Skinner vs. Freedom, Dignity, and Liberty


Few scientists have caused as much controversy in recent years as Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. In such works as his novel Walden Two (first published in 1948) and the nonfiction Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner has argued forcefully for the widespread use of behavior modification technology as a means of achieving various social goats. Joining the ranks of Skinner critics is REASON Senior Editor Tibor Machan, whose book, The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner, will be published in early 1975 by Arlington House Publishers. In addition to teaching philosophy at the State University in Fredonia, N.Y., Dr. Machan is editor of REASON PAPERS and he edited the highly-acclaimed book, The Libertarian Alternative (Nelson Hall Co. 1974). We are pleased to present here, with the permission of Arlington House, a condensed version of Chapter One, which involves a general critique of Skinner's methodology and conclusions. We hope our readers enjoy this preview of Dr. Machan's book.

The contention that human beings are free to initiate some of their actions, that they can actually choose some of what they do in their lives, has been attacked and defended throughout mankind's intellectual history. B.F. Skinner is among those who are thoroughly hostile to the idea—he believes that human freedom does not exist. He thinks that believing in human freedom is on par with believing in myths, demons, mysteries: "The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of scientific method to the study of human behavior. The free man who is held responsible for the behavior of the external biological organism is only a prescientific substitute for the kinds of causes which are discovered in the course of a scientific analysis."

He says freedom is outmoded, unscientific, and reactionary. The modern age with its developments in physics and biology should not be cajoled into accepting what after all, is an ancient human superstition. He simply views the tradition of libertarian ideas—into which he lumps any doctrine that invokes notions of choice, liberty, responsibility—as outmoded and prescientific, while claiming advancement, modernity and, of course, truth for his "scientific analysis."

To see if Skinner has any kind of a case we need to consider several of his assertions. To begin with, are the basic ideas of Skinnerism novel while the doctrine of human freedom is ancient?


If any ideas have some claim to novelty in intellectual history those of human freedom and dignity have a far better chance than what Skinner offers. But in fact germs of both kinds of ideas have been with us since ancient times. While the general belief that demons or other humanly uncontrollable forces governed behavior is ancient, so are the ideas of freedom and responsibility about conducting oneself traceable to practically any age. Indeed we get a mixture of freedom and what is generally called (somewhat misleadingly) determinism in the views of most noted thinkers throughout history. As far as a consensus is concerned, few people would credit anyone for having shown conclusively either the basic independence of human conduct or its full dependence on factors outside of one's own control.

What is more important is not whether there have been germs of doctrines of liberty and thoroughgoing determinism throughout the ages, but that the latter idea was prominent in the very age Skinner condemns as prescientific. Ancient philosophers such as Democritus and Leucippus argued that everything in the world constitutes an interrelated collection of atoms that must by necessity move along predetermined lines. This is not the complicated and modern determinism of Skinner. But the germs of his idea of human nature are clearly there. Throughout the religious eras when human conduct was tied directly to noble or vicious supernatural forces, the doctrine of determinism, separate from scientific theory, had prominent influence. A sort of "devil made me do it" approach to a great deal of misbehavior lurked behind even the more sophisticated theologies. True, these views did not prevent violent responses to human misbehavior. But it was often accepted, in some very influential circles, that punishment would cleanse the evildoer of his bad influences. The idea of original sin is clearly part of the many suggested explanations for the evil that people do. And original sin means just that all men are moved to do wrong by their inheritance of the characteristics of their ancestors.

So the concept of personal responsibility is not in itself an ancient one—if by this is meant that the notion was prominent throughout premodern times. Quite the contrary, even today the notion is circumvented in most intellectual circles. Instead what people do is often attributed to their inherited characteristics, the conditions of their environments, social influences, intervention from the will of supernatural entities, or certain biological conditions which are considered to be a malignant aspect of the entire species.

Skinner maintains that people cannot help what they do, how they behave—not just sometimes but under all circumstances. There are no criminals, he contends, just people whose behavior deviates from some written generalization, norm, or preference. There are no wrongdoers, simply people we label as such (due to our ignorance of the factors which caused their behavior). Wars, riots, crimes, personal disasters, pain, misery, injustice, and the like are never caused by people but by their history of reinforcement. Good and bad people alike cannot help being what they are. A recent example: Watergate had nothing to do with wrongdoing, impropriety, negligence, bad judgment, injustice ("obstruction of justice"), or the violation of human rights—the affair simply had to come about and was caused by the inevitable chain of events that constitutes the evolution of the universe, the human species, and each individual.


However, Skinner has not made a scientific discovery to the effect that human beings cannot cause their actions, that they have no choice about what they are doing, that their entire behavior is (must be) caused by factors over which they can exercise no control. Neither has he carried out scientific experiments with human beings from which the most sensible generalization has to be that people simply respond to their environment—or even that their response is always, although in complex ways, caused by something over which they have no control.

At best Skinner has demonstrated that some animals behave with no evident options on their own part; that they act without the capacity to originate behavior, to make active, creative contributions without being prodded, molded, or stimulated to do so by factors within their environments. Even this is not borne out conclusively by his laboratory experiments without certain unproven assumptions concerning the states of deprivation of various selected members of the animal species under inspection and strict experimental control. As Dr. Richard de Mille explains:

The furor in the popular press over B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity is the more disconcerting because, when not indulging his grandiose fancies, Skinner remains a notable scientist. Unfortunately, the public has no way to distinguish plausible, limited applications of operant conditioning from utopian schemes and science fiction. But the limits are inherent; by definition, an "operant" is an emitted act, which can be reinforced/conditioned/shaped only after it has spontaneously appeared. We have to ask, then, what makes the act appear for the first time.

Skinner's own, often useful, contributions to behavioral science actually leave room for what could turn out to be human freedom. His concept of the "operant," introduced to supplant the idea of purposive behavior and voluntary activity, does not require determinism for all of the affairs and activities of human beings. Operant behavior could be free, even if with simple behavior we can identify some cases as stemming from drives, instincts or other fixed and humanly unalterable causes.

Despite this, Skinner demands the requirement of a thoroughgoing determinism that allows for no genuine choice in human affairs. "The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of scientific method to the study of human behavior." But there is no attempt to prove this claim anywhere in Skinner's works. What with the questionable conception of science he offers it can be appreciated why this is so, even if the certainty of the position is severely undercut as a result. The emerging idea then cannot be linked either with what science itself dictates or to the scientific contributions Skinner himself produces. The position to which Skinner clings, mostly by implication but here and there quite explicitly, is most usefully (and in accordance with philosophical parlance) characterized as reductive materialism.

The main tenet of this doctrine is that there exists only one kind of entity for science to investigate, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. And a corollary tenet is that the laws governing the behavior or motion of this kind of entity are those we call laws of mechanics.

There are powerful objections to the reductionist point of view that should caution a student of human affairs about its adoption and advocacy. Some scientists who accept it admit that it is a faith (perhaps it is based on some desire) and not a stricture based on a rational assessment of the results of scientific investigation. The reductionist position is not the requirement of scientific simplicity, parsimony, or economy. Matters get more rather than less confusing by imposing the reductionist framework on everything. The fact of numerous branches of knowledge and science gives evidence for a hierarchy of not just the kinds of things there are in nature but the laws and principles appropriate to understanding and explaining their behavior. The laws of mechanics are unsuited for purposes of understanding what we find in various areas or realms of reality—not even physics is happy with them in our times.


But the faith in determinism itself, be it reductionist or not, has other problems aside from its lack of scientific and philosophical support from within the Skinnerian framework. To Skinner, determinism means that nothing human beings do is up to them; that they are in no actual or possible circumstances the causes of anything, including their own behavior. "The mistake … is to put the responsibility anywhere, to suppose that somewhere a causal sequence is initiated."

We must distinguish this kind of determinism from the kind used, for example, in the statement, "He was all along determined to become a doctor." In such a case it is an open issue whether the determination was the person's own or had another source. But usually we would assume that the person had taken it upon himself, firmly and with resolve, to become a doctor by strong commitment to a choice. This kind of determinism is the sort that Skinner rejects. He has no patience with theories of self-determination. (Although this does not square with his advocacy that people take it upon themselves to design a culture.)

What then are the flaws in Skinner's universal judgment that nothing we do is up to us, that in whatever activities we are involved, in whatever behavior we are engaged, we cannot help ourselves? First, this claim must be applied to Skinner himself; how could he avoid its application?

Now a person who utters something he cannot help uttering is quite imaginable; people talk in their sleep, for example. And what they say could be taken to be true or false by those who hear them, although the person asleep is hardly in the position to judge.

If we make the condition of the sleep-talker a universal one, such that by our nature as human beings we cannot help saying the things we say, could there still be a distinction between true and false statements? Perhaps if some other species of beings existed with the capacity to learn and understand our language as well as to know about the world, this could be the case. Thus, although parakeets can repeat sentences, including the sentence, "Human beings are not free," they are not capable of understanding statements or of establishing whether they are true or false. But Skinner is not a member of a different species, nor are we all parakeets.

The Skinnerian position, however, places us in the camp of constant sleep-talkers or parakeets, claiming that what we say we cannot help saying. Under such circumstances no one can tell what is or is not true. When disagreement occurs and some say "p" while others "not-p," both parties have to have said what they said. To then inquire into whether "p" or "not-p" is true can only result in the further problem of everyone having to say what he will about that. And so forth, ad infinitum.

Therefore by the tenets and requirements of determinism, it is impossible ever to render a decision as to whether determinism is a true doctrine - a correct theory of human behavior. The requirement is that nothing we do can be free of outside or inherited control. Thus the articulation of determinism must also be an unfree act. When a deterministic analysis emerges from the lips of the determinist, by that view nothing else could have emerged. By the same token nothing else could have come from the lips of anyone who denies the truth of determinism. From the point of view of the determinist neither position could be held by choice.

In the end the main problem with Skinnerian and other kinds of all-encompassing determinism is that the position actually must assume what it flatly denies. Some philosophers have put it thus: "Every determinist makes the claim that his account of the data is superior to his opponent's, and therefore ought to be accepted in preference to the alternative position." But as it is seen in Skinner, what can the phrase "ought to" mean to a determinist? Only those who admit that people can make choices can ask of them that they ought to do something; determinists can only predict that they will or will not. The idea that one ought to do something assumes that he could do it or refrain from doing it. And by advocating determinism the Skinnerians (et al.) presuppose what they deny—that others are free to appraise and eventually judge as correct a position such as determinism.

Determinism, then, has a major flaw: it is inconsistent. While Skinner believes that his form of behaviorism does not have to yield to logic, for those who like their philosophies and science to conform to the principles of logic—which are after all grounded on the nature of reality itself—this is not at all satisfactory.

What must be remembered, however, is that the above objections are not sufficient to prove that human beings are free. This is crucial. Thus far we have only argued against Skinner and have not proposed an alternative view: What we have so far shown is that Skinner's theory cannot be proved. Perhaps people never are free—some, I am sure, never exercise their capacity for choice, others do so very infrequently. What we aim to prove is that people can be free, that determinism is false.

Actually Skinner spends very little time on the idea of human freedom; he flatly denies that he discusses the problem. Since he believes that science must exclude human freedom, he does not seem to think that any independent argument for determinism is needed. I have dealt with the issue at some length because Skinner largely rests his position about man, society, and the future on his constantly reiterated denial of free will.

Why does he do this? Why does he feel he must reject even the possibility of human freedom? He does so in preparation for his denial of human dignity, of the fact that people can be better or worse, that they can achieve or fail, not just at some tasks but at living a successful life—at being morally excellent. All these notions, including the appropriateness of punishment in cases where persons do certain irresponsible things depend on the fact that people are usually free to choose between alternative courses of conduct. And to pave the way toward the rejection of these facts and corresponding ideas about human affairs, Skinner has to attack the very possibility of human freedom of choice.


In everyday affairs as well as in critical situations human dignity plays an important role. The fact that everyone possesses the dignity of human life enables them to act in ways that they otherwise would not. For instance, although most of us know only a few persons intimately enough to have a personal regard for them, we are certainly acquainted with many other people. Our capacity for moral worth, that is, our human dignity answers the question of how these people, without any close relationship to us, ought to be treated. Perhaps not everyone needs to know that human beings possess dignity, that they are capable of moral achievement and should be understood in that light. But in many circumstances our emotions, immediate concerns, fears, or related factors can obliterate the empathy or natural feelings community people can have for each other. This is especially so in cities with large populations where we know only a few people among those encountered each day. The feelings of kinship, friendship, and fraternity can be superseded by other, more hostile emotions.

Yet even then other people are due at least a minimal degree of respect, simply by virtue of their humanity, however remotely that touches one at the moment. The idea that people are capable of freedom and can have moral aspirations of their own can be a lifesaver. Those who think before acting under emotional strains and other pressures certainly have a firmer than ad hoc guideline on how to deal with others. Not that we must view human dignity as some kind of useful myth. Without a basis, our belief in it could lead only to error—quite as Skinner would contend. Yet keeping in mind man's essential dignity, the fact that each person is capable of moral growth, is both in accordance with good judgment and fruitful conduct.

Human dignity is the link between the fact that people are capable of free choice and the value of political liberty for their social existence. Skinner knows this. If man has dignity, then violating his rights so as to secure some "nobler" aim—e.g., the survival of the culture—can be objected to on powerful grounds. Should it be proven, however, that dignity is a myth, that no man is worth the trouble in the face of such a "glorious" goal as the survival of a culture (whatever that means—for that notion belongs with such other vague ones as "society," "civilization," "race," "the people," and so on), then resistance to any social engineering cannot but be intellectually unfounded and based on irrational fears, just as Skinner suggests. The advocates and defenders of liberty are then simply unstable and emotionally disturbed. If one accepts that human dignity is a myth, this suggestion doubtless has a great deal of force. Skinner would seem to have every reason to combat the ideas of freedom and dignity, to marshal science, technology, and the art of rhetoric in his behalf. They are his major obstacles on the road to a world of behavior technologists who would induce everyone to promote the survival of the culture.

What then is Skinner's substantive objection to the idea of human dignity? Basically he argues ad hominem. He tries to show that whenever people refer to human dignity, they are really after some dubious goal—they are deceitful, sneaky, and altogether underhanded. Consider what he says: "We attempt to gain credit by disguising or concealing control. We try to gain credit by inventing less compelling reasons for our conduct."

Dignity for Skinner is what merits credit, so we claim dignity to gain credit. "We recognize a person's dignity or worth when we give him credit for what he has done.…What we may call the literature of dignity is concerned with due credit." The reason we cling to dignity or worth is that "We are not inclined to give a person credit for achievements which are in fact due to forces over which he has no control."

Beyond assaulting the motives of those who stand up for it and those who refer to it in their own or someone else's case, Skinner has nothing to say in criticism of human dignity. He does note that the idea of dignity is often used to justify punishment—after all, he rather simplistically maintains, if credit is due for achievement, punishment must be due for failure. He cites no one who defends such a crass view of punishment—but then he cites no one extensively enough to give himself some kind of challenge.


What is so puzzling is that Skinner's indictment of those who hide behind phony claims to credit, based on mythical notions about dignity or worth, cannot make sense within his frame of reference. But he does not bother to explain these inconsistencies. To disguise, conceal, invent, refrain, refuse, avoid, or court temptation all presuppose the ability to choose freely. Other than his original disclaimer about consistency, attributed to the prescientific character of the English language, Skinner says nothing to justify his exposition.

A point to be noticed here, easily obliterated in the search for arguments not forthcoming, is Skinner's approach to his readers. He counts on people's acceptance of humility as a cardinal virtue. He trades on this by discrediting any admission of self-worth, of the very possibility that one may indeed have earned some credit, or that any of the values one has come by are really through one's own achievements. Most people consider excessive pride a fault. It is generally called conceit or vanity. And overemphasizing one's achievements, especially in public, is an example. Should one respond to Skinner and Co. by protesting that, yes, he has achieved some goals and is due credit for them, it may appear that he "doth protest too loudly." Because to talk that way means taking credit and doing it in public. Just imagine someone standing up, after Skinner has finished speaking on the subject of how no one deserves credit for anything, and announcing that he feels he does deserve credit for what he has accomplished!

The virtues Skinner attacks are, significantly, those that can lead to personal pride. He never talks down at humility or modesty. Those human character traits he needs. But we must see in what light Skinner sees virtues. In all cases he finds them at the feet of autonomous man. It is in this respect (i.e., autonomous, free man, human beings as constituted by most defenders of the claim that people can do some [things] on their own) that human dignity is related to freedom. Only free beings can achieve what is valuable. And only free beings are capable of making of themselves morally worthy individuals.


Rocks do not achieve values for themselves. Rocks break apart or dissolve, but they do nothing wrong. Nothing bad has thus happened by any standard of being or existing as a rock. It makes no sense to say that as far as rocks are concerned, breaking is bad.

Animals do gain from some things and lose by others. We can identify water as necessary to fish in order to live. But in the case of the bulk of the animal kingdom these values seem to be sought automatically. Little ones may be trained by older ones, but then they proceed to sustain their own lives. And they are deterred by inadvertent circumstances—matters they cannot plan for and cope with—quite often. There may be some cases where an animal approaches a stage of its life and experiences and, as some say, "having developed its cognitive capacities," begins to make choices about what it will do, i.e., select brand new alternatives. But the only evidence for this is in laboratory cases, or in instances involving a minute level of cognitive expansion from generation to generation. Most animals do not change from generation to generation; chicks and kittens and puppies and calves and colts and cubs learn no new tricks, as it were. And on what we call the lower level of evolutionary development, the issue of training does not arise—the relationship between conditions of birth and maturation are accounted for in purely chemical terms.

It is only with human beings that we must account for differences and changes in life styles, occupations, locations, economic conditions, partnerships, and all of the variations we find at the level of individual life. And it is here that we must cope not just with errors (animals make "errors," misperceive some things) but with gross, sustained, often fatal failures that have not been even faintly attributed to factors outside one's control. It is here that achievements can occur, also.

Dignity, too, is an attainment that man can be worthy of. But dignity does not come with the achievement of just any sort of goal. It is only in a facetious and parasitical sense that a cruel or dishonest man gains dignity by achieving his goal of insulting or deceiving others; by self-deception he may consider this dignified. But this is trading on a different meaning of that idea. Dignity is earned by the achievement of goals that a human being ought to achieve.

In a way Skinner has a keen understanding of what he is doing. He may seem careless and sloppy and he is at times, but he has rationalized that fact very carefully. It fits in well with his program—to abolish rational man. "To man qua man we readily say good riddance." In bringing about this eviction it would be odd for Skinner to exhibit a great deal of care, precision, logic, and the host of other traits that we usually consider the virtues of man qua man (at least in the sense of the Greeks who started from these virtues and then came up with the rest of them). But Skinner sees clearly what he must do in order to establish his case. He must destroy all respect for human virtues, at least those associated with individualism, and for the condition that can be achieved by being virtuous—human dignity. Without human freedom there can be no dignity. And without dignity, why would anyone have reason to protest when his freedom is ignored by others? A totally dejected human being, convinced of his own impotence in the face of the world, will yield to whatever urges or pushes him the most—his own fears, others' criticism, the authority of some, or whatever.


Free will and the possibility of human dignity demand a system that protects and preserves political liberty. What is Skinner's attitude toward political liberty and what role would it play in a Skinnerian world?

We need not imagine that Skinner evades altogether the differences between a society where political liberty is respected and one where arbitrary state power reigns. Skinner associates the conditions of political liberty with the absence of harmful, painful control, that is, aversive conditions. What is meant by the latter is tied up with Skinner's notion of negative enforcement, "Negative reinforcers are called aversive in the sense that they are the things organisms 'turn away from.'"

When the aversive treatment is intentional (i.e., when people act aversively toward each other to gain certain ends) people may do a number of different things. "For example, they may simply move out of range. A person may escape from slavery, emigrate or defect from a government, desert from an army, become an apostate from religion, play truant, leave home, or drop out of a culture as a hobo, hermit or hippie. Such behavior is as much a product of the aversive conditions as the behavior the conditions were designed to evoke."

What Skinner is trying to say is that resistance to control makes sense only if the control is exercised unwisely—by way of aversive stimulation. That is to say, as long as people use harmful, annoying, painful means by which to make other people do something, it is likely that there will be very powerful resistance. He concedes that "The literature of freedom has made an essential contribution to the elimination of many aversive practices in government, religion, education, family life, and the production of goods."


But Skinner does not like the literature of freedom despite these accomplishments which he claims are worthwhile. This is because (a) the literature has emphasized how the absence of aversive control feels, and (b) while it has "overlooked control which does not have aversive consequences at any time, it has encouraged escape from or attack upon all controllers." In short, Skinner considers the literature of freedom harmful because it has renounced not only aversive control, but the kind of positive reinforcing control that he believes should be employed to effect the survival of a culture.

One may imagine that Skinner may be thinking of a rather small and relatively harmless faction of that literature—hardly to be compared with what has been produced by John Locke, John Stuart Mills, and others who have advocated political liberty. That is, he may be thinking of the "humanistic" intellectuals, or some of them, who consider technology itself dangerous. Much is made these days of the horrible effects of computers, the impersonality of assigned numbers in various bureaucratic situations, the omnipresence of machinery and gadgets. There are technophobes in virtually every age—people who denigrated the locomotive, the airplane, the atomic power generator—and they often argue their "humanism" in terms of the feelings of dehumanization engendered by all the machines around them. One may imagine also that this is why Skinner focuses on Joseph Wood Krutch, Feodor Dostoevsky, Arthur Koestler, C.S. Lewis, Abraham H. Maslow, et al. as the major exponents of the literature of freedom. But they should be more properly considered humanists because they focus on the value of man vis-a-vis machines. However, their approach is relatively free of specific political recommendations. Among the people Skinner mentions, only Mill, Popper, and de Jouvenel offer comprehensive political theses—actually, Mill is the only well-known political theorist in the lot, and Skinner has mentioned him just once.

But imagining all this is to miss Skinner's purpose. He must know, as anyone else in our cultural and academic arenas must, that there have been very lengthy, prominent expositions on the nature of a free society. Many philosophers concerned with the nature of a free society write about the kind of life that will gain a person happiness. Among the free society's recent defenders H.B. Acton, Leo Strauss, and Ayn Rand have been the most articulate about matters of personal conduct and morality in connection with political liberty.

What Skinner seems to dislike is that most of those who consider the free society a good social organization for human beings, in spite of their concern with themselves, are willing to leave the conduct of a person's life in his own hands. These people recognize that no matter how diligently they write books, offer advice, or teach children (barring coercion and the power of the state) it is ultimately they themselves who must choose to select what is good and exciting about life. At least they will have this chance secured for them. Then, of course, the individuals in the community can engage in the voluntary exchange of advice, recommendation, education, religion, and other forms of "Skinnerian control."


It is this basic trust in the capacity of individual human beings to conduct their lives with reasonable success that Skinner considers unwise. He agrees that controlling people with the result that they feel hurt, angry, or annoyed is imprudent—mainly because it gets people angry at control itself. Instead, the technology of behavior, with its emphasis on positive reinforcement (nonaversive control), must be employed. Indeed, the technophobia which emanates from some humanist circles, including the "back to nature" faction of the counter-culture, may pose obstacles to progress in, for example, the technology of teaching. Teaching machines, even though machines, have proven to be helpful to many children precisely because they can be adjusted to the child's individual needs. Skinner's own contribution to the field seems to promote attention to individuals and to cut down the need for directing educational measures to a hypothesized lowest common denominator.

In this respect Skinner poses no threat to the libertarian. He joins hands with those who consider it wrong to impose restrictions on making technology work in man's behalf to its fullest capacities. And that is often opposed by humanists, ecologists, and conservationists. On top of this, the libertarian—the current advocate of political liberty and producer of the literature of freedom, would protect the rights of Skinner and others to offer and trade their services wherever they can and without interference from any political agent.

Skinner, who understands that the characteristics of the society advocated by libertarians (laissez-faire capitalism, with the function of government specified as the protection of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness including—property) should know that his own techniques can best be employed where freedom is protected. This would enable those who want to "feel free" and reject contact with technology to live their lives; while Skinner and all those interested in employing rigorous methods for improving the performances of people in various professions, crafts, and arts can charge ahead free of coercive controls, prohibitions, and restrictions—so long as they respect the rights of those involved.

But strangely enough this is not what Skinner is after. Some people have claimed that he actually is not committed to any particular political philosophy. Chomsky tells us that: "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 or another interpretation, these, it must be stressed, do not follow from his 'science' any more than their opposites do."

Yet in the very same paragraph of his devastating review of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Chomsky admits that: "There is little doubt that a theory of human malleability might be put to the service of totalitarian doctrine. If, indeed, freedom and dignity are merely the relics of outdated mystical beliefs, then what objection can there be to narrow effective controls instituted to ensure 'the survival of a culture'?"

Indeed, Skinner's "science" implies no political principles whatever. But what he claims is science, and what he claims follows from a "scientific" view of man, accommodate theories that support totalitarian regimes: people are fully malleable, albeit more by means of positive reinforcement rather than aversive control.

The deceptive attractiveness of Skinner's thesis is that we can readily admit to a place for his technology of behavior in various aspects of human life. Skinner has contributed to the improvement of such training. He has shown how some kinds of activities can be perfected, made smoother, speeded up, and, most importantly, adjusted to the capacities of the individual.

It is only when he introduces the idea that all this must be directed toward securing the survival of a culture that we must consider to what use his technology is limited. It is not necessary for Skinner to advocate totalitarianism. He need only show that he wants his techniques to be used for the kind of purposes that could only be served systematically by centralized control of a culture from above—a state or government. By counting on the direction of expert behavioral technologists, in the role of designers, he is necessitating what amounts to a totalitarian state. Never mind that the expertise must manifest itself in positive reinforcement only. The idea of benevolent dictatorship is always the announced intention of designers of cultures who wish to invest power to exercise control only in selected personnel.


Now, Skinner may not be able to make clear what he means by the survival of the culture. Sometimes, by "culture" he means "species." But that also makes little sense—to work for the survival of the species. It is doubtful that one can actually make the effort to ensure such things. But Skinner believes that this is possible and desirable by way of behavioral technology. And he knows that the ideas of individualism—autonomous, free, dignified, and politically liberated man—simply do not conduce people to devote their lives to such obscure goals as helping along the life of the species or culture, beyond doing the best they are capable of in their own lives.

This is why Skinner attacks freedom and dignity. But his attack fails on so many counts that only stubbornness can keep one believing that Skinner really has contributed much to political theory in his Beyond Freedom and Dignity. As Dr. Bannister points out,

Of the requirements which make a concretistic imitation of the natural sciences unprofitable in psychology, probably the most serious is that of reflexivity.

…from a reflexive standpoint the psychological experiment is not a logical copy of the natural science experiment. It is inevitably a social situation in which one professional, formally qualified theorizer and predictor tries to predict the behavior of nonformally qualified theorizers and predictors.

…if the reflexive argument is accepted the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.

Throughout Skinner's books he is violating this prohibition. He is refusing to acknowledge that if he is capable of choosing values, the rest of us are too. And if we come up with different ones from his, the argument must be settled between us at the level at which values are established—logic, reason, and human nature. It is not enough just to say, "I am doing science, you are not; so I must be right and you must not." Especially when no science is being done at all in the process of coming up with the value in contention.

Copyright © 1974 by Tibor Machan. Used with the permission of the publisher, Arlington House, Inc., New Rochelle, New York. All rights reserved.