Corporal Punishment: A Humane Alternative to Incarceration

Corporal Punishment: A Humane Alternative to Incarceration

Corporal Punishment: A Humane Alternative to Incarceration

Corporal Punishment: A Humane Alternative to Incarceration


In contemporary Western societies, the corporal punishment of criminals is generally assumed to be morally wrong. Murtagh, however, argues against this common assumption and attempts to demonstrate that certain forms of corporal punishment are morally permissible. In addition, he claims that these punishments are morally superior to many currently popular forms of punishment, especially imprisonment, and defends corporal punishment against objections that claim it to be cruel, inhumane, inhuman, and degrading. Substantial suffering is inevitable with any severe punishment, and Murtagh offers reasons why it may be preferable to cause it by imposing physical pain rather than by incarcerating offenders.


At the beginning of this work, it may be good for me to say a bit about the history of corporal punishment and imprisonment over the past few hundred years. Of course, this is a work of philosophy, and I do not think that an extensive historical introduction is necessary. Many facts and dates that would be of interest to the historian are beyond the scope of this work. However, I will briefly discuss some general trends that have occurred in the West over the past few hundred years and state a few relevant facts to set the stage for what follows and demonstrate the timeliness of this inquiry.

The late 18 and early 19 century was a time of significant change in the prevalent forms and methods of punishment used in the United States, England, and Continental Europe. Very generally, before that time corporal punishment was the main form of punishment for non-capital crimes and it was often public, brutal, or both. Some popular methods of punishment were whipping, branding, mutilation, and pillorying. These methods often combined physical pain and public shaming in a potent and fearful combination.

Around the turn of the 19 century, the rise of imprisonment began and it started to replace corporal punishment as the main form of punishment for non-capital crimes. In addition, more offenders who would have formerly been punished by death were being sent to prison instead. The long, slow demise of corporal punishment had begun along with the era of imprisonment. However, this demise was non-

Robert Graham Caldwell, Red Hannah: Delaware’s Whipping Post (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 3.

Ibid, 3.

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