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ninjacolin's avatar

Are there any examples of intentionally inflicted punishment that are not sadistic?

Asked by ninjacolin (14204points) March 29th, 2009

Please list any examples if there are any.
I think every form of punishment involves sadism and hence a human act of “evil” by classic definition, regardless of the good intent behind it. Do you agree? What are your thoughts on this?

Specifically, I’m talking about human forms of punishment for other humans

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18 Answers

crisw's avatar

Absolutely- at least in the behavioral sense.

A “punishment” is defined as anything that reduces a given behavior. Positive punishments are anything added to the subject’s environment that reduces behavior; negative punishment is anything taken away from the environment that reduces behavior.

So, for example, if a dog is jumping up on me, and I turn my back on the dog and cross my arms, and the dog stops jumping, I have used negative punishment. I removed my attention, and that decreased the jumping behavior. No sadism involved.

ninjacolin's avatar

Hmm.. that’s a good response, thanks. The human act of Pouting works in a similarly non-aggressive way. I’ve edited the question to specify punishment between humans.

Looking at the definition of Sadism though, specifically #2 at that link:

Sadism: “any enjoyment in being cruel.”

To pout or express disfavor in someone else’s actions is to take pleasure in displeasing the other individual. It’s quite a light form of cruelty.. but it doesn’t technically seem to lack that good old fashioned sadistic quality. Still, I find myself quite willing to accept those forms of punishment as they are not confining of the other person’s rights and freedoms.

Judging by the list of topics, though, I really mean to consider more harsh forms of punishment such as Jail time or Financial Penalties or the Death Penalty.

crisw's avatar


The potential problem with a discussion like that is that most people don’t understand the behavioral definition. They think that if it’s cruel or causes pain, then it must be punishment. This just isn’t so. In order to be punishment, the behavior must decrease. So, for example, many times jail time isn’t a punishment, because the person gets out of jail and just commits another crime.

As far as sadism- the same scenario I described above works for people too. One example:

I work in a school for children with behavior problems. When they swear, we ignore it. Swearing is an attention-getting behavior, so we remove the attention. And, after a while, since the swearing doesn’t work, they stop.

This is almost a textbook definition of negative punishment, yet no sadism, cruelty, or evil is involved.

ninjacolin's avatar

Wow, that’s pretty great. Could I ask you to provide a full definition of the term “Punishment” as you know it? or even the term “Punish”
Right, your first post

So, success is a part of the definition, huh?
If it’s not successful in reducing the behavior it wasn’t a punishment.. hmm..

ninjacolin's avatar

y’know i’m trying not to post this.. but it’s not working:

if your students would like you to react to their swearing.. but you deny them that.. and then you enjoy the results of denying them something you know they want….

technically.. isn’t that still a little sadistic?

ninjacolin's avatar

it’s almost to say that the only non-sadistic forms of “punishment” would have to be ones where the punished have first requested it.

crisw's avatar


First of all, it would require enjoying it.

Secondly, unless you want to posit that denying anyone anything they want is sadistic, it’s hard to see this as sadistic.

ninjacolin's avatar

yea… denying someone something intentionally for your own gain.

it’s admittedly a little slippery. but i’m trying to figure this out for some bigger theory in my head about human behavior

ninjacolin's avatar

if they stop swearing.. you’ve enjoyed a modification in their behavior that they did not really want.

and yes, i can see how it wouldn’t matter what they want ultimately, like coercing a small child away from reaching over a hot stove for cookies. but this isn’t what i’m after exactly.

crisw's avatar


You’re mistaken that it’s for our own gain. It’s ultimately for the good of the students, who are often ostracized in social situations because they haven’t learned appropriate ways to get attention. Nor do the students swear because they enjoy it- they do it to get attention, and it’s the attention they enjoy. At the same time we work on decreasing the swearing, we also work on increasing positive ways of getting attention.

YARNLADY's avatar

Where does punishment begin and natural consequences end? If a teen ager uses up all her minutes on her cell phone, she doesn’t get to use it for the rest of the contract period (per day/week/month) If she uses the cell phone when she is not supposed to her parents take it away. Natural consequences or no?

TheIowaCynic's avatar

I don’t mean to be one of those guys…....but the term “sadistic,” means taking sexual gratification from inflicting pain.

I think torture has occasionally been seen (such as by some native american tribes) as cleansing… that would be one example

Nially_Bob's avatar

@TheIowaCynic The psychological definition of the term ‘sadism’ is when one gains sexual gratification from a malicious act but in a non-psychological context it can be used to describe a sense of general enjoyment attained by causing or witnessing cruelty.
I can detail many situations in which intentionally inflicted punishments can be performed without sadism being present (Crisw has kindly provided some fitting examples) however I do believe there is some sense of happiness acquired by people who enact punishments be it solely from feelings gained by means of instigating said punishment or a sense of accomplishment having done something they believe to be ‘right’ or ‘kind’. This happiness however is not necessarily sadism.

crisw's avatar

It’s entirely possible, though, to think of “punishment systems” that involved neither “happy feelings” or any cruelty. For example, there are many kinds of automatic experimental apparatus used to train animals, such as Skinner boxes, in which no human plays a direct role in administering either punishment or reinforcement. So, for example, you could set up such a system to withhold reinforcement for a certain period after an incorrect response- which would be negative punishment- without any human interaction whatsoever.

ninjacolin's avatar

very cool. very cool indeed.

i guess we experience this whenever we fail to open a bottle cap on the first try.

Cruiser's avatar

Correcting bad behavior or bad decisions with punishment is not sadistic as long as it is measured and applied correctly and commensurate to the action or event in question.

flutherother's avatar

The Islamic Sharia principle of equivalence allows for terrible punishments but as a reflection of the original crime ie an eye for an eye so there is no sadism involved. Society doesn’t invent the punishment, it was devised by the criminal himself. Not that I am a fan of Sharia law you understand.

@Cruiser There is lots of scope for sadism within that definition.

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