There are occasions when a worthless, insignificant book acquires significance as a scrap of litmus paper exposing a culture's intellectual state. Such a book is Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B. F. Skinner.
"Skinner is the most influential of living American psychologists . . . " says Time magazine (September 20, 1971). "Skinner has remained a highly influential figure among U.S. college students for well over a decade," says Newsweek (September 20, 197 1). " Burrhus Frederic Skinner is the most influential psychologist alive today, and he is second only to Freud as the most important psychologist of all time. This, at least, is the feeling of 56 percent of the members of the American Psychological Association, who were polled on the question. And it should be reason enough to make Dr. Skinner's new book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, one of the most important happenings in 20th century psychology," says Science News (August 7, 1971).
One cannot evaluate the cultural significance of such statements until one identifies the nature of their object.
The book itself is like Boris Karloff's embodiment of Frankenstein's monster: a corpse patched with nuts, bolts and screws from the junkyard of philosophy (Pragmatism, Social Darwinism, Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, with some nails by Hume, threads by Russell, and glue by the New York Post). The book's voice, like Karloff's, is an emission of inarticulate, moaning growls - directed at a special enemy: "Autonomous Man."
"Autonomous Man" is the term used by Mr. Skinner to denote man's consciousness in all those aspects which distinguish it from the sensory level of an animal's consciousness - specifically: reason, mind, values, concepts, thought, judgment, volition, purpose, memory, independence, self-esteem. These, he asserts, do not exist; they are an illusion, a myth, a "prescientific" superstition. His term may be taken to include everything we call "man's inner world," except that Mr. Skinner would never allow such an expression; whenever he has to refer to man's inner world, he says: "Inside your skin."
"Inside his skin," man is totally determined by his environment (and by his genetic endowment, which was determined by his ancestors' environment), Mr. Skinner asserts, and totally malleable. By controlling the environment, "behavioral technologists" could - and should - control men inside out. If people were brought to give up individual autonomy and to join Mr. Skinner in proclaiming: "To man qua man we readily say good riddance" (p. 201), the behavioral technologists would create a new species and a perfect world. This is the book's thesis.
One expects that an assertion of this kind would be supported by some demonstration or indication of the methods these technologists will use in order to manipulate those non-autonomous bipeds. Curiously enough, there is no such indication in the book. I may be flattering Mr. Skinner, but it occurred to me that perhaps the book itself was intended to be a demonstration of the methods he envisions.
There are certain conditions which the book requires of its readers: (a) Being out of focus. (b) Skimming. (c) Self-doubt. (d) The premise, when confronted with outrageous absurdity: "I don't get it, but he must have reasons for saying it."
These conditions will bring the reader to miss the main ingredients of the book's epistemological method, which are: 1. Equivocation. 2. Substituting metaphors for proof, and examples for definitions. 3. Setting up and knocking down straw men. 4. Mentioning a given notion as controversial, following it up with two or three pages of irrelevant small talk, then mentioning it again and treating it as if it had been proved. 5. Raising valid questions (to indicate that the author is aware of them) and, by the same technique, leaving them unanswered. 6. Overtalking and overloading the reader's consciousness with overelaborate discussions of trivia, then smuggling in enormous essentials without discussion, as if they were incontrovertible. 7. Assuming an authoritarian tone to enunciate dogmatic absolutes-and the more dubious the absolute, the more authoritarian the tone. 8. Providing a brief summary at the end of each chapter, which summary includes, as if they had been proved, notions not included or barely mentioned in the chapter's text.
All of this (and more) is done grossly, crudely, obviously, which leaves the book pockmarked with gaping craters of contradictions, like a moon landscape and as lifelessly dull.
In Atlas Shrugged, I discussed two variants of mysticism: the mystics of spirit and the mystics of muscle, "those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness. Both demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. " I said that their aims are alike: "in matter - the enslavement of man's body, in spirit - the destruction of his mind."
Mr. Skinner is a mystic of muscle - so extreme, complete, all-out a mystic of muscle that one could not use him in fiction: he sounds like a caricature.
At the start of his book, what he demands of his readers is: faith. "In what follows, these issues are discussed 'from a scientific point of view,' but this does not mean that the reader will need to know the details of a scientific analysis of behavior. A mere interpretation will suffice. . . . The instances of behavior cited in what follows are not offered as 'proof of the interpretation. The proof is to be found in the basic analysis. The principles used in interpreting the instances have a plausibility which would be lacking in principles drawn entirely from casual observation." (Pp. 22-23.)
This means: the proof of Mr. Skinner's theory is inaccessible to laymen, who must take him on faith, substituting "plausibility" for logic: if his "interpretation" sounds plausible, it means that he has valid ("non-casual") reasons for expounding it. This is offered as scientific epistemology.
(It must be noted that Mr. Skinner's interpretations of the "scientific analysis of behavior" are rejected by a great many experts initiated into its higher mysteries, not only by psychiatrists and by psychologists of different schools, but even by his own fellow-behaviorists.)
As a cover against criticism, Mr. Skinner resorts to the mystics' usual scapegoat: language. "The text will often seem inconsistent.
English, like all languages, is full of prescientific terms . . . but the issues are important to the nonspecialist and need to be discussed in a nontechnical fashion." (Pp. 23-24.) The mystics of spirit accuse language of being "materialistic"; Mr. Skinner accuses it of being " mentalistic. " Both regard their own theories as ineffable, i.e., incommunicable in language.
Many psychologists are envious of the prestige - and the achievements - of the physical sciences, which they try not to emulate, but to imitate. Mr. Skinner is archetypical in this respect: he is passionately intent on being accepted as a "scientist" and complains that only "Autonomous Man" stands in the way of such acceptance (which, I am sure, is true). Mr. Skinner points out scornfully that primitive men, who were unable to see the difference between living beings and inanimate objects, ascribed the objects' motions to conscious gods or demons, and that science could not begin until this belief was discarded. In the name of science, Mr. Skinner switches defiantly to the other side of the same basic coin: accepting the belief that consciousness is supernatural, he refuses to accept the existence of man's mind.
All human behavior, he asserts, is the product of a process called "operant coriditioning" - and all the functions we ascribe to "Autonomous Man" are performed by a single agent called a "reinforcer." In view of the omnipotence ascribed to this agent throughout the book, a definition would have been very helpful, but here is all we get: "When a bit of behavior is followed by a certain kind of consequence, it is more likely to occur again, and a consequence having this effect is called a reinforcer. Food, for example, is a reinforcer to a hungry organism; anything the organism does that is followed by the receipt of food is more, likely to be done again whenever the organism is hungry. . . . Negative reinforcers are called aversive in the sense that they are the things organisms 'turn away from.' " (P. 27.)
If you assume this means that a "reinforcer" is something which causes pleasure or pain, you will be wrong, because, on page 107, Mr. Skinner declares: "There is no important causal connection between the reinforcing effect of a stimulus and the feelings to which it gives rise. . . . What is maximized or minimized, or what is ultimately good or bad, are things, not feelings, and men work to achieve them or to avoid them not because of the way they feel but because they are positive or negative reinforrers." Then by what means or process do these "reinforcers" affect man's actions? In the whole of the book, no answer is given.
T'he only social difference between positive and negative "reinforcers" is the fact that the latter provoke "counterattack" or rebellion, and the former do not. Both are means of controlling man's behavior. "Productive labor, for example, was once the result of punishment: the slave worked to avoid the consequences of not working. Wages exemplify a different principle: a person is paid when he behaves in a given way so that he will continue to behave in that way." (P. 32.)
From this bit of package-dealing, context-dropping, and definition-by-nonessentials, Mr. Skinner slides to the assertion that slave-driving and wage-paying are both "techniques of control," then to the gigantic equivocation which underlies most of the others in his book: that every human relationship, every instance of men dealing with one another, is a form of control. You are "controlled" by the grocer across the street, because if he were not there, you would shop elsewhere. You are controlled by the person who praises you (praise is a "positive reinforcer"), and by the person who blames you (blame is an "aversive reinforcer"), etc., etc., etc.
Here Mr. Skinner revives the ancient saw to the effect that volition is an illusion, because one is not free if one has reasons for one's actions - and that true volition would consist in acting on whim, a causeless, unaccountable, inexplicable whim exercised in a vacuum, free of any contact with reality.
From this, Mr. Skinner's next step is easy: political freedom, he declares, necessitates the use of "aversive reinforcers," i.e., punishment for evil behavior. Since you are not free anyway, but controlled by everyone at all times, why not let specialists control you in a scientific way and design for you a world consisting of nothing but "positive reinforcers"?
What kind of world would that be? Here, Mr. Skinner seems to make a "Freudian slip": he is surprisingly explicit. ". . . it should be possible to design a world in which behavior likely to be punished seldom or never occurs. We try to design such a world for those who cannot solve the problem of punishment for themselves, such as babies, retardates, or psychotics, and if it could be done for everyone, much time and energy would be saved." (P. 66.)
". . . There is no reason," he declares, "why progress toward a world in which people may be automatically good should be impeded. " (P. 67.) No reason at all - provided you are willing to view yourself as a baby, a retardate or a psychotic.
"Dignity" is Mr. Skinner's odd choice of a designation for what is normally called "moral worth" - and he disposes of it by asserting that it consists in gaining the admiration of other people. Through a peculiar jumble of examples, which includes unrequited love, heroic deeds, and scientific (i.e., intellectual) achievements, Mr. Skinner labors to convince us that: ". . . we are likely to admire behavior more as we understand it less" (P. 53), and: ". . . the behavior we admire is the behavior we cannot yet explain." (P. 58.) It is mere vanity, he asserts, that makes our heroes cling to "dignity" and resist "scientific" analysis, because, once their achievements are explained, they will deserve no greater admiration - and no greater credit - than anyone else.
This last is the core, essence and purpose of his jumbled argument; the rest of the verbiage is merely a haphazard cover. There is a kind of veiled, subterranean intensity in Mr. Skinner's tired prose whenever he stresses the point that men should be given no credit for their virtues or their achievements. The behavior of a creative genius (my expression, not Mr. Skinner's) is determined by "contingencies of reinforcement," just like the behavior of a criminal, and neither of them can help it, and neither should be admiired or blamed. Unlike other modern determinists, Mr. Skinner is not concerned primarily with the elimination of blame, but with the elimination of credit.
This sort of concern is almost self-explanatory. But I did find it surprising that Mr. Skinner includes achievement among the roots of moral worth (of "dignity"). He and I are probably the only two theoreticians who understand - from opposite moral poles - how much depends on this issue.
In reason, one would expect that so thorough a determinist as Mr. Skinner would not deal with questions of morality; but his abolition of reason frees him from concern with contradictions. Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a normative tract, prescribing the actions men ought to take (even though they have no volition), and the motives and beliefs they ought to adopt (even though there are no such things).
From the casual observation that "ethos and mores refer to the customary practices of a group" (pp. 112-113), Mr. Skinner slides to the assertion that morality is exclusively social, that moral principles are inculcated through socially designed contingencies of reinforcement "under which a person is induced to behave for the good of others, " (p. 112) - then to the notion, smuggled in as an undiscussed absolute, that morality is behavior for the good of others - then to the following remarkable passage: "The value or validity of the reinforcers used by other people and by organized agencies may be questioned: 'Why should I seek the admiration or avoid the censure of my fellow men?' 'What can my govemment@r any govemment-really do to me?' 'Can a church actually determine whether I am to be eternally damned or blessed?' 'What is so wonderful about money@o I need all the things it buys?' 'Why should I study the things set forth in a college catalogue?' In short, 'Why should I behave "for the good of others"?' " (Pp. 117-118.)
Yes, read that quotation over again. I had to, before I realized what Mr. Skinner means: he means that the asking of such questions is a violation of the good of others, because it challenges socially inculcated principles of behavior (so that even the pursuit of money or of a college education represents, not one's own good, but the good of others). And wider: all principles of long-range action, moral or practical, represent the good of others, because all principles are a social product.
This is supported by the statements immediately following the above quotation: "When the control exercised by others is thus evaded or destroyed, only the personal reinforcers are left. The individual turns to immediate gratification, possibly through sex or drugs." (P. 118.) Just as altruism is the primeval moral code of all mystics, of spirit or muscle, so this view of an individual's self-interest is their primordial cliche. But Mr. Skinner adds some epistemological "explanations" of his own.
Man, he asserts, is aware of nothing but the immediate moment: he has no capacity to form abstractions, to act by intention, to project the future. "Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences" (p. 18), and: "Behavior cannot really be affected by anything which follows it, but if a 'consequence' is immediate, it may overlap the behavior. " (P. 120.) Evolution, he asserts, did the rest. "The process of operant conditioning presumably evolved when those organisms which were more sensitively affected by the consequences of their behavior were better able to adjust to the environment and survive." (P. 120.) What is this "sensitivity" and through what organ or faculty does it operate? No answer.
Claiming that man's first discoveries (such as banking a fire) were purely accidental (pp. 121-122), Mr. Skinner concludes that other men learned, somehow, to imitate those lucky practices.
"One advantage in being a social animal is that one need not discover practices for oneself." (P. 122.) As to the time-range of man's awareness, Mr. Skinner asserts: "Probably no one plants in the spring simply because he then harvests in the fall. Planting would not be adaptive or 'reasonable' if there were no connection with a harvest, but one plants in the spring because of more immediate contingencies, most of them arranged by the social environment." (P. 122.) How is this done by a social environment consisting of men who are unable to think long-range? No answer.
The phenomenon of language is a problem to a mystic of muscle. Mr. Skinner gets around it semantically, by calling it "verbal behavior." "Verbal behavior presumably arose under contingencies involving practical social interactions . . . ." (P. 122.) How? No answer. "Verbal behavior" is a means of controlling men, because words, somehow, become associated with physical "reinforcers." To be exact, one cannot use the word "words" in Mr. Skinner's context: it is sounds or marks on paper that acquire an associational link with the omnipotent "reinforcers" and stick inside a man's skin, forming "a repertoire of verbal behavior." This would require an incredible feat of memorizing. But Mr. Skinner denies the existence of memory - he calls it "storage" and declares: "Evolutionary and environmental histories change an organism, but they are not stored within it." (Pp. 195-196.) His view of the nature of language, therefore, is as simple as the views of black-magic practitioners: verbal incantations have a mystic power to effect physical changes in a living organism.
"The verbal community" (i.e., society), Mr. Skinner asserts, is the source and cause of man's self-awareness and introspection. How? This time an answer is given: "It [the verbal community] asks such questions as: What did you do yesterday? What are you doing now? What will you do tomorrow? Why did you do that? Do you really want to do that? How do you feel about that? The answers help people to adjust to each other effectively. And it is because such questions are asked that a person responds to himself and his behavior in the special way called knowing or being aware. Without the help of a verbal community all behavior would be unconscious. Consciousness is a social product." (P. 192; emphasis added.) But how did such questions occur to men who were incapable of discovering introspection? No answer.
Apparently to appease man's defenders, Mr. Skinner offers the following: "In shifting control from autonomous man to the observable environment we do not leave an empty organism. A great deal goes on inside the skin, and physiology will eventually tell us more about it." (P. 195.) This means: No, man is not empty, he is a solid piece of meat.
Inexorably, like all mystics, Mr. Skinner reverts to a mystic dualism - to an equivalent of the mind-body split, which becomes a body-bodies split. In Mr. Skinner's version, it is not a conflict between God and the Devil, but between man's two conditioners: social environment and genetic endowment. The conflict takes place inside man's skin, in the form of two selves. "A self is a repertoire of behavior appropriate to a given set of contingencies." (P. 199.) The conflict, therefore, is between two repertoires. "The controlling self (the conscience or superego) is of social origin, but the controlled self is more likely to be the product of genetic susceptibilities to reinforcement (the id, or the Old Adam). The controlling self generally represents the interests of others, the controlled self the interests of the individual." (P. 199.)
Where have we heard this before, and for how many "prescientific" millennia?
Mr. Skinner's voice is loud and clear when he declares: "To be for oneself is to be almost nothing." (P. 123.) As proof, he revives another ancient saw: the capacity of the human species to transmit knowledge deprives man of any claim to individuality (or to individual achievement) because he has to start by learning from others. "The great individualists so often cited to show the value of personal freedom have owed their successes to earlier social environments. The involuntary individualism of a Robinson Crusoe and the voluntary individualism of a Henry David Thoreau show obvious debts to society. If Crusoe had reached the island as a baby, and if Thoreau had grown up unattended on the shores of Walden Pond, their stories would have been different. We must all begin as babies, and no degree of self-determination, self-sufficiency, or self-reliance will make us individuals in any sense beyond that of single members of the human species. (Pp. 123-124.)
This means: we all begin as babies and remain in that state; since a baby is not self-sufficient, neither is an adult; nothing has happened in between. Observe also the same method of setting up a straw man that was used in regard to volition: setting it up outside of reality. E.g., in order to be an individual, Thomas A. Edison would have had to appear in the jungle by parthenogenesis, as an infant without human parents, then rediscover, all by himself, the entire course of the science of physics, from the first fire to the electric light bulb. Since no one has done this, there is no such thing as individualism.
From a foundation of this kind, Mr. Skinner proceeds to seek "justice or fairness" or a " reasonable balance" in the "exchange between the individual and his social environment." (P. 124.) But, he announces, such questions "cannot be answered simply by pointing to what is personally good or what is good for others. There is another kind of value to which we must now turn." (P. 125.)
Now we come to the payoff.
A mystic code of morality demanding self-sacrifice cannot be promulgated or propagated without a supreme ruler that becomes the collector of the sacrificing. Traditionally, there have been two such collectors: either God or society. The collector had to be inaccessible to mankind at large, and his authority had to be revealed only through an elite of special intermediaries, variously called "high priests", "commissars," "Gauleiters," etc. Mr. Skinner follows the same pattern, but he has a new collector and supreme ruler to hoist: the culture.
A culture, he explains, is "the customs, the customary behaviors of people." (P. 127.) "A culture, like a species, is selected by its adaptation to an environment: to the extent that it helps its members to get what they need and avoid what is dangerous, it helps them to survive and transmit the culture. The two kinds of evolution are closely interwoven. The same people transmit both a culture and a genetic endowment - though in very different ways and for different parts of their lives." (P. 129.) "A culture is not the product of a creative 'group mind' or the expression of a 'general will.' . . . A culture evolves when new practices further the survival of those who practice them." (Pp. 133-134 .) Thus we owe our survival to the culture. Therefore, Mr. Skinner announces, to the two values discussed - personal good and the good of others - "we must now add a third, the good of the culture." (P. 134.)
What is the good of a culture? Survival. Whose survival? Its own. A culture is an end in itself. "When it has become clear that a culture may survive or perish, some of its members may begin to act to promote its survival." (P. 134.) Which members? By what means are they able to grasp such a goal? No answer.
Mr. Skinner stresses repeatedly that the survival of a culture is a value different from, and superior to, the survival of its members, of oneself or of others - a value one ought to live and die for.
Why? Mr. Skinner is suddenly explicit: "None of this will explain what we might call a pure concern for the survival of a culture, but we do not really need an explanation. . . . The simple fact is that a culture which for any reason induces its members to work for its survival, or for the survival of some of its practices, is more likely to survive. Survival is the only value according to which a culture is eventually to be judged, and any practice that furthers survival has survival value by definition." (P. 136.) Whose survival? No answer. Mr. Skinner lets it ride on an equivocation of this kind.
If survival "is the only value according to which a culture is eventually to be judged," then the Nazi culture, which lasted twelve years, had a certain degree of value - the Soviet culture, which has lasted fifty-five years, has a higher value - the feudal culture of the Middle Ages, which lasted five centuries, had a still higher value - but the highest value of all must be ascribed to the culture of ancient Egypt, which, with no variations or motion of any kind, lasted unchanged for thirty centuries.
A "culture," in Mr. Skinner's own terms, is not a thing, not an idea, not even people, but a collection of practices, a "behavior," a disembodied behavior that supersedes those who behave - i.e., a way of acting to which the actors must be sacrificed. This is mysticism of a kind that makes God or society seem sensibly realistic rulers by comparison. It is also conservatism of a metaphysical kind that makes political conservatism seem innocuously childish. It demands that we live, work and die not for ourselves or for others, but for the sake of preserving and transmitting to yet unborn generations and in perpetuity the way we dress, the way we ride the subway, the way we get drunk, the way we deal with baseball or religion or economics, etc.
Thus Mr. Skinner, the arch-materialist, ends up as a worshipper of disembodied motion - and the arch-revolutionary, as a guardian of the status quo, any status quo.
In order to be induced to sacrifice for the good of the culture, the victims are promised "deferred advantages" (indeterminately deferred). "But what is its [an economic system's] answer to the question: 'Why should I be concerned about the survival of a particular kind of economic system?' The only honest answer to that kind of question seems to be this: 'There is no good reason why you should be concerned, but if your culture has not convinced you that there is, so much the worse for your culture.' " (P. 137.) This means: in order to survive, a culture must convince its members that there is a good reason to be concerned with its survival, even though there is none.
This is Social Darwinism of a kind that Herbert Spencer would not dream of. The nearest approach to an exponent in practice was Adolf Hitler who "reinforced" his followers by demanding sacrifices for the survival of the German Kultur.
But Mr. Skinner envisions a grander scale. He advocates "a single culture for all mankind," which, he admits, is difficult to explain to the sacrificial victims. "We can nevertheless point to many reasons why people should now be concerned for the good of all mankind. The great problems of the world today are all global. . . . But pointing to consequences is not enough. We [who?] must arrange contingencies under which consequences have an effect." (Pp. 137-138.) This " arranger of contingencies" is to be a single totalitarian world state, serving the survival of a single culture, ruling every cell of every man's brain and every moment of his life.
What are the "great problems" this state would solve? What are the "terrifying possibilities" from which we must be saved - at the price of giving up our freedom, dignity, reason, mind, values, self-esteem? Mr. Skinner answers: "Overpopulation, the depletion of resources, the pollution of the environment, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust - these are the not-so-remote consequences of present courses of action." (P. 138.)
If lightning struck Mount Sinai, and Moses appeared on the mountaintop, carrying sacred tablets, and silenced the lost, frightened, desperate throng below in order to read a revelation of divine wisdom, and read a third-rate editorial from a random tabloid - the dramatic, intellectual and moral effect would be similar (except that Moses was less pretentious).
Mr. Skinner's book falls to pieces in its final chapters. The author's "verbal behavior" becomes so erratic that he sounds as if he has lost all interest in his subject. Tangled in contradictions, equivocations and non sequiturs, he seems to stumble wearily in circles, seizing any rationalization at random - not to defend his thesis, but to attack his critics, throwing feeble little jabs, projecting an odd kind of stale, lethargic, perfunctory malice, almost a "reflex-malice." He sounds like a man filling empty pages with something, anything, in order to circumvent the accumulated weight of unanswered question - or like a man who resents being questioned.
Who will be the "designers" of his proposed global culture and the rulers
of mankind? He answers unequivocally: the
Since man, according to Mr. Skinner, is biologically unable to project a time span of three months - from spring planting to fall harvest - how are these technologists able to see the course and plan the future of a global culture? No answer. What sort of men are they? The closest approach to an answer is: "those who have been induced by their culture to act to further its survival . . . ." (P. 180.)
It is futile to ask by what means and through what agencies the culture (i.e., the behavior) of birdbrained creatures can accomplish such a feat, because here we are obviously dealing with a standard requirement of mysticism: Mr. Skinner is establishing an opportunity for the high priesthood to "hear voices" - not the voice of God or of the people, but the voice of the culture inducing them to act. But the culture "induces" a great many people to different courses of action, including the people who paint prophecies of doom on rocks by the side of highways. How are the culture-designers (and the rest of us) to know that theirs is the true voice of the culture? No answer. One must assume that they feel it.
Now we come to the grand cashing-in on the book's basic equivocation. Mr. Skinner keeps stressing that mankind needs ,"more controls, not less"; in a polemical passage, he quotes his critics asking: "Who is to control?" - and answers them as follows: "The relation between the controller and the controlled is reciprocal. The scientist in the laboratory, studying the behavior of a pigeon, designs contingencies and observes their effects. His apparatus exerts a conspicuous control on the pigeon, but we must not overlook the control exerted by the pigeon. The behavior of the pigeon has determined the design of the apparatus and the procedures in which it is used. Some such reciprocal control is characteristic of all science. . . . [Here I omit one sentence, which is an unconscionable misuse of a famous statement.] The scientist who designs a cyclotron is under the control of the particles he is studying. The behavior with which a parent controls his child, either aversively or through positive reinforcement, is shaped and maintained by the child's responses. A psychotherapist changes the behavior of his patient in ways which have been shaped and maintained by his success in changing that behavior. A government or religion prescribes and imposes sanctions selected by their effectiveness in controlling citizen or communicant. An employer induces his employees to work industriously and carefully with wage systems determined by their effects on behavior. The classroom practices of the teacher are shaped and maintained by the effects on his students. In a very real sense, then, the slave controls the slave driver, the child the parent, the patient the therapist, the citizen the government, the communicant the priest, the employee the employer, and the student the teacher." (P. 169.)
To this, I shall add just one more example: the victim controls the torturer, because if the victim screams very loudly at a particular method of torture, this is the method the torturer will select to use.
The above quotation is sufficient to convey the book's intellectual stature, the logic of its arguments, and the validity of its thesis.
As far as one can judge the book's purpose, the establishment of a dictatorship does not seem to be Mr. Skinner's personal ambition. If it were, he would have been more clever about it. His goal seems to be: 1. to clear the way for a dictatorship by eliminating its enemies; 2. to see how much he can get away with.
The book's motive power is hatred of man's mind and virtue (with everything they entail: reason, achievement, independence, enjoyment, moral pride, self-esteem) - so intense and consuming a hatred that it consumes itself, and what we read is only its gray ashes, with feeble, snickering obscenities (such as the title) as a few last, smoking, stinking coals. To destroy "Autonomous Man" - to strike at him, to punch, to stab, to jab, and, if all else fails, to spit at him - is the book's apparent purpose, and it is precisely the long-range, cultural consequences that the author does not seem to give a damn about.
The passages dealing with the Global State are so rambling, incoherent and diffuse, that they sound, not like a plan, but like a daydream - the kind of daydream Mr. Skinner, apparently, finds "reinforcing." But he remains unoriginal even in his fantasy: borrowing Plato's notion of a philosopher-king, Mr. Skinner fancies a world ruled by a psychologist-king - in terms which sound as if a small-time manipulator were tempted by the image of a big shot.
If only we would abolish "Autonomous Man" - Mr. Skinner declares with a kind of growling wistfulness - we would be able to turn "from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable." (P. 20 1; emphasis added.) This, I submit, is the secret behind the book - and behind the modem intellectuals' response to it.
In Les Miserables, describing the development of an independent young man, Victor Hugo wrote: ". . . and he blesses God for having given him these two riches which many of the rich are lacking: work, which gives him freedom, and thought, which gives him dignity."
I doubt that B. F. Skinner ever did or could read Victor Hugo - he wouldn't know what it's all about - but it is not a mere coincidence that made him choose the title of his book. Victor Hugo knew the two essentials that man's life requires. B.F. Skinner knows the two essentials that have to be destroyed if man qua man is to be destroyed.
"The attention lavished on Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner and his new book has been nothing short of remarkable," states The New York Times Book Review (October 24, 1971), in a special box on its front page. After citing a long list of Mr. Skinner's press interviews and television appearances, the statement continues: "The American Psychological Association gave him its annual award in September and hailed him as 'a pioneer in psychological research, leader in theory, master in technology, who has revolutionized the study of behavior in our time. A superlative scholar, scientist, teacher and writer.' "
Bear in mind the fact that the above testimonial was given to a theoretician whose theory consists in proclaiming that man is a mindless automaton - to a technologist whose technology consists in urging people to accept totalitarian control - to a scholar who substitutes the oldest of old wives' tales for a knowledge of philosophy - to a scientist who commits the kinds of logical fallacies for which a freshman would be flunked.
It would be unfair to assume that that testimonial represents the intellectual level of the entire psychological profession. Obviously, it does not - and we all know how such testimonials (or resolutions or protests) are put over by a special clique on a busy, confused, indifferent majority. But which is worse: a profession that actually subscribes to that testimonial - or a profession that does not, yet permits this sort of thing to be issued in its name? I think the latter is worse. Manipulators, such as Mr. Skinner's clique, do not seek to persuade, but to put something over on people. The fact that Mr. Skinner got away with the mere title of the book (let alone its thesis) indicates that the cultural field is empty, that no serious opposition is to be expected, that anything goes.
To be exact, I would say: not quite anything and not quite yet, but the cultural prognosis is pretty bleak. Mr. Skinner's trial balloon has been punctured by many different people, including some able sharpshooters, but if he studies the shreds, he will notice that only buckshot was used. The book deserves no heavier ammunition; its thesis does.
With a few exceptions, the superlatives hailing the book's importance came from press agents or blurb writers, not from reviewers. Most of the reviews were mixed or negative. As a whole, they conveyed an odd feeling, not the violence of a storm, but the sadness of a steady drizzle, as if exhausted men were still unable to accept the evil brazenly offered to them for appraisal, but unable without knowing why, their reasons long since forgotten, moved by some remnant of decency as by a faint echo from a very distant past. What deserved a scream of indignation, was received with a sigh.
The two best - i.e., thoroughly unfavorable - reviews appear in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. The rest of them attack Mr. Skinner, but concede his case. They accept him as an exponent of reason and science - and seize the opportunity to damn reason and science.
The review in The New Republic (October 16, 1971) is quietly firm and civilized. Its primary target is Mr. Skinner's - and behaviorism's - view of man, which it describes as "psychology without a psyche." As an example of its approach: Skinner's argument "goes like this: physics used to attribute human characteristics to physical objects (such as growing more jubilant as they approached their natural places); only when it stopped doing this did scientific progress follow. Would not scientific progress follow in psychology if we could stop attributing human characteristics to human beings? He does not, naturally, put it quite in those terms, but I have given the structural essence of the matter." As an example of its appraisal of other aspects: ". . . the argumentation is often sloppy, the sensibility often philistine, the language often eccentric." As an apparent rebuke for Mr. Skinner's expression "inside man's skin": "And something inside my skull is reluctant to accept the simple, unproblematic world that Skinner offers, not just because it doesn't like it but because it thinks it all wrong for people whose skulls contain similarly complex apparatus ." In all the reviews I read, this is the only passage that defends intelligence.
(Ayn discusses various reviews of the book in other magazines and articles for about 5 pages, which I leave out here, but are available in the book version of this essay.)
If you wonder what motives could bring Mr. Skinner to his theories, what frustration could lead him to so profound a hatred of mankind, and who would be his first victims, the Time story offers three passages that provide eloquent clues. The first is a quotation from Mr. Skinner's novel Walden Two. The speaker, Time explains, "is T. E. Frazier, a character in Walden Two and the fictional founder of the utopian community described in that novel. He is also an alter ego of the author . . . " The quotation: "I've had only one idea in my life - a true idee fixe. To put it as bluntly as possible - the idea of having my own way. 'Control!' expresses it. The control of human behavior. In my early experimental days it was a frenzied, selfish desire to dominate. I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects of my experiments, 'Behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!"
The second passage deals with Mr. Skinner's youth. In his college days, he wrote short stories and "sent three of them to Robert Frost, who praised them warmly. That encouragement convinced Fred Skinner that he should become a writer. The decision, he says, was 'disastrous.' . . . In his own words, he 'failed as a writer' because he 'had nothing important to say.' "
The third passage is about Twin Oaks, a real-life commune founded on a farm in Virginia, and "governed by Skinner's laws of social engineering." "Private property is forbidden, except for such things as books and clothing . . . No one is allowed to boast of individual accomplishments . . . What is considered appropriate behavior - cooperating, showing affection, turning the other cheek and working diligently - is, on the other hand, applauded, or 'reinforced,' by the group." "The favorite sports are 'cooperation volleyball' and skinny-dipping in the South Anna River - false modesty is another of the sins that are not reinforced - and there is plenty of folk singing and dancing." In regard to the consequences: "After starting with only $35,000, Twin Oaks, four years later, still finds survival a struggle. The farm brings more emotional than monetary rewards; members would find it cheaper to work at other jobs and buy their food at the market . . . Beyond economics, there are serious psychological problems at Twin Oaks, and few members have stayed very long. [Emotional rewards?] Turnover last year was close to 70 percent. The ones who leave first, in fact, are often the most competent members, who still expect special recognition for their talents. 'Competent people are hard to get along with,' says Richard Stutsman, one of Twin Oaks' trained psychologists. 'They tend to make demands, not requests. We cannot afford to reinforce ultimatum behavior, although we recognize our need for their competence . . .' When they leave, the community not only loses their skills but also sacrifices a potential rise in its standard of living."
For my comments on this, see Atlas Shrugged.
The cultural establishment has pushed Beyond Freedom and Dignity to the best-seller lists. The most dangerous part of its potential impact - particularly on young readers - is not that the book is convincing or eloquent, but that it is so bad. If it were less crudely irrational and inept, a reader could give the benefit of the doubt to those who were taken in by some trickily complex arguments. But if so evil a thesis as the advocacy of totalitarian dictatorship is offered in such illogical, unconvincing terms, yet is acclaimed as "important," what is one to think of the intellectual and moral state of our culture? A rational reader may become paralyzed - not by fear, fear is not his psychological danger - but by disgust, contempt, discouragement and, ultimately, withdrawal from the realm of the intellect (which, perhaps, is Mr. Skinner's hope).
But before you draw the "malevolent-universe" conclusion that falsehood always wins over truth, or that men prefer iffationality to reason, and dictatorship to freedom (and, therefore, "What's the use?") - consider the following. Human Events (January 15, 1972) reports that "the National Institutes of Mental Health had granted $283,000 to Dr. B. F. Skinner . . ." which, apparently, financed the writing of his book. The New Republic (January 28, 1972) gives some details: the Skinner grant "was one of 20 Senior Research Career Awards, that is, plums for scientific leaders in 'mental health' across the board rather than a unique grant . . . The particular award was made for the purpose of 'integrating and consolidating' Skinner's findings and 'considering the application of the science of behavior to the problems of society'[!]. . . . "
This is the way an "establishment" is formed and placed beyond the reach of dissent. What chance would a beginner, a nonconformist, an opponent of behaviorism, have against the entrenched power of a clique supported by government funds? This is not a free marketplace of ideas any longer. Evil, falsehood, irrationality are not winning in free competition with virtue, truth, reason. Today's culture is ruled by intellectual pressure groups which have become intellectual monopolies backed, like all monopolies, by the govemment's gun and the money of the victims.
(The solution, of course, is not to censor research projects, but to abolish all government subsidies in the field of the social sciences and, eventually, in all fields. But this is a different subject, which I shall discuss [in the next chapter].)
The significance of B. F. Skinner's book lies in its eloquent demonstration of the results of philosophical collapse and governmental power: when the intellectual default of the victims permits the dead hand of the government to get a stranglehold on the field of ideas, a nation will necessarily be pushed beyond freedom and dignity.
For this essay and more of Ayn Rand's philosophy on the importance and value of the individual see Philosophy: Who Needs It.
Suggested Reading!About Behaviorism - by B. F. Skinner
Beyond Freedom and Dignity - by B. F. Skinner
Behaviorism - by John Watson
Waldon Two - by B. F. Skinner
Say NO To Psychiatry!
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