Respect for discipline has declined with the work ethic, as progressive forces undermined the traditional props of good manners, industry and responsible individualism. The work ethic may be regarded as a form of discipline. In any case both have been subjected to ridicule in progressive circles as "Victorian" and "bourgeois". Most critics have paid no regard to the desirable effects of fair and reasonable discipline, and have not put anything in place of the beliefs and practices which they have been so eager to destroy. Bertrand Russell was prominent among progressivists in many causes and he is not usually noted as a supporter of Edwardian values, but he wrote,
"What people will do in given circumstances depends enormously upon their habits; and good habits are not acquired without discipline. Most of us go through life without stealing, but many centuries of police discipline have gone into producing this abstention which now seems natural." (Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, London (1956) p 15).
Times have changed and it is apparent that stealing and other breakdowns of traditional discipline no longer seem unnatural. This is shown in many ways. Shoplifting is now proceeding on such a massive scale that the retail industry is not prepared to publicise it for fear of making things worse. In many schools the teachers are subjected daily to threats, swearing and harassment sometimes amounting to assault. Vandalism including arson in schools, and casual violence are widespread, while standards of manners and dress have declined even among students of the better schools.
Aggressive bad sportsmanship, accusations of cheating and abuse of umpires has become a feature of most sport, even cricket, which used to set the highest standards in this regard. Children are quick to copy their heroes in these practices.
Discipline has broken down in many homes under the influence of the doctrine of permissive child raising, perhaps unfairly blamed on Dr Spock. Many parents are intimidated by the shifts of fashion in child-raising practices and live in fear of harming their offspring by harsh restraints upon their "natural" and "creative" instincts. Even if parents do not endorse permissive principles, the absence of widely accepted standards of good behaviour results in many children missing out on the guidance and limits which they need in order to develop a sense of responsibility.
The erosion of discipline in society has its most powerful roots in the home and the school, since these are the institutions which have the most powerful formative influence upon the child. Permissive child-rearing practices, have come into vogue due to the influence of modern psychology, have imparted the false notion that disciplining the child, and particularly punishment, is to be contrasted with love. Moreover, this is considered harmful to the child's personality, possibly to the point of inducing so-called psycho-sexual repression. Even in families which are still committed to traditional values there is a greater tolerance of misbehaviour, particularly of filial disrespect, than that tolerated prior to the rise of the modern doctrines. Probably this is to be attributed more to the translation of permissive practices into a peer pressure amongst children than to neglect by traditionally minded parents. The breakdown of the family structure is having an accelerated effect upon this process, not merely through the logistical difficulties which single parents must face in attempting to maintain discipline but also in the poor example which divorced parents set to their children.
In schools, the practices of permissiveness are also well advanced, particularly in public schools, to the point where the NSW State Government is now attempting to improve behaviour by advertising and by the threat of expulsion. Such advertising is unlikely to be effective. It cannot provide the personal approach which is so necessary to discipline. A short explanation of the fact that undisciplined people do not succeed in life cannot substitute for the personal impact of reprimand and punishment for particular wrongful acts and explanation of the proper standard of behaviour in particular instances. In short, it cannot have that moral force and efficacy which is most essential in assisting the child to develop self-discipline and a respect for moral principle. Similarly, the threat of expulsion is too extreme to be of much assistance in the day to day maintenance of order in the classroom and the playground.
The breakdown of discipline in the school and the family is a most powerful influence in the general decline of discipline in society. That decline increasingly manifests itself in the amount of violent crime; robberies, assaults with deadly weapons, rapes, murders and brutal sex-murders. The extent of this sort of crime has increased far beyond that which would have been contemplated thirty years ago. It has little to do with the availability of weapons, since the knife has been available for many centuries. Moreover, the trend is not confined to violent crime. "White-collar" crime has also increased dramatically.
Associated with the decline of discipline and the rise of the doctrine that discipline is to be contrasted with love, is the rise of doctrines of determinism and erosion of the principle of personal responsibility. This, again, is at the instance of modern psychology. These doctrines are not new. They have existed at least since their modern formulation by Freud but their penetration into social policy and much of judicial thinking has been relatively recent.
Criminals are excused (almost as often in practice as in theory) on the basis that they come from an "underprivileged" background or that they have undergone traumatic or hurtful experiences at some point in their lives or that they "never had a chance". Psycho-analytic theories draw causal links between bad or unfortunate experiences in childhood and bad behaviour later on. This then becomes an excuse for failure to impose lawful discipline, the theory being that the miscreant is a victim of circumstances, with a damaged personality (which needs to be rehabilitated); a person who is therefore not responsible for his own actions.
The dehumanising effects of such a philosophy upon wrongdoers must be obvious. The miscreant will either be cynically contemptuous of a penal system which rewards his misbehaviour with weak rhetoric and ineffectual penalties or, he will come to believe that he really is so deterministically bad that he can never be any different. He is not treated with the dignity that befits a responsible man. Punishment is becoming an outmoded concept. He becomes a defective unit, requiring rehabilitation, to which the magnitude of his crime is irrelevant. Therefore, the penalty ceases to fit the crime and the way is paved for imprisonment to be applied without reference to the concept of guilt. The unfortunate implications of such developments include the possibility of imprisonment and "psychiatric treatment" of persons who do not meet criteria normally set by academic, technical or political elites. This, in fact, is the fate of many religious believers in the Soviet Union.
In Australia the doctrine has not been applied to the full extent of its implications. The main practical problem remains the soft treatment of significant criminal acts (leaving the community increasingly at the mercy of criminals). One recent example is the Granville train disaster hero who later embezzled over one quarter of a million dollars and received a relatively light sentence on the ground that his crime was supposedly induced by a psychological condition, referred to as "survivor's guilt," which he developed in response to his fortunate escape from death in the Granville train disaster.
The missing dimensions of these psychological doctrines are (i) the positive value of discipline and (ii) personal responsibility. Discipline and punishment do indirectly affect personality but the overall effects are positive, if correctly administered. Discipline cannot be classed with gratuitous violence. Discipline and punishment are essential to personal development because they involve recognition of the dignity of the individual, the moral capacity of the individual (ie the capacity to know right and wrong), the freedom of individual actions and, therefore, the moral responsibility of the individual for his actions. The erosion of discipline (focusing on the unfairness to the individual of punishment) is directly responsible for the increasing incidence of violence and irresponsible actions referred to above. Any adverse effects of discipline on the individual must be evaluated against the problems so evident in modern society which reflect the policies of the anti-discipline establishment. Any theory which fails to recognise these principles and which fails to recognise the value of discipline and punishment, treats the human being as a behavioural machine, purely "conditioned by circumstances".
Discipline is not to be contrasted with love. Rather, those who avoid discipline harm not only their child, but also society. Discipline promotes the discharge of personal duties and a healthy self-respect and a willingness to assume personal responsibility in the face of problems, difficulties and temptations. Punishment is therefore, an act of love.
The second missing dimension of modern psychological doctrines is that of personal responsibility. By drawing causal relationships between bad or unfortunate experiences in early life and bad behaviour at later stages, these theories fail to allow, firstly, for personal reaction to experiences and secondly, for the fact that mere explanation does not provide justification. The failure to allow for these factors is based on the conception of human behaviour as deterministic; inevitably mechanically reactive to events and circumstances. Such an approach does not allow for free human action. It does not allow for the spiritual nature of man.
It would be foolish to deny that bad or unfortunate experiences may be deeply upsetting, unsettling and traumatic but it is even more unrealistic to deny that human responses to such events are free and therefore, variable (and therefore, responsible). It follows that an explanation of the past experiences which contribute to a person undertaking an improper action cannot therefore justify that action, for the simple reason that the experiences are not determinists of the action.
The erosion of authoritatively imposed discipline is contributing to a generation of persons in which a significant number have low self-esteem, are unwilling to assume personal responsibility and a helplessness in that they believe that they cannot alter their behaviour or exert any influence over their destiny. So many people are not growing up with the spiritual reserves to face difficulties, deal with problems, resist temptations and discharge duties.
This analysis must not be taken to uncritically endorse the extent of discipline and punishment in past ages. A great deal could have been done to humanise discipline and punishment and provide fairer standards. The unreasoned attacks on discipline and punishment have prevented this. The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.