Ward et al.

Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Reading Questions

And thus expunge
The ought
The should
Truth's to be sought
In Does and Doesn't

B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederick Skinner wrote this book towards the end of his life (he died in 1990). As the timeline shows, his earliest contribution (and a real whopper) was The Behavior of Organisms in 1938. He thus began his career in the glory days of what has been called the behaviorist movement in American psychology.

The first behaviorist manifesto was published by John Watson in 1913 and stridently faulted other psychologies for allowing mentalistic terms to be at the core of their theories. Watson would have none of this, and claimed that Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It should be only about things we can directly observe: the relationship between the environment and the behavior of the organism. Note the broad scope of this claim: we are talking about all organisms now (all animals, not just humans) and the only things we can talk about are objective qualities of the environment and objective descriptions of behavior. Not only was behavior king, but the only domain of any interest was learning.

Skinner's operant conditioning approach to learning theory is in many ways the crowning glory of this movement. If you understand its subtleties you can predict and explain a wide variety of behavior. There are other approaches to learning that we will only brush on here. One you may see in later classes is called classical conditioning and is associated with Ian Pavlov and his salivating dogs. Classical conditioning is only concerned with links made by the simple association of stimulus and response. Skinner's approach is more complex and is drawn from evolutionary principles: the environment, says Skinner, selects behavior after it has been emitted by reinforcing or punishing it.

The story of Beyond Freedom and Dignity can be found in the short bit of poetry above. Skinner claims that, if we want to produce a society where everyone is happy (read: gets lots of positive reinforcement), then we ought to concern ourselves with the unflinching and straightforward control of behavior. Skinner likens his approach to a technology of behavior -- a clear tool for the scientist to design a culture that is positively reinforcing. He claims that if only we follow this technology, laying aside foolish notions of freedom and dignity, we will then be on the road to creating a society where people will feel free and feel dignified (though they will know their behavior is completely controlled).

Understanding Skinner's really radical claims takes some doing. This is partly because you will have to master a new vocabulary (e.g. stimulus control, negative reinforcement, generalization gradient). But Skinner throws out so many of our basic ideas (like ought, should, freedom, dignity, value, virtue, etc.) that one can get intellectual vertigo. The best advice I can give you (other than the generic advice in the earlier section on exams) is to constantly try to take your standard explanations of behavior and turn them into Skinnerian descriptions of contingencies of reinforcement.

A guide to the argument of the book.

In A technology of Behavior Skinner lays out his argument that his form of psychology can do the same thing for culture that Newton did for physics. No sense in being shy! His argument turns on the implicit moral blame we will receive if we have this excellent tool available but do not use it to save humankind. The main obstacle, says Skinner, is our stubborn belief in freedom and dignity.

In Freedom, Skinner reviews the "literature of freedom" and tries to show that its force comes from an attempt to avoid "aversive control." But in doing so, the literature of freedom fails to free the "happy slave" -- the person who is controlled by circumstances but likes and "chooses" it. Skinner suggests we simply give up the fort and accept the fact that no one is free and that all our behavior is determined. The task then is to take systematic control of the circumstances that control us, rather than leaving them up to "chance."

In Dignity, Skinner makes a similar case for the attachment to dignity. He criticizes our attachment to "weak practices of control" as a smoke screen behind which we hide our dignity. If all behavior is controlled, then dignity is a moot issue. Lets get on with making the control as pleasant as we can.

Speaking of pleasure, Skinner deals with its opposite in the chapters on Punishment and Alternatives to Punishment. Skinner does an excellent job here of showing why punishment should only be used sparingly, and then faults our culture for its addiction to punishment. This addiction, he claims, is the result of our outmoded ideas of freedom and dignity. The alternatives to punishment are all branded as "weak methods of control" and thus to be avoided in favor of strict attention to contingencies of reinforcement.

In Values, Skinner makes his case that what we claim are values are actually better understood as descriptions of behavior, given a particular goal. Here is where you will need to do lots of practice translating "regular" statements into Skinner-talk. Take the time to follow the examples in the chapter and to do the exercises in the reading questions -- it will pay off on the exams.

In the chapters on the evolution and design of culture, Skinner lays out his approach to designing a utopian society (on the assumption you have bought everything up to this point). Pay close attention to the "levels of values" or "levels of goods" by which Skinner gets from individual behavior to cultural practices. We don't read the final chapter, since it is mostly a technical attempt say to the cognitive camp "anything you can do I can do better." But if you are considering psychology as a major, you might read this in your spare time.