Is Flogging More Ethical Than Incarceration?

Ah, those were the good old days!

Peter Moskos is about to publish a book entitled “In Defense of Flogging.” He’s not really advocating a return to the Cat O’ Nine Tails, however, but engaging in a so-called “thought experiment”, which Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, summarizes at the end of his article on the topic (in the Chronical of Higher Education) like this:

“So is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? Perhaps it’s not as crazy as you thought. And even if you’re adamant that flogging is a barbaric, inhumane form of punishment, how can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of incarceration be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the rattan cane over the prison cell. And that’s my point. Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?”

I’ll answer that:  it says that imprisonment is a better and more efficient punishment for serious crimes than flogging, and who didn’t know that?

It also says that prison is long-term punishment while flogging, cruel as it is, is short term. I’d submit to a lot worse things than flogging, if the alternative was loss of my freedom and life in a prison cell for a substantial amount of time. Flog me? Fine–I’ll be up and burglarizing homes again in a couple of weeks…and maybe this time, I won’t get caught. Cut off a finger? OK…that’s inconvenient, but still better than jail.

Flogging is effective negative reinforcement, no doubt, and it is certainly retribution. Prison, however, is negative reinforcement, retribution and restraint. Moskos’s argument seems to be that the practice of putting criminals in prison is unethical because it creates “a disposable class of people to be locked away and discarded. True evil happens in secret, when the masses of “decent” folks can’t or don’t want to see it happen.”

Moskos’s argument is ethically offensive, and not because we justifiably recoil at his faux endorsement of flogging, which is clearly “cruel and unusual punishment.” Like reformer/ lawyer Clarence Darrow, who did not believe in free will, Moskos regards criminals as “a class,” and prison as a form of government-sponsored apartheid. Flogging makes sense if one regards that supposed criminal class as a species of animal that can be “trained” to behave lawfully among us by the judicious use of pain, much like Malcolm McDowell’s reprogramming in “A Clockwork Orange.” Since Moskos doesn’t want flogging instituted either, one is left with the suspicion that this just the latest in a long, long chain of progressive arguments, pre-dating Darrow, for not punishing criminals at all, because all punishment is cruel, and because criminals just can’t help themselves. We need to rehabilitate them, humanely. The fact that nobody has ever figured out how to do this never seems to factor into the discussion. As Homer Simpson once said on another topic, “It’s just something people say, like “ramalama-ding-dong,” or “Give peace a chance.”

Moskos tips us off with this section, which is typical of the breed:

“We deem it necessary to incarcerate more of our people—in rate as well as absolute numbers—than the world’s most draconian authoritarian regimes. Think about that. Despite our “land of the free” motto, we have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.”

And we have a lot more freedom than they do, too.  The absence of the terror and fear created by genuine police states and authoritarian regimes encourages more people to commit crimes, but it encourages many others to do wondrous, daring, industrious and creative things. The large prison population is a bi-product of two factors: freedom, and independent decisions by a lot of people to commit crimes, for which they, and only they, are accountable.

That does not excuse corrupt, dangerous and unhealthy prisons. Prison reform, or the lack of it, is a national embarrassment of long-standing. Comparing imprisonment to flogging, however, is little more than a pedantic trick, designed to make us doubt the morality of all punishment, when in fact the existence of prisons testifies to the fact that this nation dares to give its citizens more freedom to abuse.

6 thoughts on “Is Flogging More Ethical Than Incarceration?

  1. Not only what you said above, but it seems to me that those authoritarian governments you mentioned might have a higher “execution” rate as well. Don’t have to build prisons when you can just bury the criminals.

  2. As one who devours 19th-century sailing novels, I pose this question: How do you feel about flogging on board a ship of war that is off on a three-year tour of duty? Imprisonment isn’t an option (the sailor is needed) and future transgressions are likely to be detected immediately (ships are small, or rather they were during the flogging vogue). Much as I hate to admit it, flogging seems like a not unreasonable way to keep order. The Articles of War, read out to the crew at least once a week, gave the Captain almost unfettered discretion to impose the death penalty, and the sailors all knew it. Of course, that was then, and this is now.

    • That’s a great question, and a perfect example of how changing conditions affects ethics. I think you are right: flogging on board 10th Century sailing vessels makes ethical sense, if it is not abused by the captain (ask Fletcher Christian about that.)

      I wouldn’t have minded seeing Captain Stuebing flog Gopher, either, come to think of it.

  3. It was said among reformist naval officers of the Royal Navy (circa Napoleonic times) that flogging only turned a good man bad and a bad one worse. That’s why Commodores Barry and J.P. Jones went to lengths to suppress it in the new U.S. Navy. Of course, there was a big difference between the two fleets. The Royal Navy, at the time, was manned mainly by Irish rebels, English criminals and whomever the press gangs could literally kidnap off the streets. For that reason, a Jack Tar was stuck aboard ship for the duration, as they could not be trusted. Harsh discipline became a necessity. The American Navy, however, was a volunteer force.

    As for its use as a criminal punishment in civilian life, that was discarded quite a long time ago. Only in one state (Delaware!) did the whipping post remain on the books into modern times… as an anachronism. They learned, too, that such brutality only brutalizes and does not reform.

    I could never support having a man “dance at the gratings” as punishment. Keel hauling’s more my style!

  4. Don’t discount the basic human hardwiring that equates pain with something bad and to be avoided – and the simplistic desire by the disciplinary to (a)reenforce that mental connection in the transgresors mind and (b) break the poisitive reenforcement that the transgressor received from engaging in the original transgression and getting away with it, i.e., sneaking a tot, disrespecting an officer, derilicting one’s duty while on watch or one of the other multiple things that got you brought before the Captain’s mast. (Again, we are talking in the context of the closed society of the British man-of-war in the Age of Sail.) Stealing from a shipmate might also get you some lashes, but more than likely you’d get disciplined by your shipmates with a rough below-decks justice for that. Up to and including disappearing over the side in the middle of the night.

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