Sunday, June 3, 2012

Death of the Autonomous Man?: A Review of BF Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (Part 1 of 2)

Apparently my metaphysics are somewhat different from BF Skinner's.  However, he does make fascism sound appealing...

René Magritte's "The Son of Man"
“Thus, a slave driver induces a slave to work by whipping him when he stops; by resuming work the slave escapes from the whipping (and incidentally reinforces the slave driver’s behavior in using the whip). A parent nags a child until the child performs a task; by performing the task the child escapes nagging (and reinforces the parent’s behavior). A teacher threatens corporal punishment or failure until his students pay attention; by paying attention the students escape from the threat of punishment (and reinforce the teacher for threatening it).” 

- Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Chapter 2: Freedom

So anyone who cares to notice might see that I've taken a break on my weekly Blake.  This is because I'm in Alaska and I could only bring so many books.  Because my complete works of William Blake is enormous, I decided to fill my bag with several smaller books that could take the same space.

One of the ones I've been meaning to give due time to is BF Skinner's "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," which is a behavioralist view on the literature and paradigms of freedom, dignity and the concept of "autonomy."

It's a really good book and one I'd recommend to anyone who has even the very smallest notion of what behavioralism is about.  Even if you don't know positive reinforcement from negative reinforcement from punishment the book still has a great deal to offer.

In my own little universe, it is a one of those little stars in a galaxy of books I've read that I'm unbelievably unlikely to discuss with anyone. 

I've actually found it rather useful to write down some thoughts on what I've read on this blog.  First, it helps me remember the material.  Second, the book reviews are actually somewhat popular - and I like imagining some undergraduate student trying to find some thoughts and opinions on a text and bumping into my blog.  

(In fact, the only two more popular posts make me a little nauseous: the "Orgies" one on Obama's secret service and the Top Ten Ways to Kill Yourself.  I'm considering deleting the Top Ten Ways as I don't like thinking about people searching for that and bumping into my post with a head full of gunk.)

So... on with the Obscure Book Review!!!:

In summary, I think that Skinner makes some startlingly good points on how behavioralism needs to be considered in education, economics and politics.  We can, in fact, sculpt people.  In fact, the scariest part of behavioralism is that it works so darned well.  Nothing is quite so manipulative; the idea that behavioralism touches something in our minds more primitive in our desires than a story based psychology (such as psychodynamics or narrative psychology) and knocks it for a loop is pretty awe inspiring in its power.

However, Skinner never really says who or what should be harnessing this power at a social level; he only makes clear that someone should.  Furthermore, most of this books seems to be focused on dispelling the "myth" of the autonomous man.  While he never outright defines autonomous man, I do believe it's very much "free will"; if that's the case, I've read more intriguing arguments for why free will does not exist.

More in depth, here are some chapter summaries:

1: A Technology of Behavior

In this chapter he details that behavioralism and the other psychological disciplines take human behavior and make a science of it from which tools can be constructed.  He spends a large part of the chapter focusing on the idea that in behavioralism feelings don't matter.  Only observable events such as actions matter, not feeling responses.  If you are compelled to push that button out of joy or fear, it's all the same to a behavioralist - or at least he appears to argue.  Other behavioralists, such as Seligman, have searched for the conditioned emotional response, not just the outward action, so don't get mixed up and assume just because Skinner believes that emotions are irrelevant to the science of behavioralism that all behavioralists feel that way.

(It should be noted that in a certain sense emotions are observable.  For example, certain emotions are connected with the production of various chemicals in the brain.  While we can't be 100% certain in a metaphysical sense that the emotion is the chemical, it's a close enough proxy to create a science of conditioned emotional response.  IMHO.)

This isn't to demean Skinner's writing or his larger argument.  In fact, I think he makes his points quite eloquently, such as:

"Autonomous man survives in the face of all this because he is the happy exception.  Theologians have reconciled predestination with free will, and the Greek audience, moved by the portrayal of an inescapable destiny, walked out of the theater free men." - Chapter 1: A Technology of Behavior

I am merely being my cheerfully hypercritical self.  I would say there's more I agree with in this book than I disagree with.  But maybe I have a base, animalistic personality.  ;-p

2: Freedom

Here he details the emotional stimuli of the literature of freedom.  He reviews much of it, including figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  However, he also concludes that part of the literature of freedom is a propagandistic view that any control is negative or aversive. 

3: Dignity

In this chapter he details one of the major paradigm shifts from traditional moral thought to behavioralist thought: if someone's good behavior is a product of environment, what is the virtue of good behavior?  This is of concern to a behavioralist because, as Skinner points out, to be admired is a positive reinforcer.

4: Punishment

Very much an extension of the previous chapter, "Punishment" deals with the problem that if a person does well only to avoid punishment, not only is that viewed as "less good" than someone who does it out of "free will" - less admirable - but that constant threat of punishment is almost the definition of being un-free.  Here he suggests that rather than punishment, a better environment where people are conditioned not to desire what is bad is in order.  However, many authors are paranoid about such a reality  

(I would ask "Why?"  Would we or would we not be more free if we only desired what was good and did what we wanted to do?...)

5: Alternatives to Punishment

This is one of the most interesting chapters.  For one thing, I never thought of psychotherapy as a universal reinforcer for virtually any behavior, although it's readily apparent now.  Permissiveness also seems less innocuous than it did before.  It is true that the environment itself reinforces regardless of human intervention, and with respect to things like tasty food, he seems almost prescient in 1971 of our problems in 2012.

[And here I will break, to avoid the Super Long Blog Post.  Soon to come, Part 2: Chapters 6-9.]


  1. I read that book 40 years ago in my second and final college psych course, on behavior modification. (BTW, always add a comma if it clarifies; in the previous sentence, sans comma, it reads as though I had taken 2 BM courses.) I should revisit that. Oh, here's an interesting Skinner story.

  2. Great. I can't tell if you mean you read it twice (once in your second psych course and once in your final) or if you only took two psych courses, the second of which on behavior modification. GAR! That's how bad my grammar is.

    Anyways, I found it because I was wandering through a used book store and it looked weird. I just love that: finding old, unusual books outside my experience and being able to own them for a dollar or two. ("Beyond Freedom and Dignity" cost $2, apparently, and I bought it last fall.)

  3. I meant, with the comma, that my second psych course was on BM. Without the comma, it was totally unclear (and apparently STILL is!) I find that grammar is easier if you read it, not necessarily literally aloud, but as though you you were reading aloud in your mind's ear, if you know what I mean.

  4. I know what you mean about the "mind's ear." I've been sneaking along for years with "a comma goes where you would take a breath." It's good enough to get a great score on the English portion of the ACT and most people can't tell the difference.

    It's one of those places where Skinner was right in my life. My teachers in grade school and high school didn't correct my grammar beyond the basics and my grandparents didn't have very good grammar in either English or Polish. Nobody noticed so I didn't place importance on it.

    Science and math were different. I had plenty of positive feedback for those subjects. (Thinking about the idea of "surrogate activities," which I'm not certain that "legitimate" philosophers or psychologists have discussed.)


    What is right and what is wrong by the law, by the law
    What is right and what is wrong by the law
    What is right and what is wrong, a short sword and a long
    A weak arm and a strong for to draw. Robert Burns

  6. Huh. The only thing I know about the Jacobites are the bits I learned from learning a bit about Rob Roy, who I have not studied in depth.

    Interesting song you quote. Definitely not from the literature of freedom, at least how I read it.