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The Case Against B.F. Skinner

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

by B.F. Skinner
Knopf, 225 pp., $6.95


A century ago, a voice of British liberalism described the “Chinaman” as “an inferior race of malleable orientals.”1 During the same years, anthropology became professionalized as a discipline, “intimately associated with the rise of raciology.”2 Presented with the claims of nineteenth-century racist anthropology, a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined. The question of the scientific status of nineteenth-century racist anthropology is no longer seriously at issue, and its social function is not difficult to perceive. If the “Chinaman” is malleable by nature, then what objection can there be to controls exercised by a superior race?

Consider now a generalized version of the pseudo-science of the nineteenth century: it is not merely the heathen Chinese who are malleable by nature, but rather all people. Science has revealed that it is an illusion to speak of “freedom” and “dignity.” What a person does is fully determined by his genetic endowment and history of “reinforcement.” Therefore we should make use of the best behavioral technology to shape and control behavior in the common interest.

Again, we may inquire into the exact meaning and scientific status of the claim, and the social functions it serves. Again, if the scientific status is slight, then it is particularly interesting to consider the climate of opinion within which the claim is taken seriously.

In his speculations on human behavior, which are to be clearly distinguished from his experimental investigations of conditioning behavior, B. F. Skinner offers a particular version of the theory of human malleability. The public reception of his work is a matter of some interest. Skinner has been condemned as a proponent of totalitarian thinking and lauded for his advocacy of a tightly managed social environment. He is accused of immorality and praised as a spokesman for science and rationality in human affairs. He appears to be attacking fundamental human values, demanding control in place of the defense of freedom and dignity. There seems something scandalous in this, and since Skinner invokes the authority of science, some critics condemn science itself, or “the scientific view of man,” for supporting such conclusions, while others assure us that science will “win out” over mysticism and irrational belief.

A close analysis shows that the appearance is misleading. Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

As to its social implications, Skinner’s science of human behavior, being quite vacuous, is as congenial to the libertarian as to the fascist. If certain of his remarks suggest one or another interpretation, these, it must be stressed, do not follow from his “science” any more than their opposites do. I think it would be more accurate to regard Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity as a kind of Rorschach test. The fact that it is widely regarded as pointing the way to 1984 is, perhaps, a suggestive indication of certain tendencies in modern industrial society. There is little doubt that a theory of human malleability might be put to the service of totalitarian doctrine. If, indeed, freedom and dignity are merely the relics of outdated mystical beliefs, then what objection can there be to narrow and effective controls instituted to ensure “the survival of a culture”?

In view of the prestige of science and the tendencies toward centralized authoritarian control which can easily be detected in modern industrial society, it is important to investigate seriously the claim that the science of behavior and a related technology provide the rationale and the means for control of behavior. What, in fact, has been demonstrated, or even plausibly suggested in this regard?

Skinner assures us repeatedly that his science of behavior is advancing mightily and that there exists an effective technology of control. It is, he claims, a “fact that all control is exerted by the environment” (p. 82). Consequently, “When we seem to turn control over to a person himself, we simply shift from one mode of control to another” (p. 97). The only serious task, then, is to design less “aversive” and more effective controls, an engineering problem. “The outlines of a technology are already clear” (p. 149). “We have the physical, biological, and behavioral technologies needed ‘to save ourselves’; the problem is how to get people to use them” (p. 158).

It is a fact, Skinner maintains, that “behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences” and that as the consequences contingent on behavior are investigated, more and more “they are taking over the explanatory functions previously assigned to personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions” (p. 18).

As a science of behavior adopts the strategy of physics and biology, the autonomous agent to which behavior has traditionally been attributed is replaced by the environment—the environment in which the species evolved and in which the behavior of the individual is shaped and maintained. [P. 184.]

A “behavioral analysis” is thus replacing the “traditional appeal to states of mind, feelings, and other aspects of the autonomous man,” and “is in fact much further advanced than its critics usually realize” (p. 160). Human behavior is a function of “conditions, environmental or genetic,” and people should not object “when a scientific analysis traces their behavior to external conditions” (p. 75), or when a behavioral technology improves the system of control.

Not only has all of this been demonstrated, according to Skinner, but as the science of behavior progresses, it will, inevitably, more fully establish these facts. “It is in the nature of scientific progress that the functions of autonomous man be taken over one by one as the role of the environment is better understood” (p. 58). This is the “scientific view,” and “it is in the nature of scientific inquiry” that the evidence should shift in its favor (p. 101). “It is in the nature of an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment” (p. 198). Furthermore, physiology some day “will explain why behavior is indeed related to the antecedent events of which it can be shown to be a function” (p. 195).

These claims fall into two categories. In the first are claims about what has been discovered; in the second, assertions about what science must discover in its inexorable progress. It is likely that the hope or fear or resignation induced by Skinner’s proclamations results, in part, from his assertions that scientific progress will inevitably demonstrate both that all control is exerted by the environment and that the ability of “autonomous man” to choose is an illusion.

Claims of the first sort must be evaluated according to the evidence presented for them. In the present instance, this is a simple task, since no evidence is presented, as will become clear when we turn to more specific examples. In fact, the question of evidence is beside the point, since the claims dissolve into triviality or incoherence under analysis. Claims with regard to the inevitability of future discoveries are more ambiguous. Is Skinner saying that, as a matter of necessity, science will show that behavior is completely determined by the environment? If so, his claim can be dismissed as pure dogmatism, foreign to the “nature of scientific inquiry.” It is quite conceivable that as scientific understanding advances, it will reveal that even with full details about genetic endowment and personal history, a Laplacean omniscience could predict very little about what an organism will do. It is even possible that science may some day provide principled reasons for this conclusion (if indeed it is true).

But perhaps Skinner is suggesting merely that the term “scientific understanding” be restricted to the prediction of behavior from environmental conditions. If so, then science may reveal, as it progresses, that “scientific understanding of human behavior,” in this sense, is inherently limited. At the moment we have virtually no scientific evidence and not even the germs of an interesting hypothesis about how human behavior is determined. Consequently, we can only express our hopes and guesses about what some future science may demonstrate. In any event, the claims that Skinner puts forth in this category are either dogmatic or uninteresting, depending on which interpretation we give to them.

The dogmatic element in Skinner’s thinking is further revealed when he states that “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 conditions under which the individual lives” (p. 14). Surely the task of a scientific analysis is to discover the facts and explain them. Suppose that in fact the human brain operates by physical principles (perhaps now unknown) that provide for free choice, appropriate to situations but only marginally affected by environmental contingencies. The task of scientific analysis is not—as Skinner believes—to demonstrate that the conditions to which he restricts his attention fully determine human behavior, but rather to discover whether in fact they do (or whether they are at all significant), a very different matter. If they do not, as seems plausible, the “task of a scientific analysis” will be to clarify the issues and discover an intelligible explanatory theory that will deal with the actual facts. Surely no scientist would follow Skinner in insisting on the a priori necessity that scientific investigation will lead to a particular conclusion, specified in advance.

In support of his belief that science will demonstrate that behavior is entirely a function of antecedent events, Skinner notes that physics advanced only when it “stopped personifying things” and attributing to them “wills, impulses, feelings, purposes,” and so on (p. 8). Therefore, he concludes, the science of behavior will progress only when it stops personifying people and avoids reference to “internal states.” No doubt physics advanced by rejecting the view that a rock’s wish to fall is a factor in its “behavior,” because in fact a rock has no such wish. For Skinner’s argument to have any force, he must show that people have wills, impulses, feelings, purposes, and the like no more than rocks do. If people do differ from rocks in this respect, then a science of human behavior will have to take account of this fact.

Similarly, Skinner is correct in asserting that “modern physics or most of biology” does not discuss such matters as “a crisis of belief” or “loss of confidence” (p. 10). Evidently, from this correct observation nothing follows about the science of human behavior. Physics and biology, Skinner observes, “did not advance by looking more closely at the jubilance of a falling body, or…the nature of vital spirits, and we do not need to try to discover what personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, plans, purposes, intentions, or the other perquisites of autonomous man really are in order to get on with a scientific analysis of behavior”; and we must neglect “supposed mediating states of mind” (p. 15).

  1. 1

    Economist, October 31, 1862. Cited by Frederick F. Clairmonte, review of R. Segal, The Race War, Journal of Modern African Studies, forthcoming.

  2. 2

    Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (Crowell: 1968), pp. 100-1. By the 1860s, he writes, “anthropology and racial determinism had become almost synonyms.”

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