Beyond Freedom and Dignity: B F Skinner

B F Skinner was a professor of psychology at Harvard. Time magazine called him “the most influential of living American psychologists…” (September 20, 1971). He conducted pioneering work on experimental psychology and argued for behaviorism, a view that free will is an illusion. His provocative book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, published in 1971, put forward his controversial case for behaviorism. It was a controversial attack on libertarian thinkers, advocates of autonomy and the idea of autonomous man. He argued that ideas such as individual autonomy, free will, volition, and consciousness act as barriers for advances in technology for controlling human behaviour. This seems a shocking idea. We have come to understand free will as absolutely central to our notion of dignity. When we are controlled and restricted, we lose an essential quality of our humanity. Skinner was looking onto a world threatened by, “Overpopulation, the depletion of resources, the pollution of the environment, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust – these are the not-so-remote consequences of present courses of action.” (p. 138.) He was trying to conceive of a way to change the behaviours that led to such threats.

Autonomous man is a problem. The traditional view of human beings is that they are free and so they can be held responsible for their actions. Skinner argued that scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behaviour and environment. The evidence for human predictability is becoming more and more convincing. We can predict how many people will go to the seashore when the temperature reaches a certain point, how many will commit suicide and so on. All human behaviour is the product of “operant conditioning”. The functions associated with the idea of “Autonomous Man” are in fact performed by a “reinforcer”. “When a bit of behaviour is followed by a certain kind of consequence, it is more likely to occur again, and a consequence having this effect is called a reinforcer. Food, for example, is a reinforcer to a hungry organism; anything the organism does that is followed by the receipt of food is more, likely to be done again whenever the organism is hungry… . Negative reinforcers are called aversive in the sense that they are the things organisms ‘turn away from.’” (p. 27.) Reinforcers are not the same as actions determined by pain or pleasure. There are positive and negative “reinforcers” in that the latter provokes “counterattack” or rebellion, while the former does not. Both are means of controlling man’s behavior. And he gives the example of labour. “Productive labor, for example, was once the result of punishment: the slave worked to avoid the consequences of not working. Wages exemplify a different principle: a person is paid when he behaves in a given way so that he will continue to behave in that way.” (p. 32.) All human relationships are tools of control.

This shifts responsibility from the individual to those who control the environment which induces such behaviour. After all, if my actions are principally the result of things external to myself, I can hardly be blamed for them. It also raises the question of who is or should be in control of the environment that causes the behaviour and what sort of environment they should construct. Skinner says that we cannot be praised for our virtues nor punished for our failings. The behaviour of a creative genius is determined by “contingencies of reinforcement”. Dignity, which Skinner calls the admiration of others, can be dispensed with as there is no cause to admire people for their behaviour. It is simply vanity.
Morality is exclusively social. Moral principles are inculcated through socially designed contingencies of reinforcement “under which a person is induced to behave for the good of others”. (p. 112.) This is an undiscussed absolute as we can question why people should behave for the  good of others. He argues for a simple dualism between man’s two conditioners: social environment and genetic endowment. “The controlling self (the  conscience or superego) is of social origin, but the controlled self is more likely to be the product of genetic susceptibilities to reinforcement (the id, or the Old Adam). The controlling self generally represents the interests of others, the controlled self the interests of the individual.” (p. 199.)

Skinner looks over the “the literature of freedom”, the canon of important writings on freedom throughout the ages, such as John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”. These writings typically come from situations where people are oppressed and while they are important pieces of literature. They all contribute to the redundant idea of moral autonomy, or dignity. Skinner argues that we need to get beyond these ideas as they hinder the prospect of building a better, happier and more organized society by using science to modify human behaviour.

For Skinner, the “Autonomous Man” refers to aspects of consciousness which distinguish it from the instant sensory level of an animal’s consciousness. Specifically this includes reason, mind, values, concepts, thought, judgment, volition, purpose, memory, independence, self-esteem. These ideas are prescientific superstition. In truth, we are completely controllable by control of the environment. “Behavioral technologists” could and should control men inside out effectively creating a new and better species, with a new and better culture. As things are at the moment control is not found where you might expect. “The relation between the controller and the controlled is reciprocal … The classroom practices of the teacher are shaped and maintained by the effects on his students. In a very real sense, then, the slave controls the slave driver, the child the parent, the patient the therapist, the citizen the government, the communicant the priest, the employee the employer, and the student the teacher.” (p. 169.)

Skinner is completely deterministic. Human beings are not acting as a result of complex aspects of thought, purpose, values, etc.. Any kind of ethics which does not account for this is useless. Ayn Rand, an advocate of human dignity and autonomy, was highly critical of the book. Skinner does not provide the scientific evidence for his claims in the book itself, and asks the readers to trust in his interpretation of the science. His idea of culture is simplistic – a collection of behaviours, rather than something to do with an idea or people.

Rand argues that the book’s purpose is to clear the way for a dictatorship by eliminating its enemies and to see how much he can get away with. It’s motive power is hatred of man’s mind and virtue (with everything they entail: reason, achievement, independence, enjoyment, moral pride, self-esteem). She responds with a quote from Les Miserables, describing the development of an independent young man. Victor Hugo wrote: “… and he blesses God for having given him these two riches which many of the rich are lacking: work, which gives him freedom, and thought, which gives him dignity.”

However, beyond the kind of criticism made by Ayn Rand is a frightening shadow. If the science underpinning Skinner’s argument is correct, a big ‘if’, though one which gains support from the enormous praise he received and standing he had at the time, two questions follow; What on earth are we to make of a value system and justice system which gives great esteem to human dignity, on which human rights are founded and personal moral responsibility an assumption central to most ethical and legal systems? If Skinner is right, is the only ethical response to ensure that the right kind of control is exercised?

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