This essay is based on B.F. Skinner’s 1971 book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”
There is much not to like about B.F. Skinner; he set himself on a course to obliterate the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’ sensing, he writes, that they are fatal to human survival, or more specifically, to the culture that “we” have made. Skinner’s use of the words “we” and “our” must be deduced to mean “anyone who has an interest in controlling human behavior, other than self”. He never uses the word “they” in any other context than to describe the proponents of ‘freedom and dignity’, and so the lines are clearly drawn. The implication is that in a social order there are two kinds of people: controllers and controllees. According to Skinner, controllers may, in turn, be controlled by the systems they design and controllees have the power of ‘reinforcement’ to affect the behavior of controllers, but ultimately everyone is controlled by ‘environmental contingencies’ which are humanly controllable and therefore the balance falls squarely in favor of the controllers. Skinner’s contribution as a controller was to develop a science of behaviorism : reduce ‘man’ to his observable forms, assess the sum of his parts, and gather experimental data to prove that he is accurately and justifiably categorical.
What we have to imagine, from Skinner’s point of view, is that science will solve all of our problems and that furthermore the process is honest enough to become nearly flawless. There is an awful lot riding on Skinner’s assertions. He assumed “we” would advance toward a perfect state by “our” willingness to be scientifically guided there if only we would discard the obsolete traditions of freedom and dignity. In aid of that objective Skinner reconstructs the ‘autonomous man’, the self-willed individual, and then demolishes him in a demonstration of behaviorism. Was he right? Is science impartial and honest enough to answer that question? If you and I applied Skinner’s theories to himself and the “we” he speaks of, will we be able to discern the likelihood of general improvements that behaviorism has to offer? Skinner’s ascendancy as a psychologist indicates the favor of his views with his paymasters –is it Skinner’s Program and outlook that we are being subjected to ?
Admittedly, the literature of freedom and dignity has won humanity much of its ‘progress’. Why wouldn’t expanding and applying its concepts continue to advance the human cause? What ultimately is the human cause? The risk of not defining it for ourselves (my ‘our’ and not Skinner’s) is to fail in matching our Controllers with effective countercontrols. As we shall see, the defenders of ‘autonomous man’ have already been done away with. Lack of control is not an option. Organization and articulation overcome disorder and weakness, subsuming and assimilating its energy, and ‘man’ is easily disordered by novel contingencies which behaviorism so adequately illustrates. What seems most dire in the views of B.F. Skinner is that he himself had to have disregarded fundamental principles of biology in higher organisms in order to sustain support for his thesis of intentional social design. He did not compare a society to an orgainsm. I don’t know if he ever did, was qualified, or incorporated qualified evidence of complex living organisms as models for larger systems. If he knew that the health of complex lifeforms was dependent on necessary interactions of seemingly opposed internal systems, it did not detract from his enthusiasm to suggest that ‘perfect’ design would eliminate conflict.
The fact that every historical Utopian experiment has failed, and “ignominiously” so agreed Skinner, did not deter him from urging that designers press forward. Is this the definition of madness? Or is it reasonable that science will provide the keys to perfecting the controlled society, and more importantly, will that ensure human survival? Were it possible to do so, would a human ‘organism’ have a better chance of survival if all harmful ‘stimuli’ such as pathogens are designed out of the environment? With no need for a strong immune system will we ‘select’ it out of existence? “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” is not concerned with health –it is concerned with the survival of Skinner’s culture. The task then appears to be identifying Skinner’s culture, deciding whether or not it should survive, if tolerated then to what degree, and how best to apply countercontrols with the support of a new literature of freedom and dignity. Skinner was wrong in the end. Freedom and dignity are as essential to a human society as an immune system is to a human body. Without it we become sick, and we die, and may fail to endure as a species.
I have no idea if a ‘new’ literature of freedom exists, or if I would agree to it if it did. Undeniably, it works, motivating revolutionary spirit into action despite the faults found in it by Skinner. The main fault was that it was incomplete. The problem now is that it may not meet the needs of the present and ‘revolution’ as it was conceived in the past may not be the ideal spirit to engender. My personal sense is to ‘recover’ the freedom lost by the slow and ‘silent’ revolutions that have turned legal constructs upside down. Technology has inserted vast new contingencies that alter the definitions once given to ‘self’, ‘privacy’ and ‘privileges’, and with it we may have to forge a broad class of counter-contingencies. In Skinner’s view, ‘spirit’ is merely a colloquialism for a seemingly uncaused behavior. He rejected the notion of ‘uncaused’ –it was simply something lacking an observable form. Perhaps in the process of re-valuing freedom and dignity in light of the present challenges we will come closer to preserving them than our existing literature can provide. We’ll have to lay our modern technologies on the table and account for them, as they are the ‘inconspicuous’ contingencies that Skinner advocated.
Behaviorism was not rejected, but it was energetically opposed by journalists, psychologists, and theologians such as Noam Chomsky, Arthur Koestler, Peter Gay, Herbert Kelman, Rollo May and others. Quoting Time magazine in 1971, as a pre-release notice of the book, Time states “To Theologian [Richard] Rubenstein, Beyond Freedom and Dignity is an important but ‘terrifying’ book. Skinner’s ‘utopian projection’ he says ‘is less likely to be a blueprint for the Golden Age than for the theory and practice of hell’.”
The fatal flaw in Beyond Freedom and Dignity is that Skinner destroyed the very ‘countercontrol’ that he was certain would balance an ‘intentional society’. His critics were wrong too. They said it would never work. Did the critics offer a false security to the public? Was it pretention that they were guardians of freedom and dignity? Skinner’s behaviorism and designer communities do work which is why his outlook poses such a threat to us. He made himself a “useful idiot”, convinced of his own genius, and his detractors fairly recognized the ultimate price of implementing Skinnerian plans : totalitarianism. Their derision inflated the opinion that Skinner would be easily dismissed, but in fact, the plan is visibly attended. It is becoming much of what he hoped, despite appearances, and with great irony we can look back at the man who constructed himself a “pleasant environment” to live in, yet confessed to being deeply unhappy.
Excerpts from Beyond Freedom and Dignity
“In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology.
…we can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields [birth control, weapons, medicine]…But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said,”Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee”. Whether or not he could have foreseen the damage, man must repair it or all is lost.”
[p.4]…physical and biological sciences alone will not solve our problems…we need to make vast changes in human behavior.
[p.5] What we need is a technology of behavior…But a behavioral technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology is lacking…
Today [man] is the thing he understands least. Physics and biology have come a long way, but there has been no comparable development of anything like a science of human behavior.
[p.6]..our practices in government, education, and much of economics..have not greatly improved. [The Greeks’] thinking about human behavior must have had some fatal flaw…Greek theories..led nowhere…they did not contain the seeds of anything better.
[p.7]..the methods of science have scarcely yet been applied to human behavior…It has to do with our treatment of the causes of behavior.
..Intelligent people no longer believe that men are possessed by demons..but human behavior is still commonly attributed to indwelling agents. A juvenile delinquent is said, for example, to be suffering from a disturbed personality. There would be no point in saying it if the personality were not somehow distinct…Psychoanalysts have identified three of these personalities –the ego, superego and id– and interactions among them are said to be responsible for the behavior of the man in whom they dwell.
[p.9] To the medieval alchemist…properties of substances were compared in what might have been called a “chemistry of individual differences”. Newton complained..”To tell us that every species of thing is endowed with an occult specific quality by which it acts and produces manifest effects is to tell us nothing”. Almost everyone who is concerned with human affairs..continues to talk about human behavior in this prescientific way.
[p.10]…certain stubborn questions about the nature of the mind..still go unanswered. How for example, can the mind move the body? As late as 1965 Karl Popper put it this way: “What we want is to understand how such nonphysical things as purposes, deliberations, plans, decisions, theories, tensions and values can play a part in bringing about physical changes in the physical world”.
[p.11]..the commonest alternative [to God(s)] is to appeal to antecedent physical events.
A person’s genetic endowment..is said to explain part of the workings of his mind and his personal history the rest. For example, because of (physical) competition during the course of evolution people now have (nonphysical) feelings of aggression which lead to (physical) acts of hostility.
…aggression reaches back into millions of years of evolutionary history, and anxiety acquired when one is a child survives into old age.
[p12] Psychotherapists say feelings which have been put out of mind fight their way back in…and so on.
…but it is ususally possible to ignore them, and this may be a good strategy…The world of mind steals the show.
The conditions of which behavior is a function are also neglected…The professional psychologist often stops…how many of those who have considered [William] James’ arguments have noted that no antecedent event has..been pointed out?
[p.13] There is a good deal of current interest, for example, in what must have happened during the evolution of the species to explain human behavior…behavior we cannot explain…
[p.14] The [invented] function of the inner man is to provide an explanation…he is a center from which behavior emanates. He initiates, originates, and creates, and in so doing he remains, as he was for the Greeks, divine. We say that he is autonomous –and, so far as a science of behavior is concerned, that means miraculous.
His existence depends upon our ignorance, and he naturally loses status as we come to know more about behavior. The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the condition under which the individual lives….these events must be related…
The contingencies of survival responsible for man’s genetic endowment would produce tendencies to act aggressively, not feelings of aggression….any feelings which may arise are at best by-products.
[p.15] Our age is not suffering from anxiety but from the accidents, crimes, wars, and other dangerous and painful things to which people are so often exposed….we do not need to try and discover what personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, plans, purposes, intentions, or other perquisites of autonomous man really are in order to get on with a scientific analysis of behavior…The inner man has been created in the image of the outer.
[p.16]…[Feelings] are by-products and not to be mistaken for causes.
For thousands of years in the history of human thought the process of natural selection went unseen in spite of its extraordinary importance.
[p.17] The effect of the environment on behavior remained obscure for an even longer time. We can see what organisms do to the world…but it is much harder to see what the world does to them. It was Descartes who first suggested that the environment might play an active role in the determination of behavior…(he excluded the human organism, presumably to avoid religious controversy)
The triggering action of the environment came to be called a ‘stimulus’ –the Latin word for ‘goad’– and the effect on the organism a ‘response’, and together they were said to compose a ‘reflex’. Reflexes were first demonstrated in small decapitated animals…it seemed to deny the existence of an autonomous agent –the ‘soul of the spinal cord’…
When Pavlov showed how new reflexes could be built up through conditioning, a full-fledged stimulus-response psychology was born, in which all behavior was regarded as reactions to stimuli.
[p.18] The stimulus-response model..did not solve the basic problem, because something like an ‘inner man’ had to be invented to convert a stimulus into a response. Information theory ran into the same problem when an inner ‘processor’ had to be invented to convert input to output.
…Descartes hypothesis held a dominant position in behavior for a long time, but it was a false scent from which a scientific analysis is only now recovering.
It is now clear that we must take into account what the environment does to an organism not only before but after it responds. Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences. Once this fact is recognized, we can formulate the interaction between organism and environment…
There are two important results. Behavior which operates upon the environment to produce consequences (‘operant’ behavior) can be studied by arranging environments in which specific consequences are contingent upon it….The second result is practical : the environment can be manipulated.
[p.19] A technology of operant behavior is..already well advanced. We have moved forward by dispossessing autonomous man, but he has not departed gracefully.
He is still an important figure in political science, law, religion, economics, anthropology, sociology, psychotherapy, philosophy, ethics, history, education, [etc.], and family life.
In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomus in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view..must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment.
…new evidences of the predictability of human behavior are [being] discovered.
By questioning the control exercised by autonomous man and demonstrating the control exercised by the environment, a science of behavior also seems to question dignity and worth.
[p.21] [in the traditional view] A person is responsible for his behavior not only in the sense that he may be justly blamed or punished when he behaves badly, but also in the sense that he is given credit and admired for his achievements. A scientific analysis shifts the credit as well as the blame to the environment, and traditional practices can then no longer be justified.
These are sweeping changes, and those who are committed to traditional theories and practices naturally resist them.
[p.22] As the emphasis shifts to the environment, the individual seems to be exposed to a new kind of danger. Who is to construct the controlling environment and to what end? Autonomous man presumably controls himself in accordance with a built-in set of values; he works for what he finds good. But what will the putative controller find good and will it be good for those he controls? Answers to questions of this sort are said, of course, to call for value judgements.
A science of behavior is by no means as far advanced as physics or biology, but it has an advantage in that it may throw some light on its own difficulties. Science is human behavior, and so is the opposition to science.
[p.23] We can reject traditional explanations if they have been tried and found wanting in an experimental analysis…
[p.24] Almost all our major problems involve human behavior and they cannot be solved by physical and biological technology alone…but we have been slow…
[p.25] The behavioral sciences have been slow to change partly because the explanatory entities..have been hard to find. The environment is obviously important, but its role has remained obscure. It does not push or pull, it selects, and this function is difficult to discover and analyze.
…the selective role of the environment in shaping and maintaining the behavior of the individual is only beginning to be recognized and studied…effects, once assigned to states of mind, feelings, and traits, are beginning to be traced to accessible conditions…
It will not solve our problems however, until it replaces traditional prescientific views, and these are strongly entrenched. Freedom and dignity illustrate the difficulty. They are the possessions of the autonomous man of traditional theory and they are essential to practices in which a person is held responsible for his conduct and given credit for his achievements. A scientific analysis shifts both the responsibility and the achievement to the environment. It also raises questions concerning ‘values’. Who will use a technology and to what ends? Until these issues are resolved, a technology of behavior will continue to be rejected, and with it possibly the only way to solve our problems.”