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…

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