Beyond Freedom and Dignity
reviewed by John Sullivan - 1972
B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity is clearly an important book, but how important is difficult to assess at this time. Many books which have been historically influential have not been acclaimed when first published and many so acclaimed have not stood the test of later historical judgment. Some historians suggest that the significance of an event for the most part does not depend upon events which precede or accompany it. What follows is more important. For instance, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) would have been an interesting contribution to the explanation of dreams, but not much more. Because of the subsequent development of psychoanalysis and the drift of Western culture it has become one of the basic books of our time. By contrast, James Mill's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829) marked both the culmination and the end of the movement of simple association psychology. John Stuart Mill's doctrine of emergent properties, called chemism, and the influence of Darwinism resulted in a basic re-orientation of British psychology. Though the historical importance of Beyond Freedom and Dignity is impossible to determine today, I shall attempt to evaluate its contemporary significance.
Skinner's fundamental method in this book is to define in a behavioristic language a number of terms common in the humanistic literature. Meanings and references
of the humanistic terms are transposed from social contexts into paradigms used in the experimental study of learning. The intellectual feat is to make these translations in such a way that no meanings of the humanistic terms are unaccounted for and the new definitions have a practical use. Since he does not explicitly restrict his claims, it is assumed that Skinner has done both. An obvious advantage of his procedure is that if he is able to make successful coordinations of terms from the humanistic literature to his experimental paradigms, and he knows the relevant variables in these paradigms, then he is in a position to make significant analyses of social situations. Social contexts may thus be analyzed in different ways than have been done in the humanistic literature. Skinner's analyses lead, so the claim goes, beyond freedom and dignity to a social world based upon positive reinforcement that could lead to the development of man beyond the capability of our present social arrangements.
Such Utopian dreams are symptoms of the discontents of our social world. These dreams have been called the "opium of the intellectuals." Dreams of the conditions for social justice invariably have a solution in terms of the particular thinker's favored paradigms. For Plato the solution was in the recognition of the natural hierarchy of classes and the harmony of the functions of each class. Christian tradition found the solution to living in this world to be composed of fortitude and love in this world, and faith in the Utopian character of the next world. For Marx the solution was found in the abolition of class exploitation by a rearrangement of economic and political power. For Freud the Utopian dream is viewed as a regressive wish for the good mother who satisfies every need without making demands. Reality, however, requires a measure of stoicism and an attempt to extend conscious control when conditions are propitious. For Skinner the dream is the design of social controls without the use of aversive stimuli.
Evaluation of Beyond Freedom and Dignity entails at least three components: (1) an analysis of Skinner's specific reductive procedures, (2) an analysis of the general empirical tradition, and (3) a review of alternative analyses. One who attacks, defends, or merely assesses the book is taking a stand on the experimental analysis of behavior, empiricism, and the generality of the experimental analysis of behavior.
A network of interesting arguments is presented in Beyond Freedom and Dignity. They will be constructed here in a form slightly different from Skinner's presentation in order to heighten their dialectical quality and to stress their related character. The comments are my own.
The Technology Dialectic
Antagonist: Man is an autonomous agent; thus prediction and control of his behavior are impossible.
Skinnerian Reply: All behavior is determined, that is, under some control. A technology of control of behavior has developed as we have learned to manipulate environments which reinforce behavior.
The Values Dialectic
Antagonist: The gap between what is and what ought to be is unbridgeable. This is the gap between science and ethics, a distinction between description and prescription. There can be no scientifically based, so-called naturalistic ethics.
Reply: An ultimate value for humans is survival. What is good is what contributes to long-term survival. To ask if something is good is only to ask if it contributes positively to the fulfillment of human development.
Comment: This is the Darwinian metaphysic of the Skinnerian system. It might better be stated as a hypothetical statement: If survival is our ultimate value, then whatever contributes to survival is good.
The Autonomous Man Dialectic
Antagonist: Man's behavior is controlled by his wishes, perceptions, and ideas.
Reply: To explain a person's actions by his ideas is simply to push the problem of explanation back to the conditions which determine the development of his ideas. Comment: A variation on this argument is to hold that behavior is determined by a person's habits, motivational states, individual differences like intelligence, and the environmental stimuli. It might then be objected that it is not the stimuli per se that are important but how the stimuli are perceived. But this is to require all over again that habits, motivational states, and individual differences explain the perception of stimuli.
The Dignity Dialectic
Antagonist: Some people deserve credit for their strength of character and dignity.
Reply: We tend to explain behavior in which the causes are inconspicuous as due to the properties of the agent or his will. But all behavior is under controls such that the person should be given neither blame or credit for his dignity.
The Freedom Dialectic
Antagonist: Freedom is an unrestricted good, is the condition for the development of the person to the fullest, and is incompatible with control in any form.
Reply: Behavior is always under control of some form or another. The literature of freedom has arisen from a rejection of aversive social controls. This literature is largely concerned with avoidance or escape from aversive controls. But this formulation distorts the problem. The values of positive social controls are denied in the wish to escape from aversive controls. Since behavior is always under environmental control, the problem is to shift controls from aversive to positive stimuli.
The Reinforcement Dialectic
Antagonist: Reinforcement theory which is at the base of your psychology cannot explain the behavior of people who are free, particularly their creative behavior. Reinforcement by its nature only increases the probability of what has already occurred.
Reply: Creative behavior is under the control of normative systems, like language is under the control of syntactic rules which are learned. Such rules applied over and over again with different contents may generate infinitely varied sentences. Rule-mediated behavior is ultimately under the control of reinforcing environments. Scientific laws generally are learned by reinforcement principles and are maintained by social and physical reinforcements.
The Empiricism Dialectic
Antagonist: Out of pure reason it is possible to construct concepts that have an explanatory function in the physical world. Mathematical concepts are standard examples.
Reply: All knowledge comes from experience. In order to have meaning, theoretical terms must be reducible to terms of direct experience.
Comment: Skinner's work is in the tradition of radical empiricism. His reduction of the terms "freedom" and "dignity" is comparable in method to Hume's reduction of "cause" and "self to elements of his psychology, of impressions and ideas related by laws of association (A Treatise on Human Nature, 1739). Skinner's reduction is also similar in form to Mach's reduction to his psychology of the terms of Newtonian science (Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwickelung historisch-kritisch dargestellt, Leipzig, 1883) and William James' reduction of "consciousness" ("Does Consciousness Exist," 1904).
Much that irritates about Skinner may be traced to the bland assertiveness of his style. This assertiveness is also of an extreme position that leads to paradoxical
conclusions that are counter-intuitive and against ordinary language usage.
A cluster of notions has been traditionally associated with empiricism. The position was given a classic statement by Locke, who held that all knowledge comes from experience. This doctrine was aimed polemically at the Platonic doctrine of innate ideas (first stated in Meno). The main thrust of Skinner's polemic is against abstract notions, with the accompanying doctrine that all behavior is controlled (ultimately) by reinforcements. Skinner is concerned with behavior, not ideas. Classical empiricism concerned with knowledge and mind has been shorn of its mentalistic trappings and given a new formulation in terms of experimental analysis of behavior. Skinner's version is that knowledge comes from reinforcements and further that ultimately the control of behavior is to be found in reinforcements and not in ideas or knowledge.
Skinner is thus giving us a modern experimental psychologist's version of Ockham's Razor: don't multiply entities beyond reinforcements. Ockham's (don't multiply entities beyond necessity) thrust was against the existence of Platonic universals and a preference for Aristotelian particulars. There may be physical objects, white in color. These objects may be said to have the property of whiteness. Since many different objects may have the property of being white, whiteness is designated a universal. The problem is to consider whether "whiteness" has an existence apart from the objects which have it as a property. Nominalists like Ockham held that the only things that existed were particulars; they were against the multiplying of entities like Platonic universals. Freedom is also a universal of the Platonic type; the question is whether it is reducible to simple situations. Since it is not a variable in an experimental situation, the problem is to translate the term into behavioristic vocabulary. In performing this reduction, note that Skinner refers to the behaviors of people and not the property of an individual.
"Man's struggle for freedom is .. . due ... to certain behavioral processes . . . the chief effect of which is the avoidance or escape from so-called 'aversive' features of the environment." (p. 42) "The literature of freedom . . . has been forced to brand all control as wrong and to misrepresent many of the advantages to be gained from a social environment. It is unprepared for the next step, which is not to free men from control but to analyze and change the kinds of control to which they are exposed." (pp. 42-43). These two quotations, patched together as they are from Skinner's text, do not, I believe, distort it. The core of his argument is contained here. Briefly, in terms of the dimensions mentioned above, the literature of freedom arises in conditions of strong aversive control, but we are able to use controls non-aversively toward goals which have ultimately good outcomes.
"We recognize a person's dignity or worth when we give him credit for what he has done. The amount we give is inversely proportional to the conspicuousness of the causes of his behavior. If we do not know why a person acts as he does, we attribute his behavior to him." (p. 58).
My evaluation of Skinner's proposals is based upon a fundamental agreement and a fundamental disagreement. The agreement is probably a professional distortion, sort of a special knothole view on the world, that psychology is the propaedeutic social science. This is the thesis that most of what is interesting in the social sciences can be given an explanation in psychological terms. The disagreement is on the question of how far a reduction can be made of any social phenomena. The question "how far a reduction?" is connected with the question, "to what psychology will the reduction of humanistic terms be most productive?"
It is reasonable to hold that even freedom implies the direction of a person's behavior by his own set of values, ideas, etc. Thus the notion of freedom implies control. The argument is not about control or no control but the loci of control. That there can be differences in the ratios of external versus internal control of a person's behavior is difficult to dispute. It is important in evaluating actions to assess them as wise or foolish, intelligent or not intelligent, compelled or relatively free. These actions are to be judged in terms of criteria relative to the pursuit of goals, ends, values, etc. The region where it is important to preserve the notions of freedom and dignity is precisely in the opportunity to have behavior under the control of one's own values, etc. and not someone else's. No doubt one's politics, religion, views on education, love, life, etc, are determined by one's background, ultimately by reinforcement from one's own physical and social environments. To be controlled by someone else's background, values, etc. is to be unfree. The argument is not for ultimate freedom but for freedom to control one's own behavior and environments in terms of one's own states. The area in which terms like freedom and dignity occur is not in ultimate explanations but in immediate ones. This is a thesis of levels of explanation and casual chains.
My fundamental disagreement is to which of the various psychologies the terms of humanistic literature will be reduced. At this stage of our understanding of psychological processes one cannot rule out competing psychologies. Reduction of terms like "freedom" and "dignity" to a psychology that does not admit of inner states of organisms inevitably ends by dissolving these concepts. If one assumes the existence of mediating states or cognitive processes, the chance of the survival of some of the ordinary language meanings of these constructs is increased.
Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity is of great value for it sharply illuminates the controlling features of our environments. As a result of this book we ought to be increasingly sensitive to being controlled and the opportunity to exercise counter-control in our environments. How this works in miniature can be illustrated by the fact that copyrights of Skinner's previous books were owned by the publishers. He, however, owns the copyright to Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He probably would interpret this behavior as rule- mediated which is reinforcing. I hold that this is an advance in Skinner's freedom and probably a considerable contribution to his worth.