How and When to Punish

Importance of Punishment

One concept that is difficult for liberals to accept it is that evil should be punished. In the first place, it is almost a fundamental tenant of liberalism that there is no such thing as human evil (borrowed from Rousseau).  In addition, liberals because they are alienated from proper Catholic teaching do not understand the meaning of charity or Christian love (which does not exclude punishing the beloved).

Even while it is admitted that punishment is necessary, the reasons for it are not what they should be. There are generally four reasons why people are punished by the government. They are:

  • Retribution
  • Deterrence
  • Incapacitation
  • Rehabilitation

Retribution or revenge satisfies the demands of justice. Justice requires that good be rewarded and evil punished. Deterrence prevents criminals from committing future crimes and educates the general populace, so that they think twice about committing a crime. Incapacitating by means of jail prevents a criminal from committing crimes against the general population. Rehabilitation seeks to make the criminal a better person.

The primary essential reason why one is punished (in general) is to satisfy the demands of justice. The second in order of importance reason for punishment is rehabilitation. Deterrence is a form of rehabilitation in that it is primarily concerned with preventing future offenses using fear.

While punishment is primarily concerned with justice from a perspective of charity, its goal is to make a person good. This is achieved because one of the effects of punishment is to bring order to disorder. From a moral perspective, it is a disordered will that punishment can remedy. Governments because they are primarily concerned with actions and not interior motives and because punishments are generally standardized are not very effective at rehabilitation. It is left to private persons (and God) in positions of authority to met out punishments that rehabilitate.

How to Punish Properly

There are a number of effective means of punishing. Some are physical and others are psychological. They are:

  • Corporal
  • Disagreement
  • Rejection
  • Ignoring

Corporal Punishment

When most people think of punishment they will either think of a parent spanking a child or a criminal being sent to jail. Given that there are laws against striking someone who is not a minor, it may not be moral to spank or hit a person under one’s authority. However, there is no intrinsic immorality in punishing a person with physical pain. In the past, monasteries and schools resorted to corporal punishment to punish disobedient persons.


It is commonly known that persons have disagreements at times. These disagreements are actually power struggles. One person is trying to get another person to do something and there is a contest of wills.

One can punish someone by disagreeing with him. Disagreement causes psychological pain.


  • “Stop!” or “Stop…” or holding one’s hand out in a stop gesture
  • “No!”
  • “Don’t…”
  • Shaking one’s head
  • Wagging a finger
  • Offering a differing opinion
  • A very firm directive


  • “Get out of here.”
  • “Your behavior is … Don’t…ever again”
  • Moving away from someone standing still and talking to you
  • Ending a friendship
  • Firing an employee


When one is in a position of authority ignoring others’ expectations is a type of rejection and hurts them. So long as a person want your attention and you don’t give it to them (by ignoring them), you are punishing them.

Not Punishing

There are a number of ways that one can refuse to punish when it may be the case that one should punish. They include complaining, begging, asking, guilting, empty threats, and ignoring a person who does not fear your authority. These are examples of weak behavior where one does not exercise authority, but relinquishes it to whomever one is dealing with.

When to Punish

Generally speaking, one must punish when (1) one’s expectations are broken (2) by one who is under your authority and (3) until you obtain the person’s full submission.

(1) Expectations

When one is in a position of authority, it is important to state the rules. These are one’s expectations. If one does not state one’s expectations, then a person who should be obeying you can’t be held morally accountable for violating them. It is to be assumed that provided that your position is clear (e.g. you are the boss) that one who is under you knows based on natural law that they are to obey you (with some qualifications). However, it certainly does not hurt to state this. When one is giving direction (a moral requirement) to a subordinate, one is stating one’s expectations. It need not be and often it is not explicitly in the form, “I expect…” It is only important that it is clear that this is a command/order and not a request.

Two caveats concerning expectations are that they must be congruent with supernatural law and they should specify behavior that affirms the proper order. It is quite certain that one can’t expect any person to do something wrong like kill an innocent outside of a war situation. In addition, one’s expectations should serve to reinforce each person’s station. Thus it is good that rulers require that their subject give them certain honors, such as a bow or even a prostration. In general, disrespectful behavior should not be tolerated by superiors.

(2) Subordinates

From a certain perspective, the dynamic of punishment and submission is a normal part of social interaction between equals. When a person wants something of someone else typically he must ask for it. If a person refuses, then a disagreement can ensue where someone gets their way. In this case, though, there is no real moral obligation short of some kind of implicit or explicit agreement on the part of one or both parties.

In the case of a hierarchical relationship, good manners presupposes that in general one softens commands or first phrases them as requests. Using words like please, thank you, kindly, etc. makes one out to be a kind father rather than a blunt taskmaster. However, underneath this typically pleasant interaction, there is a real possibility that the subordinate can be insubordinate and the metaphorical gloves will come off the superior.

What makes this aspect of punishment complicated is determining just when there is a clear superior-inferior relationship. In general, persons’ have a natural right to avoid being bullied into doing something that they would rather not do. This does not mean that no person can be in a position where they are in authority.

Outside of obvious relationships: husband-wife, parents-children, government-citizen, clergy-parishioner, boss-employee, teacher-student, I believe that the litmus test for informal authority is whether or not someone needs your cooperation to get their job done. This is not an unqualified authority.

(3) Submission

Once one has determined that one’s stated expectations have been broken and that one is in a clear position of authority then one must punish the subordinate. The punishment must not be excessive (and thus be abuse), but only be enough to obtain full submission. While punishing one must not have a hardness in one’s heart or one would commit the sin of cruelty. One must repeatedly punish a person (e.g. saying “Don’t be disobedient.” multiple times) with the same amount of punishment or increase the intensity of the punishment provided that it not be excessive. After submission is obtained, one should stop punishing and give pleasure to reward obedience. One can know when submission has been obtained by a person’s obedience with a submissive attitude. Mere compliance coupled with something disrespectful like sarcasm is not full submission and it should be punished until full submission is obtained.









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