Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Alfred Knopf, 225 pp., $6.95

We read books which help us say things which we are on the verge of saying anyway, but cannot quite say without help. from Beyond Freedom and Dignity

One could understand and better the furor which this book has engendered if he had not read the book. Skinner, Pierce Professor of Psychology, has been attacked by fellow scholars, as any academic who publishes a controversial book always is. He has also made the cover of Time magazine, been editorialized about and against in half the papers in the country and even reviled by the Vice-President--who, one feels sure, has not read the book.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity contains no new findings and expounds no new theories. He recommends no specific changes in society, but only says that we are capable of making them. It is in no way a breakthrough, either as psychology, sociology or political science. Why then, the furor? In Agnew's case, certainly, because the Vice-President needed an easy target. (Agnew went so far as to lump Skinner in the same category with "progressive educators"--a classification which both Skinner and progressive educators will find amusing.) In the case of Time, because the popular press is always in need of some new villain to destroy, some new hero to create, something to put on the cover. Unfortunately, Beyond Freedom and Dignity is neither a heinous model for a 1984 super-state, nor a viable blueprint for Utopia. It is, however, an interesting book.

II

Can a man of perception respect himself at all? --Dostoevsky. Notes from Underground

Dostoevsky is to the point in discussing Skinner, partly because Skinner quotes him often, partly because much of Skinner is reminiscent of Dostoevsky. Skinner, in fact, is reminiscent of many writers, as one might expect of the author of Walden Two. Skinner's knowledge and use of literature is wide and impressive, and Skinner himself is an accomplished writer. Like most writers, he is endowed with a cosmic dream, a vision of a perfect universe, and, like many writers, he is sure that he has discovered how to create it.

The sheer range of this book would render it unpalatable to most readers. Skinner deals with man and his culture from the beginning to the future, in a dazzling series of generalities designed for the general reader. This book is direct in line of descent from such grand visionary works at Rousseau's Second Discourse and Jacques Loeb's Mechanistic Conception of Life, Skinner, like Rousseau and Loeb, has attempted to transcend the role of the scientist and assume the mantle of the prophesy. And, more important, like Rousseau and Loeb, Skinner has been carried away by his cosmic dream.

Skinner begins the book with some extremely basic lessons in psychology. Behavior, he says, is the one result of conditioning, of negative and positive reinforces bringing about a series of responses known colloquially as behavior. Man has come to place great emphasis on two concepts--freedom and dignity--which are actually merely the result of a complex series of reinforcements. Freedom is an illusory concept, because no man is autonomous. The "free" man is at the mercy of his conditioning. Dignity is merely the absence of visible conditioning--we award more credit to a man who performs an act which brings him to immediately evident benefit than to one who works for money, say, or for the hope of honor. True autonomy is nonexistent in any man who has been raised in human society, since his conduct is always determined in relation to society.

Freedom and dignity are dangerous concepts, Skinner argues. They add nothing to human behavior and are very capable of detracting from it, especially when they conflict. So, for instance, professional soldiers reject new and sophisticated weapons, which free them from endangering their lives, but also take away from them the chance to gain recognition (dignity) by exhibiting bravery (a series of responses to reinforcements). The time has come, now that man is faced with the possibility of extinction through pollution, overpopulation, and war, to create a technology of behavior; this technology will organize the reinforcers to which men respond, attempting to eliminate those which create hostile, aggressive, anti-social, and destructive behavior, and encouraging those which create behavior aimed at furthering the survival of the culture. Since cultures, like human personalities, are formed by an series of responses to reinforcements, Skinner argues, a technology of behavior will be able to create a culture in which optimal conditions exist.

And what of the inner man? The inner man, says Skinner, the homunculus or spirit is like freedom and dignity, an illusion. It no more exists than angels, devils, and things that go bump in the night, but is simply and device to allow man to adjust his behavior to fit the demands of the culture in which he lives. Skinner's technology of behavior would not destroy the inner man, who never existed in the first place. And what if those who administer the controls in this technology use their power unwisely? Then, says Skinner, those whom they control will revolt, placing counter-controls on the controllers.

III

Indeed, if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices--that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are missing at in one case and in another and so on, that is, a real mathematical formula--then, most likely, man will cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule?   Notes from Underground

If so far Skinner's book seems nebulous, it is because the book is not a clarion call for a new society, only a whispered voice suggesting the possibility. If we may borrow once more from Dostoevsky, Skinner is not the architect of the Crystal Palace, merely a surveyor who says that the ground exists on which to build it. Nowhere in the course of the book does Skinner draw up a blueprint for the technology of behavior, he only states that it can be drawn up. In an unfortunate and telling comparison he likens the state of his technology to the state of nuclear physics at the outset of World War II. At that time a group of scientists informed the President that they knew, not how to build a bomb, but how to go about finding out how to build a bomb. The parallel is striking. The atom bomb taught us that all science is not necessarily good, that new techniques that are not necessarily better than old techniques, that knowledge is at best morally neutral, not always right.

But before we consider the implications of a technology of behavior, we must consider whether one can be created. Skinner has summarized neatly and in very concise terms the extent of our knowledge of human behavior. Most of this knowledge has been gathered in the past hundred years. Can a species which took more than a thousand generations to fly from the ground learn all there is to know about its own nature in less than four? Nowhere in the book does Skinner prove that such a technology is feasible; we have only his word for it. At the moment, it is not the distinct possibility he posits, merely an idea which may become feasible in some coming age. If at some time it does become feasible, we will be forced to deal with its awesome probability. And even if the day comes when such a technology is developed, man still revolt against it. As Dostoevsky says, man "would still do something out of sheer perversity--he would create destruction and chaos--just to gain his point...And if all this could in turn be analyzed and prevented by predicting that it would occur, then man would deliberately go man to prove his point."   Michael Ryan