Does spanking violate the non-aggression principle?

Libertarianism centres around the nonaggression principle and a respect for property rights, which are derived from the axiom of self-ownership.

Libertarians condemn social institutions which violate the nonaggression principle and property rights. Taxation, national debts, fiat currency, unjust invasions, and the persecution and incarceration of nonviolent citizens through drug laws — all these have been roundly and soundly criticised by libertarians through the decades.

The one thing that all these institutions have in common is that we, as individuals, can do next to nothing to oppose them. Even as a collective movement, not only has libertarianism been unable to shrink the unjust power of the State, but it's hard to see how the movement has even slowed the rate of its growth.

Libertarianism is fundamentally a moral philosophy with political implications — however, some libertarians have a habit of focusing on the political implications, which cannot be changed by any individual, and avoiding the personal implications of the moral philosophy, which can be put into practice by everyone.

For instance, while countless books have been written analysing economics from a libertarian or Austrian perspective, very few have been written about how to apply Libertarian morality to parenting. Ayn Rand touched on parenting in a throwaway scene at Galt's Gulch in ‘Atlas Shrugged,' and Murray Rothbard reaffirmed the right of adult children to leave abusive parents in ‘Kids Lib,' but I do not know of any major work by a Libertarian or Objectivist focusing on parenting. Nathaniel Branden has touched on the subject in a few articles, but does not mention any particular discipline techniques.

Very few libertarians become bank robbers or Federal Reserve Chairmen (but I repeat myself). By far the most common aggression Libertarians will ever personally use or experience is the disciplining of children. This is a moral question central to our lives as parents, yet it has to my knowledge never been addressed in Libertarian literature.

So — in terms of practical morality, the most essential question for libertarians to discuss is: Does spanking violate the nonaggression principle?

The nonaggression principle basically states that it is immoral to initiate the use of aggressive force against another human being. Clearly, spanking is the initiation of force, in that it is not used in self defence, but rather as a form of discipline or punishment for children.

Spanking is hitting a child with the goal of deterring behaviour. In order to be effective, spanking must inflict sufficient pain to alter behaviour, and so mild swats to a padded bottom cannot be considered spanking. Spanking must result in sufficient physical and emotional pain for the child to fear it as a punishment.

Since spanking is the initiation of force, and cannot be excused under the category of immediate self defence, it would seem to be a violation of the nonaggression principle, and thus immoral — however, there are times when the initiation of force can be considered moral, or at least not immoral, and these have to do with the defence of another person's well-being.

For instance, if a blind man is walking into a busy street, it can't be considered evil to stop him from getting creamed by a bus, even if we have to tackle and bruise him to do so. In the same way, if you require an emergency tracheotomy, and cannot give your consent, is not quite the same as being stabbed if a handy surgeon takes a knife to your throat.

Certain actions would seem to be morally appropriate even though they violate the nonaggression principle, just as other actions could be morally appropriate even if they violate property rights, such as the example of a man hanging from a flagpole who kicks in a window and climbs into someone's apartment rather than fall to his death. Not many of us would argue that the hanging man should respect the apartment dweller's property rights and fall to create a morally perfect stain on the sidewalk below.

Thus the initiation of force does not violate the nonaggression principle if the following conditions are met:

  1. It is an unforeseeable crisis
  2. The initiation of force is the only possible remedy
  3. The ‘victim' would almost certainly give his consent in the moment if it were possible
  4. The victim gives his consent after the fact

The reason for these standards is fairly simple — morality is universal, and thus is independent of time, and so it is irrelevant whether an aggressive action is approved of before or after the event. Everyone who perpetrates aggressive actions is in a sense gambling on the reaction of the victim, because if the victim likes the aggression, the perpetrator will not face any legal retaliation for his actions.

There are of course situations that can arise where the person initiating aggression ends up misjudging the intentions of another person — if I pull back a drunk staggering towards a cliff edge, he may thank me, or he may be enraged at my prevention of his suicide attempt. Reasonable standards of anticipation should be the rule here. If the vast majority of people would prefer to be pulled back from a cliff edge, it is reasonable to pull someone back — if the man really wants to commit suicide, then he should approach the cliff edge when no one else is around, otherwise his actions could be easily construed as a twisted cry for help.

So, if an aggressive action does not fulfil the four standards outlined above, then it is almost certainly a violation of the nonaggression principle, and therefore immoral.

Let's look at these one by one, to figure out where spanking lands on the moral spectrum.

An Unforeseeable Crisis

Many parents who spank claim that it is a reasonable reaction to an imminent crisis, such as a child reaching for a pot of boiling water on the stove.

This is not a valid argument, for several reasons.

First, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure a safe environment for their children, therefore it seems hard to justify hitting a child for the negligence of the parents. Basic childproofing requires that only the back burners be used on the stove, and that the handle be pointed toward the wall, rather than toward the kitchen. In the same way, cupboards, drawers, stairs, electrical outlets and so on should all be protected through child safety devices.

It is hard to imagine any dangerous action a child could take that could never have been anticipated or prevented by the parent, either through patient coaching or childproofing.

Also, any parent who is close enough to a child to hit him for reaching for a pot of boiling water is also close enough to pick up or move the child away in a nonviolent manner, which immediately eliminates the danger.

The initiation of force is the only possible remedy

As mentioned above, if a child is in imminent danger, and the parent is close enough to hit, then the parent is close enough to pursue nonviolent remedies to the situation. Furthermore, dangerous situations that are the result of my negligence do not excuse me from the results. If I don't repair my failing brakes, and this causes me to crash my car into your house, I cannot blame the brakes.

The initiation of force can only be excused in an emergency if it is the only possible remedy — if I'm choking on a fishbone, and the Heimlich manoeuvre does not work, and the only chance I have for survival is an emergency tracheotomy, so be it. If I have a mild cough at my dinner table, and someone stabs me in the throat, that's just plain assault.

Since the initiation of force is not the only possible remedy when a child is in a dangerous situation, it does not fulfil this requirement for moral justification.

The ‘victim' would almost certainly give his consent in the moment if it were possible

Well, first of all, it is possible for the child to give his consent to being spanked, since there is no immediate time pressure for action. A child can certainly express his or her wishes, assuming an appropriate age — but of course spanking is only considered effective if it is thoroughly against the child's wishes. Therefore spanking also fails this test.

The victim gives his consent after the fact

This one is very tricky, since many children who were spanked grow up into adults who claim that spanking was very effective in eliciting and maintaining good behaviour. "My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine!" "My parents spanked me because I was a disobedient child with no discipline, and I became very well behaved and disciplined as a result, and so I am very happy that they did spank me." "I deserved spanking because I was disobedient."

This certainly could be considered the victim giving his consent after the fact, but there are some important caveats or restrictions on this.

First of all, it assumes that spanking is not abusive, in that it is only the perspective of the victim that determines the morality of the situation, which is not a valid principle. Many citizens are fine with paying taxes; this does not make taxation moral. There are countless examples of women who had been verbally and/or physically abused by their husbands who stay, and even claim to love their husbands — this does not mean that physical and verbal abuse suddenly become morally acceptable. The Stockholm Syndrome is a well-known psychological phenomenon in which the victim of violence and abuse emotionally bonds with the abusers, and may even fight to defend them from justice.

Secondly, aggression which impairs judgment cannot easily be excused by the victim. To take an extreme example, if a man is forced to submit to a frontal lobotomy, and afterwards, claims to have no moral problem with the operation, we cannot take his word at face value, since his cognitive abilities have been enormously harmed by the procedure he was subjected to.

Also, propaganda dilutes clarity of thought — that is its real purpose of course. A 20-year-old man who was raised in Russia in the 1950s would likely profess great affection for communism and Joseph Stalin, but his perspective was not arrived at through a process of independent, sovereign and free inquiry. Amish children cannot grow up with independent and critical thinking about the Amish religion, and so we must rationally apply an extra layer or two of skepticism to their adult pronouncements about the forms of thought that they were indoctrinated with as children.

Spanking creates many emotional and social problems, from depression to anxiety to self-destructive rebelliousness to increased aggression towards other children, a decreased capacity to form positive and healthy relationships, and so on.

Thus, since we know that spanking can create irrational bonds with the perpetrators, lower intelligence, impair social development, reduce the possibility of positive and healthy relationships, and increase risks of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, it is certainly more difficult to get objective approvals from the victims many years after being spanked. Rather than rely on self-reporting, we must defer to the objective science on the effects of spanking.

This problem is only compounded by the fact that, at least in my experience, very few people who claim to approve of spanking after-the-fact have any knowledge about the negative effects it has likely had on their intellectual, emotional and social development.

I will be much more prone to forgive someone for stealing a cardboard box of mine if I do not know that my wife was using it to store $20,000 worth of gold. In other words, if I'm not fully apprised of the negative effects of an aggressive action, it is not possible for me to provide an objective judgment of that action.

Thus, the standards of acceptance for spanking would have to be, at a minimum:

  1. A reasonably detailed knowledge of the objective effects of spanking on the development of children.
  2. A reasonable amount of time in professional therapy to ensure that any irrational attachments have been addressed.
  3. A philosophical understanding of the basic fact that personal approval does not equal moral justification.

Common Spanking Defences

"Kids Can't/Won't Listen to Reason"

How do you know your kids won't listen to reason? If you spank your kids because they won't listen to reason, you're not exactly finding out if they can listen to reason in that moment, are you? The science is not in your favour here, since babies can process mathematical odds at 9 months, show empathy at 14 months, and perform basic moral reasoning at 18 months.

This position would have at least some credibility if spanking was preceded by years of failed reasoning attempts — but if the spanking comes first, it becomes a classic self-fulfilling prophesy. Since spanking tends to lower IQ and provoke defiance and evasion, it sure looks like it's "needed" because kids don't listen to reason — but that's like saying I need to spank my kids because they don't speak Mandarin, when I have never exposed them to Mandarin.

Also, if you believe that your kids can't listen to reason, are you sure that you as a parent are being perfectly rational? Are you hitting your children while telling them not hit - then getting angry because you see doubt and skepticism in their eyes? Are you telling them that flags must be saluted and all war is heroic and public schools are great and that they have to kiss Aunt Millie even though she smells? Does your behavior match your commandments? Do you tell your kids that they have to do the right thing even if they don't feel like it in the moment, and then sit and watch football all Sunday instead of playing with them?

Do you hit them because they hit others? Do you take away their toys and then tell them to respect other people's property? Do you tell them to respect their mother, while treating their mother disrespectfully?

Remember that children are born as total foreigners to the world you take for granted. They have never heard of America or Europe or Jesus or Krishna or war or prison or history or culture. They are born empirical and striving mightily and endlessly for rationality — delusional is the culture that dares to say that any children who oppose or question cultural norms are by definition "irrational." That would require something other than culture — it would require a truly rational and philosophical world, and that is something we are still generations away from.

It is very hard to be truly rational in this world. It means rejecting an enormous number of beliefs held by others. It requires great courage, and a deep commitment to reason and evidence at all costs. So — can you look in the mirror and state with absolute certainty that you have to spank your kids because they are irrational, while you are 100% rational?

Also, why is it only children who must be spanked for being irrational? Have you ever been pulled over unfairly by a cop? Harassed by a border guard? Received bad service from an unapologetic waiter or valet? What about your own parents, as they age? Are they becoming any less clear-headed? What about that kinda-sorta racist woman at the office? Isn't she being irrational? Or that dude next door who won't support your favorite, even though he supports so many of his positions?

So — we can spank those who don't listen to reason? Well OK, so just let that cop or coworker or neighbour have it! What? No? You're not rushing out to do that? Why not? You have the moral right on your side!

Irrationality and injustice surround us — and irrational adults have infinitely less justification for their foolishness and inconsistencies than children whose brains are still so very young. So — why pick on kids?

"Kids Brains are Immature"

You say that children must be spanked because their brains are physically immature? All right — if physical mental limitations require spanking, does that mean we must spank elderly people with dementia? What about mentally handicapped adults?

You get that that would be morally repugnant, right? Surely those with physical limitations need more tender care, not more aggression.

"It's the Only Way Kids Will Listen"

Many parents use the word "listen" when what they really mean is "obey." What if your kids are listening to you, but just disagree with you? What if they have legitimate criticisms of your values and/or behaviour? Is that all right?

"It Teaches Children ‘Respect'"

Again, the word "respect" is used, when "obedience" is usually the goal. Respect, of course, must be granted before it can be requested. If you treat your children with respect, you can reasonably ask for mutual regard — if you spank them, frightening them into compliance with your size and strength, you are only compelling them into obedience against their will and judgment; you are not treating them with respect.

The goal of parenting is to create self-sufficient virtues in children. Applying external pressure and punishments tends to teach them fear-based compliance rather than the internalization of moral standards.

If spanking worked, then its use should quickly curtail. Spanking causes compliance and resentment, obedience and resistance, which is why its use tends to increase over time — or at least not decrease.


According to the standards outlined in this essay, spanking is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle, and thus an immoral action.

This is not to say that all parents who spank are immoral. Morality requires knowledge; if all parents who spank are immoral, then all libertarians were immoral before they discovered libertarianism. Most people need exposure to the argument that taxation is theft before they can reasonably be held morally responsible for understanding the violent basis of the state. It is only within the last few decades that serious moral and scientific objections to spanking have spread within society, and patience and persistence is the key to convincing others of this essential and actionable moral reality.

That having been said, however, now that you have read this essay, you need to refute these arguments and disprove the science, or stop spanking. If you lacked knowledge and clarity before, you deserve sympathy. If you cannot refute these arguments, and continue to spank, you have no excuse anymore.

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June 2024

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