Punishment – the Definition

Punishment describes the act of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person or animal in response to an unwanted behaviour. The behaviour may be unwanted for any number of reasons, including disobedience and immorality, and the unpleasantness may take any number of forms, but we understand the use of punishment as intended to condition the person or animal to stop the behaviour, to learn not to do it. We use the term to mean some unpleasantness brought to bear by an authority onto a misbehaving party with the intention of correcting the misbehaviour. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,

“In common usage, the word “punishment” might be described as “an authorized imposition of deprivations — of freedom or privacy or other goods to which the person otherwise has a right, or the imposition of special burdens — because the person has been found guilty of some criminal violation, typically (though not invariably) involving harm to the innocent.”

In short form, then, in the most general view, punishment is the act of an authorized person imposing something unpleasant or aversive in response to an unwanted behaviour.

In the technical language of psychology, the definition of ‘the reduction of a behaviour by the removal (negative punishment) or application (positive punishment) of a stimulus’ only applies if the intended result is actually achieved, if the unwanted behaviour is reduced. This ‘application of aversives’ is only elevated to the definition ‘punishment’ if it succeeds.

It is possible to break the idea of punishment down into its components, or aspects, and those may need some definition as well:


Possibly the original idea of punishment, the straight-forward practice of getting “even” with someone who has caused harm, the idea that the perpetrator of a wrong then suffers is seen as just and proper, even if no other benefit is seen. While it may be seen as abuse, it is considered to be justifiable on the basis that when there is no retribution, the innocent victim suffers more than the guilty party, which would be counter-intuitive to a just society. Having said that, a brutal retribution probably also has aspects of either incapacitation or deterrent (see below). Part of the definition is that the miscreant suffers a fate that is equal to the suffering of his victim.


This is the attempt to turn the criminal away from crime, to show him the error of his ways, and to try to give him another way to live, to bring him back to the life of the just, that he won’t return to crime when he can. This is a lofty goal, not really part of his punishment as such, but often attempted simultaneously with punishment.


This refers to restricting a miscreant’s ability to continue his wrong deeds, in order to protect future victims. Common methods have been exile, incarceration, or the more brutal practices of mutilation, such as castration of rapists or the cutting off of hands for thievery.


Simply put, the wrong-doer simply is made to right the wrong, perhaps cleaning up a mess he created, or repaying money he stole. This is seen as a more rational sort of consequence than some other types of action that can be taken against a criminal.


The idea that the prospect of a punishment could stop a crime from ever being committed, that if the criminal knows the punishment and fears it, he may decide against the crime, it is often referred to in cases of severe punishments, the more severe, that the stronger the deterrent effect. In cases of capital punishment (the death penalty), deterrent is the argument for it, along with retribution, being that other aspects of punishing, like restoration, or rehabilitation, cannot be applied.

Corporal punishment:

Physical punishment, the deliberate application of physical pain applied as retribution and/or deterrent. According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, corporal punishment is

“any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2001) “General Comment No. 1.” Par. 11.)

Regarding authority, punishments can be legitimately administered by:

– parents or guardians upon children, except that in the case of corporal punishment of children, 32 countries have outlawed it (The U.S.A. is not one of them.)
– teachers and administrators of schools upon students, although not universally, and again, except in the case of corporal punishment of minors, where it has been outlawed in many countries and many of the US states
– criminal courts
– prison authorities
– military organizations
– church hierarchies
– employers (by contract – demotions, etc.)

So, to repeat, for the purposes of this conversation, this will be my definition of punishment, considering the above comments: the act of an authorized person imposing something unpleasant or aversive in response to an unwanted behaviour. To add to it, I think we need to say that the motive is important to the definition, and for me, “in response” doesn’t really say it. The intent of the response, then, is to change the behaviour in order to serve some accepted desire or need of the punisher or the society.

Bullying as Punishment

the world runs on authority, on force. The army, the police, schools, corporate hierarchies, parenting, parenting, parenting. Family structure. Punishment and discipline is a system by where we control unwanted behaviour by force, and punishment, which, punishment is defined as dishing out unpleasantness to the misbehavers in order to motivate them to change their ways.

This is pretty much a definition of bullying. The bully punishes the victim. The bully justifies this punishment by listing the victims’ misbehaviours, or the victims’ family’s, or race’s, or faith’s misbehaviours.

This is punishing behaviour, this is bullies doing what their parents did, doing what the police do, I mean the bully’s behavior is VERY CLOSE to that, closer than any of us would like to think. I’m saying the bully feels he is doing what he sees around him, that in the parlance of some schools of psychology, the bully is getting his power back, after some authority figure has taken his power from him.

So, parents, schools going to the bully kids and telling them to stop is a joke to these kids. They see it as just more ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ So do I, for that matter. I, for one, would love to see someone ask the kids if I’m right about that. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the kids.

Parents don’t think they are bullying. We have a consensus about what is acceptable punishing behavior, and we really cannot seem to draw parallels with our legitimate punishments and other similar behaviours. If we can’t, if we won’t see how bullying is an extension, an extrapolation of our punishing ways, then there is very little hope that any of our conversation about bullying, any of our attempts to combat it will get any traction, very little hope of our ever solving a problem if we refuse to understand it in the first place. Surely, someone has noticed that speeches that don’t acknowledge this difficult truth have not had any dramatic effect on the bullying phenomenon? I think any approach that doesn’t include this idea would be considered empty and hopeless, at least to any group that lives under threat or reality of punishment – like our kids.

Long and short, if we don’t stop ‘bullying’ our kids at home, we will never stop their bullying, that should be obvious. I don’t know why it isn’t.

Many nations have outlawed corporal punishment, in Canada, we are in the process of outlawing it, and I can see the next step, that we will someday realize that the damage caused by punishing behaviours generally outweigh any benefit, and when we all stop anything like bullying, so will our kids. Until then, we will fight this bullying thing in vain, fighting it in the schools, and causing it at home.

So now, there are programs, task forces, plans and research, all government money spent to figure out this embarrassing problem, and if we don’t try to stop people from the use of punishment – corporal and otherwise – on our kids at home, we are wasting all those resources. And that is a sad, cruel joke, one that the parents don’t understand, and only our kids are laughing about. Not in a good way.