Legalism and the Problem of Teaching Through Bribery and Coercion
Rick Garlikov

Suppose there is a $700 fine for speeding through a construction site on a highway because authorities are really serious about stopping speeding . Why should you obey the speed limit there? 

Suppose you are going to have a test that will count 50% of your grade in a course. Why should you study for the test? 

If you answer that you should slow down to avoid the fine or study to get a good or passing grade in the course, that would be the normal answer but it would also normally be the wrong answer. I want to explain in this essay why it is normally the wrong answer, and what the only circumstance would be in which it would be the right answer. I also want to talk about the rationales and the ensuing problems then for having and relying on extrinsic penalties to discourage wrong acts -- whether the penalties involve bad grades, loss of privileges, corporal punishment, execution, fines, suspensions or expulsions (as regarding school), detention or imprisonment, consignment to hell, or any other penalty. 

The reason one should slow down in driving through the construction site is so that one does not put the construction workers' lives in jeopardy. The reason one should study is to learn the material because learning is important. 

The only cases where one should study for the grade or drive slowly in order to avoid a fine is where the material is not important and where speed would not jeopardize anyone or anything -- in other words where there is a construction "zone" with no actual construction and no workers present; and where the material being taught is of no real value. Unfortunately there are many bad instances in life where there are unjustified requirements and unjustified penalties for not meeting them. But one needs to be able to distinguish those cases from the cases where requirements are justified, and where penalties are in certain ways irrelevant, though necessary. And one needs to teach children how to distinguish the difference. 

Extrinsic penalties or punishments are simply a coercive and behavioristic means to get those people to do what is right who are not inclined to do it for the right reasons but are only inclined to do it to receive a reward or escape some penalty or harm. 

Unfortunately, instead of being last resorts to get people to do what is right, this method of trying to coerce right behavior too frequently teaches people the only reason to do what is right is to get a reward or to avoid a penalty. 

One reason that is unfortunate is that it leads to mischief or villainy when people think they can do wrong things and avoid or escape the penalties by not being caught or convicted. Or when they can afford to pay the penalty or don't care about it. It also leads people to do wrong things for which there are no stated rules, prohibitions or penalties. It fosters legalism and the search for loopholes in order to "get away with" doing the wrong thing. And since formal systems can seldom state all the possible wrong acts, anyone determined to make mischief or to be selfish can find acts to do which are obviously wrong but which are not punishable within the system. 

A second reason it is unfortunate is that it unconsciously implies and reinforces the mistaken ethical view that "an act is right if and only if it promotes the greatest good or best interest of the person doing the act."  Ethical teaching should dispel that view and show why it is mistaken, not rely on it to force blindly obedient behavior. You want people to do what is right because it, say, benefits others, not because it helps one avoid unwanted punishment. You want people's ethical beliefs not to stem from selfishness or mere self-interest. Enforcing behavior should only be a last resort in normal circumstances or a first resort in exigent or dangerous circumstances. For example, I am certainly not advocating here that one should allow little children to play near the street until they can appreciate the reasons not to.  There are times parents and social institutions need to be paternalistic, but those times themselves have particular justification and are not just arbitrary or the norm. 

Children (and adults) need to discover or learn the reasons for doing what is right. That should be the general first resort to teaching what is right or wrong. Extrinsic or "piled on" punishments and threats or promises of punishment should only be a last resort to foster right behavior. The same is true about bribes or promises of reward for good behavior. They foster irresponsible pursuit of self-interest, not pursuit of being good and doing what is right because it is right. 

Every year in our local high school, the student handbook of rules gets thicker and thicker. Students seek ways to aggravate school officials or cause problems by doing something they can "get away with" because there is no rule against it. School officials respond by making a rule against it for the future. The rule book will never be able to keep up with the inventiveness of the students though, unless a less formalistic, less legalistic kind of rule replaces all the specific rules. I have proposed the high school administration have only one rule: if a student does something wrong that s/he should have known better than to do, the student will be punished accordingly. Then school officials need to be able to distinguish between mitigating and non-mitigating circumstances for any wrong acts, and they need to be able to distinguish between reasonable excuses and lame excuses. And there should be available to students some sort of reasonable appeal process if they think they are being unfairly or unreasonably punished. 

Life should be like that, not just school. The more legalistic life becomes, the more people look for excuses and ways to do no more than what is "required" in previous rules and pronouncements. "You didn't say I had to learn this part of the material." "You just said to read it; you didn't say to learn it." "I couldn't get the assignment because I left my book at school (or my computer was broken) and you didn't say I should call a friend or use the library computer." "But you only said not to hit my sister; you didn't say not to kick her." "There's no law against beating my children in order to teach them discipline." "There's no law against doing this [obviously unfair] business practice." "I wrote the paper you assigned, so I should receive an 'A'; you didn't say I had to write it well." [This last was an actual reason a student gave one college teacher about a shoddy paper he turned in.]  Etc., etc. 

And parents and administrators need to understand that "because it is the law" or "because I said so" is a double-edged sword that will smite them in the back when people do something they know is wrong but which they can truly say "You never said I couldn't...." or "There is no law against ...." 

What we want is for people to learn to figure out what is right and to know to do it because of that, not to make behavior some sort of game where irresponsible people think they should be able to get away with things just because there is no written "rule" or law. Teaching ought to foster personal responsibility and understanding -- though that is not always easy to do -- not try to replace it with forced blind obedience to institutional rules with specific penalties or rewards. Punishments should be for knowingly doing what is wrong, not just for breaking rules, and not for breaking bad rules or orders.