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.

Video-games Do Not Cause Violence.

It’s May, 2013 as I write this, and the USA is deep into a national debate regarding the ownership of guns and gun violence which has come about in the wake of some very famous rampages where many innocent people have been killed by one, sometimes two, young men with guns. Some people have brought up violence in video-games, film, and television as a part of the problem, that is to say, as one of the causes of what seems to be a disturbing trend towards violence. I can agree with the first part of that statement, it certainly is part of the problem, but video-violence is not causative.

Both of these phenomena, the high-profile shootings and the amazing popularity of the violent video-games, are effects, and neither is a cause. Both these trends can be viewed as the result of violent fantasies, which fantasies can be played out both ways, virtually and literally. Although I do not wish to weigh in on the American gun control conversation or divert this book towards that debate, I must say that America’s unique view of the gun issue would seem also to suggest the presence of violent fantasies in American society. I would note that America is among the last of the former First World nations to ratify the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child legislation; America is a great supporter of the practice of the punishment of children, and also the American lawmakers will not seem to support any sort of limitation of the sale of guns. Again, this suggests the existence of a strong undercurrent of violent fantasies, as well as the reason for them.

Punishment is a form of violence, certainly physical punishment is, and really, there is no other kind. Punishment is unpleasantness imposed, and imposition means force; forced unpleasantness is a pretty good definition for violence. So, if we can grant that (which, maybe not just yet, but we will, someday), then we can view the video-game theory this way:

There is real violence in our society, crime including some rather random mass killings, and there is real violence practiced upon children in the form of abuse and punishment, both corporal and “non-physical,” all of which has been shown, in study after reputable study to be harmful and to increase crime, violence, and poverty. There is also much virtual violence in the form of movies, TV and video-games. Do we really think that virtual violence is a cause and actual violence is not? The real violence is not a problem, but it is the virtual violence on the videoscreen that causes the shocking mass killings?

It is fantasies of violence that makes a child love the virtual violence he or she finds in videogames, a disposition that must exist beforehand, because simple exposure to a stimulus doesn’t cause a need, it only fills it (or not). It is the actual experience of violence during childhood punishments that produce the need, the experience of helplessness that Alice Miller speaks about that creates fantasies of power and violence, and the fantasies predate the experience of virtual violence. If the need wasn’t there before, there would be a much smaller market for violent video-games and movies. If we were unable to identify punishment as violence before, this reasoning would be enough, the size of the market for anything that plays upon our violent fantasies. The other side, the argument against that conclusion would be the same ones about ‘human nature’ and Original Sin:’ it’s nothing we do, we’re just born evil and full of longing for violence, naturally.’ That is counter to evidence, and counterintuitive, to phrase it in the most dispassionate way I can muster.

I must add that the mental illness issue that arises as an alternative conversation to gun control is very largely due to the culture of punishment also; mental illness is one of abuse and corporal punishment’s well documented negative outcomes. If shooting your parents and a bunch of teachers isn’t some kind of reaction to punishment, I don’t know what would describe it better.