactly the same to the punished or abused person, to the punished or abused child? What if the child thought any number of things that would invalidate the authorized nature of his or her punishment in his or her mind? This is not uncommon, that a punished person, child or not, has a reason for his transgression, somewhere between an outright, far-fetched rationalization and an actual, arguable reason. More importantly however, what is also far from rare is it that a punished person has reason, good, bad, or in between, to feel that his punisher isn’t or shouldn’t be considered to be a respected and trusted authority. So in the likely event that something like these thoughts are in the child’s mind, then what comes of it?

Education, moral direction, respect, because that is what the punisher intended? Or:

Trauma, confusion, fear, potential damage to the psyche, because what the child perceives is not punishment but abuse? Which of these?

Of course, the question of what is effected in the punished or abused child’s mind is rhetorical. We, people, human beings, we suffer physical damage according to the blows we receive, according mostly to the targeted part of our person, and the force of the violence, all of which are determined by the intent of the attacker. This is not the case with psychic damage, which is more complex. The punished, the abused person, their internal effects, those are more closely correlated to their own mental and emotional structures than they are to what’s in the mind or heart of the abuser or punisher. And so, as beauty is in the beholder’s eye, doesn’t the trauma of abuse reside in the mind of the punished or abused person? And so, doesn’t authority lose its transformative power and the act of punishment move some steps closer to becoming only abuse?

Again, rhetorical. I’m saying yes, and maybe every step, the whole walk.

Abuse is a subjective determination, is what I’m saying. I don’t think that is news for anyone, but perhaps it doesn’t get the traction it deserves in our minds. It cannot be the punisher or abuser’s decision as to whether a given action is abusive. If that were any sort of logical possibility, that the people dishing out the unpleasantness got to say what is abuse and what is not, where could we be in terms of crime and punishment, morality, or support for the sufferers? There would be no concept of abuse. No abuse, no rape, no concept of personal human rights. Abuse is, must be, a subjective determination: if I feel raped, I have been raped, if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria. Therefore, if a child has been subjected to punishment, and he has reason to believe that the three conditions for punishment have not been satisfied, for instance that his punisher, for any number of real world reasons lacks moral authority (not a rare thought), then the child will feel abused.

Again:  if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria.

The Third Condition for “Legitimate” Punishment

3. Intent to change behaviour for an unacceptable purpose:

This would be another ‘eye of the beholder’ thing, or even better, the mote in your brother’s eye: we have other names for the application of corrective punishments that work against us, against our interests, our nation’s interests, or society’s. They are indoctrination, coercion, and brainwashing. These terms are most utilized when we speak of other nations, other cultures, and they mostly refer to how those other groups feel about our group, our culture. It is some thick irony to state that “those people” are taught and indoctrinated to despise us and our way of life when it is said in a conversation about what is “wrong” with those people and their culture, but that is the nature of punishment, part of the definition. If we don’t agree with the goal, then we tend to invalidate it as punishment and think of it as abuse.

Examples closer to home would be in the criminal world, ‘the Life’ as they say, where young people are indoctrinated to street crime and prostitution. A pimp, or a man who runs a group of child thieves, may feel the force and violence he uses in recruitment, training and discipline is punishment; it serves his goals, but not society’s. The long and short of it, I think, is that we think of punishment as a good thing, a thing that is used for legitimate purposes and improves behaviour and the world. When that cannot be shown, we have other, less positive words for it.

The Three Conditions for “Legitimate” Punishment

Remove authority and punishment becomes abuse. We can’t just go about making peoples’ lives unpleasant in the sorts of ways we use to punish, even with a reason and good intentions unless they’re somehow our people, somehow under our legitimate authority.

Remove the intent and it becomes wrong, it becomes an authority simply practicing retribution. If there is no intent to modify the subject’s behaviour, if it is only the exacting of a price, retribution is the word for that, not punishment. (Retribution is or should be considered wrong except as a deterrent. Retribution is unproductive, other than providing some sense of justice for the wronged party in the original crime, it belongs on the ‘wrong’ side of the ledger for any person or institution that is hoping to improve things for people and society. It is an evil that balances evil in an imperfect world, but that balance comes by increasing hurt generally.)

Removing the intent of correction makes handing out pain or unpleasantness abuse. Even where wrong has been done, without the proper intent, imposing a penalty becomes something on a continuum between retribution and only an excuse to abuse, if even a proper authority is doing it. The same would hold true if the intent to change was there, but the aim of the change was unacceptable. Punishment is defined by these three conditions; it is a table with three legs. So, in terms of these definitions, in what ways can punishment be disqualified?

1.Lack of proper authority
2.Lack of intent to change behaviour
3. Intent to change a behaviour for an unacceptable purpose

Abuse, Punishment, and Intentions

To repeat: Abuse is, must be, a subjective determination: if I feel raped, I have been raped, if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria. Therefore, if a child has been subjected to punishment, and he has reason to doubt that the three conditions for punishment have been satisfied, for instance if he feels that his punisher has made no effort and doesn’t care if it improves the child’s behaviour (a likely assumption if there is no other attempt to solve the problems that resulted in the offence in the first place, only the unpleasantness and no lesson, no offer of other solutions. If the child is in some sort of bind where the crime is necessary for him), he will feel abused. This is not a rare thought, is it? Again: if I feel abused, I have been abused. That is the criteria.

It is one of the main points of this project that even ‘proper’ punishment of children is bad enough for them and for society, which I plan to show, let alone putting any sort of hurt on children without so much as an attempt at changing the unwanted behaviour. Retribution, practiced upon children, is counter-intuitive to the acceptable goals of society; clearly, in that stage of life and development, education must be the priority for any action adults take with the young. With no more productive lesson, pain for pain’s sake is not something we should be teaching. However, many children can also fall into the role of ‘repeat offender’, seeming to require endless punishment. In that case, as with adult criminals, the excuse of the intent to change behaviour cannot be supported. At some point, we have to admit it’s not working, and just not admitting it doesn’t count; our denial won’t transform retribution upon children into productive punishment. In this sense, retribution upon children may well be in itself a definition for abuse.

There may of course be many other ways in which intent fails as a condition of punishment, but again, abuse is in the mind of the receiving party, and children, especially young ones, have little hope of granting authority or intent the way we hope and so they will likely experience our corrective efforts as abuse. In that sense, intent can always fail, but if all else is identical, if an unauthorized person can impose something unpleasant on a child for the wrong reasons and it looks exactly the same as the ‘proper’ version, then what of intent?

In what other area of life, in what other sorts of interaction, when all things are equal, when actors, actions, and objects are identical, do intentions change outcomes? In what activities do we not have to consider what we do, but only our intentions? It may in fact be a fallacy for anyone to declare their different intentions if the actions are the same; if actions are not modified, then what evidence exists for modified intentions, let alone for different results?

Alice Miller, Continued . . .

I’m having a little trouble getting this idea across, the idea of parental force and violence, of parental power, as a condition necessary for abuse. To read the psychoanalysts on the subject, gives one a concept of a purely mental process of manipulation, that abuse is inevitable unless a caregiver purges himself of all unconsciousness of his own damage, of his own abuse suffered in his own powerless state of childhood.

Full disclosure – I have not had the therapy, I haven’t discovered my own emotional history. I am told I’m a rather closed person. I’m not sure the psychoanalysts are wrong in the above idea, and I’m not sure my own children are without some damage. Certainly there is a great deal of education I was unable to give them,  certainly my inadequacies must add up to deficiencies in their lives. Certainly my blind spots resulted in a failure to acknowledge and nurture certain traits or abilities in them, and in a real sense, this must be a kind of abuse.

Having said all of that, is this really the larger problem?

Would this sort of abuse have spawned psychological thought, that is, would the symptoms, the resulting damage from these sorts of failings have brought about an entire branch of medical care, one that began in hospitals?

If we were to triage the various phenomena of mental damage, I think we should look first to the more immediate, more invasive sort of trauma. Perhaps if we can make some kind of dent in the mountain of abuse damage that we are very actively creating by our own force, then we may have a generation, a society that can look to the sort of failing I have visited upon my children, who were never punished, ever, for anything.

I raised my kids on the theory that if I never forced them to accept anything I may have wanted them to have or do, that along with the good learning and disciplines I might have imparted, they would not have to accept any bad thing I might have also imparted to them. I hoped that the truth of life and the world could be apparent to them if I did not force or coerce them into accepting my views, which considering my damage, must probably be very flawed. My idea was that if I never punished, never forced, I could never abuse. This is the concept I am having so much trouble articulating here:

Abuse is not automatic, not transmitted invisibly from one mind to another. Abuse is something that occurs in a power imbalance, with the exercise of power, and much thought, both of professional practitioners and theoreticians of psychology and parents, seems to hold that the very power dynamic that makes abuse possible is proper and necessary, and in fact, that force and even violence is proper and necessary. My own view of this idea changed many years ago, and now, I am somewhat hesitant to say, this idea seems . . . crazy.

Are we truly, as a society, simultaneously of the opinion that abuse is transmitted somehow invisibly, not to say ‘magically,’ and also that the force and violence of punishing children is not only not involved, but actually absolutely necessary?

Abuse is transmitted by very clear means, for the most part, at least the worst kinds are, and the foundations of it are the power dynamics of the parent/child relationship. The mechanics of it are in the practice of punishment. Whomever was abused, whomever has witnessed abuse, I challenge you: could it have happened, or could it have been allowed to happen without the existence of the socially accepted structures of power and punishment? For the largest part, punishment is a condition for the existence of abuse, and the difference between the two being considered as only in the details, the particulars – that is everyone’s, society’s blind spot.

Alice Miller was wrong.

Not about the problem. The problem Dr. Miller identified is real. It’s real, and it’s huge and serious. Nearly all children, for basically forever have been abused by their caregivers, usually their parents. Child abuse is ubiquitous and systemic. True dat.

But the doctrine that she offered and has been held by her followers, that a person must have a deep and thorough therapy and recover their memories of childhood trauma, recover the feelings buried during those traumas? This is a good plan for a person, a way for a person to get in touch with themselves, a way for a person to heal themselves, and some folks may succeed. It’s well documented that Dr. Miller failed in her attempt, and sometimes offered as a criticism of her work, at least as a qualifier of the success of her work, but that doesn’t amount to anything. Therapy is not going to solve this problem.

Dr. Miller understood the goal, and she was motivated, personally and professionally, yet still she failed. One reason for this is that almost no-one has escaped the problem Miller described – her therapists included. No-one understands all the types of abuse, no-one qualifies all the abuse as such, no-one can acknowledge all of it. The problem she has described is real, and very serious, even – incurable. Every year we live is more influential and more important than the next, so traumas in early childhood have more power over our development and therefore in our lives than any attempts at intervention afterwards can ever have.

It is prevention that we need to solve this problem. There is no fixing it afterwards. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men . . .

Millerian doctrine has it that we cannot save our children except if we become conscious of our personal histories, of our childhood traumas and abuse, but this rests on an assumption very few people fail to make: that all children need be abused, that all children will be subject to force and violence, because they MUST be. The assumption is that all children must be controlled, and controlled by force and or violence. We seem to consider that it is abuse only when it is carried too far.

This is where I introduce punishment as the vector for the disease. I submit, that if we do not punish our children, that if we never hurt them, as Dr. Miller says, “For Their Own Good,” then we will never go too far with it. If we can find a way to never hurt our children, and not PLANNING to hurt them would be a good start, if we don’t plan to hurt them or abuse them any way whatsoever, then we will never visit upon them even the particular abuses our own personal histories have left us blind to. That is the one, universal repressed thing that we are all blind to, punishment, that is the secret, and if Dr. Miller ever realized it, she never told us.

We all have this blind spot, we all think punishment is OK, that punishing is somehow different from abuse. That is the key., and that is the thing that when we realize the truth, Alice Miller’s dream can come true, children raised without abuse, because the children of someone who has realized this will be safe, despite the particulars of their parent’s abuse. These parents will not pass on abuse, because abuse is passed on by force.

If we refuse to use force, our children will be safe.

I’m with Alice Miller.

Really, Alice laid it out, I’m only trying to give her POV, her revelation in a different way, and from different angles.

I think she’s been somewhat marginalized because so much of her ideas have been bound up with the repression concept, and worse, with the hope of the recovery of repressed memories. That controversy introduces some doubt, and that is all we all need to justify our denial.

I hope that my contribution to the conversation will be to show that the important parts, the main points of Miller’s teaching, do not require that repression or the recovery of repressed memories be accepted. I think I can make a case that children the world over and forever have mostly been abused, and that even ‘acceptable’ punishments constitute that abuse. I think it can be shown, in simple language and without any leaps of faith that punishment – any punishment – causes damage to people, children, and that the ubiquity of the damage does in no way invalidate the harm to individuals and to societies. Rather the reverse.


Punishment, Rewards, and Human Nature

. . . and Capitalism.

We are not ‘born bad,’ despite what our authoritarian parents and leaders would have us think, despite that everyone seems to think we are. The Christians call it Original Sin, they think we are born evil and need God and His rod to beat it out of us, and the evolutionists think we are basically animals, and need to be civilized by force.
So we use punishments and their inverse, rewards, to teach us how to behave and this makes everything about us and our desires. That is the concept of punishing, to turn us away from an unwanted behaviour by causing some pain for us – just in case the actual negative consequence of our behaviour escapes us. Punishing brings an immediate focus of it to us, to our personal selves. Rewards do the exact same thing: when we do something good, it’s made good for us.
Of course, this teaches the opposite of any true morality, this negates any idea of altruism. Punishments and rewards simply train us to behave certain ways only because of the benefits or detriments to ourselves. This does not teach concern for others.
This is how we raise our children, this is how we teach, all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth . . . and then the Capitalists talk of competition, self interest and even greed as “Human Nature.”
Of course, Human nature is only a collection of observations, and not in fact a cause or explanation for anything. Again – all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth, we punish and reward, making every teachable moment for every human only about himself, and then we declare people to be “naturally” only interested in themselves.
Pffft, I say. Rubbish.
Science is telling us that the “blank slate” theory is not true. And correct as they may be, born as a blank slate or not, we spend, again – all day, every day, for the longest period of childhood and education of any animal on Earth – writing on, drawing on, and inscribing into our slates, until our slates are left with no clear, unused space, we end with layers upon layers of script, all mixed up and nearly indecipherable. It is truly no surprise that the original state of our slates is such a mystery, but it is no mystery that we very actively and forcefully write on it ourselves, and science also tells us that all that energy and force will not be without effects.
Human nature is what we make it. Until we stop so forcefully creating our natures, we will never know what it may have been, what the scripts might be if we really allow nature to mark our slates.

Consistency of Discipline

Something we hear a lot from those who advise parents, is the need for consistency with our discipline. Logically, in terms of the need, I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a deterrent if the miscreant lacks a reasonable expectation of the penalty and if punishment fails for no other reason, this would be enough, and this may be the most epic of all of the failures in our system of punishment. Consistency is an illusion. First, consistency is not completely within our control, is it? You have to catch them first: any misbehaviour that is undetected can never be punished in the first place, and so, regardless of whether we are capable of machine-like consistency ourselves, consistency fails in the real world.

The success of the use of punishment depends on the subject’s knowledge that the unpleasantness is coming, so that he or she may alter their actions to avoid the consequence. Therefore, there must be a warning, an explanation of the process, “you do this, and you get that.” The explanation, and/or simple repetition connect the behaviour to the punishment, and the child learns to change their ways, and so the child’s behaviour is improved, hopefully in the long term. It needs to be said, that the sort of control that could provide the recommended consistency to make punishing reliable is only possible with very young children indeed. Punishment is insidious that way; it can appear to work on babies and very young toddlers, but as soon as a child gets his legs and a little freedom, as soon as he discovers for that very first time that all his crimes are not detected and punished, it’s over.

(Of course, I don’t advocate for improvement in our consistency, quite the reverse. If we were to do what would be necessary for one hundred percent consistent application of detection and penalization, that would be a nightmare even worse than the random abuse we live with now. That situation would be a futuristic police state that even George Orwell would not wish to imagine.)

With the failure of consistency being the norm, we must confess that the deterrent component of punishment fails, yes, but also the whole concept. Human beings are not inanimate things, we can see that the behaviour our punishments are intended to change do not have to change for us to escape the penalty, only the detection of the behaviour. When punishment is the tool being applied, we only ever need to learn a single lesson, “don’t get caught,” and we will also have our justification to ignore the intended lessons. With the failure of consistency comes the failure of punishment to correct behaviours, and our ‘punishments’ therefore fail the definition and fall from grace into mere abuse, at least in the minds of the punished. Of course, that is where the damage occurs.