Sorting Out Skinner


If, as has sometimes been dubiously contended, Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, our generation may devote much time to dotting the i's and crossing the t's of B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, whose basic theory is that social engineers can devise a system that will automatically reward socially desirable behavior. These rewards Skinner calls "reinforcers."

When the proposal is stated in oversimplistic terms, as above, one begins to wonder why someone hadn't hit on it before. Like all important ideas, it is basically simple. And in a way, like Existentialism, it has been known to the Great Thinkers and practised by the Great Teachers. The latter, at least, have always known that teaching is rapport.

Skinner's treatise can be seen as a systematic attempt to draw out the implications of a deliberately harmonious and consciously self-directed society. His proposed method is to build rewards into the environment so deftly as to give them the appearance of being automatic and natural.

Rewards for good behavior are superior to punishment for bad behavior because punishment is antihuman. It tends to generate guilt, cowering, self-doubt, or pent-up aggression. Rather than punish, in problem cases, Skinner would deprive of privileges, or isolate the offender for very brief periods.

At a Quaker camp for conscientious objectors where I passed three years of my life, we had a good illustration of the usefulness of Skinner's proposals on substitutes for punishment. An assignee who had been "soldiering" (we said "goldbricking") on the job of cutting down trees would find one morning that when the axes were given out there was none for him. He spent the day alone while others trooped off merrily to the various clearings to chop down their trees.

One can see that Skinner's system of positive rewards for constructive actions might have enormously fruitful results in a classroom or the ward of a mental hospital. Skinner's claims on habit control seem to me not to be overstated. "The size of the reinforcer," says Skinner," is less important than its immediacy and contingency." An animal or a gambler, for example, can indeed be hooked by repeated small payoffs.

It is good to see Skinner going beyond permissiveness, which, despite the excellence of its emphasis on spontaneity, too often leads to vacuousness, sloppy work habits, and alienation. One wants very much to believe that Skinner's positive-reinforcement (reward) methods, if employed with the young, might transform them into constructive and creative persons who know how to enjoy the good life and make the world a better place for themselves, their peers, and those who come after them. The problem, in Skinnerian education, will be to perceive, in each individual case, precisely which "self-reinforcers" are to be tooled for that particular student, to bring out his peculiar gifts, talents, and bents. A sharp distinction should be made, however, between the successes attainable in schools and the application of Skinner's theories to society as a whole. Aside from the imputation of "benevolent fascism" which some critics have made, Skinner passes over in silence the central question of what kind, or rather kinds, of human beings are desirable. One applauds his recurrent accolades for diversity; but they remain largely verbal. Yet diversity is an imperative need. Friedrich Nietzsche said that when he was asked what is the way, he replied that there is no such thing as "the way."

Cecil John Cadoux, author of that magisterial volume The Early Church and the World, states in his exciting essay Christian Pacifism Re-examined that we ought always to be on guard against too-easy transpositions of ethical schemas from personal to societal relationships. Take, for example, the notion of an "international police-force." Policemen generally shoot the culprit—not innocent bystanders, as in so-called police-action wars. Again, behind the policeman stands some sort of agreed-upon law that has emanated from a cohesive society with established values. There is absolutely no such thing in the vast chaos of the world at large, with its contradictory cultures and clashing value systems.

Skinner's reward system probably works very well in the limited contexts where it has been tried, in schools and voluntary communes of young people. But to impose it on the great world is something else again. Before it could be instituted, there would have to be a consensus as to priorities in both personal values and social goals. "The largest undertakings," said Democritus, "are carried through by means of concord.…There is no other way.…" Are we about to enjoy that blessed consummation?

Bernard Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees contends that, preponderantly, individual virtues are social vices; individual vices make a strong society. Improvident people produce an affluent society. If people were thrifty and saving, it would soon ruin our economy. And so on right down the line. This is a matter that cannot be underlined too much or emphasized too often. "National honor" necessitates that we commit acts which, in the realm of personal ethics and relationships, are eminently dishonorable.

One bone sticks in the throats of Skinner's critics most frequently—the overtones of 1984 implied in the social manipulation of rewards. Skinner replies that we have always been manipulated, and never more so than now. True enough. But right here it is essential to recur to Adam Smith's idea of the "invisible hand." In his Wealth of Nations, that classic defense of the free market, limited government, and private property, Smith demonstrates that it makes all the difference whether control is exercised arbitrarily by some ruler at the top or some junta—and every government is effectively managed by a ruling clique—or whether the sanctions are integral to the economy, predictable, the working of natural supply and demand or the laws which flow from the nature of human affairs—the invisible hand.

Smith, a keen student of human society, has been admired by spirits as diverse as Robert Taft, Rudolf Rocker, Ayn Rand, Russell Kirk, Richard M. Weaver, and Erich Fromm (in his study of awareness, Beyond the Chains of Illusion). The millions are striving, unconsciously, to promote the public welfare. "Each man," says Smith, "is led by the invisible hand to promote an end that is not part of his intention."

Now it is true that Skinner wants reinforcers to be made integral to the ways of things in his new world: he speaks of "feedback loops" and "characteristic counter-responses." He likewise emphasizes the mutuality of responses, as with teacher and pupils in a classroom. He sees that social relations become chains and networks which extend out and out, like stones cast in a sea of spacious waters. Is this not really a religious insight? But the relationship of religion to the State is one of the most controversial problems we have to face. Theocracies, except the Tibetan, have been notably disastrous to liberty. I am inclined to think that any free society, qua society, will be secular, amoral, godless, and materialistic. Perhaps Jefferson, but not Washington, would have agreed with this.

Interesting is the brushoff Skinner gives to the Freudian absorption in the genesis of a patient's neurosis. It has sometimes seemed to me, likewise, that if I know the ways in which another will respond to various thoughts, acts, and situations, I know that person—even if I know nothing of his history. Skinner's attention to what a person does flows out of another valuable insight. He says we run away from the bear and then fear him. Concurrence and confluence, he claims, are descriptively more accurate than straight-line cause-effect.

One can feel only sorrow at Skinner's resurrection of the old Marxist hypothesis that environment accounts for everything. Predictably, its twin delusion marches along not far behind: that there is no such determinable entity as man, as such. I have elsewhere dealt with this Marxist and Deweyesque fantasy of plastic man. Surely man is influenced by his environment, but history, literature, philosophy, and experience alike show that we can make certain predictions about man. At this point, we are becoming increasingly aware of what man is and what he is not. These perceptions are more than a bodiless and insubstantial bubble. Human nature is a datum. Briefly, as Democritus put it, in opposition to Plato, "Man is that which we all know."

Skinner flies full in the face of most current findings in psychology and psychiatry when he denies that aggression is an indefeasible trait, built into us by our animal heritage. Again, man is an innately lazy creature. This Skinner denies. Nevertheless, it is a datum. Systems analysts all recognize it. A person balances the costs of the effort to himself against its expected returns. Workers on piece rates will produce 25 to 30 percent more than they would produce if they were paid a flat, hourly rate. Experienced workers learn how to slow down while appearing to work with maximum effort. If need be, the worker finds ways to damage the machine to prove that the speed demanded is excessive. If another person seems to be getting more than we for similar investments of energy, we complain or reduce the level of our investments. We produce less, give less attention to quality, and so on.

Plato fathered the first blueprint of a society based on the illusion that man is a plastic reflex of his external circumstances. His descendants, including Lenin and various Christian idealists, still clasp us in their sticky embrace as they rifle our freedom.

I wish Skinner had somewhere shown a smidgen of appreciation for the power of one person to inspire another, particularly a young person. lndeed he manifests no perception of the influence of example that is exercised, largely unwittingly, by one human being upon others. It may even be suggested that only as individuals can we call forth the "divine spark" in others. In conspicuous instances this molecular force, passing unseen from a great individual, or even a person quite unknown to fame, leavens life and raises it to the heights.

When we voluntarily betake ourselves to another to empathize with him and his life style, to profit from his wisdom, is it not a far better thing than all these "controls" and "shapings"? What sort of cloistered life has this theorist led—and most professors, as Professor Pasquale Villari observes in his volume on Machiavelli, are quite simple people—or what has he seen, or rather not seen, that he can write, "If we are content merely to 'influence' people, we shall not get far"?

How would Skinner explain the Renaissance or the galaxy of our Founding Fathers? The virtual sloughing off of the concept of inner-directedness and, in effect, of personal responsibility, is reminiscent of the comment made by several "social workers" about hoodlums who beat up passengers and broke windows in the New York subway. You couldn't blame them, they said, for they were "culturally deprived." It is a vogue of our time to claim that all moral nomenclature is fraudulent. There are no lazy people—only people who are "not work-oriented." We even have the preponderant opinion of "experts" that alcoholism is nothing but a disease. Why, then, isn't there a Diabetics Anonymous?

It is not important whether "experiments show that all man's behavior is shaped deterministically by reinforcements from his environment from the time he was born." "Experiments" or not, it is a half-truth. It is an old objection, which no one has overcome, to point out that if the determinists' thesis is correct, then it is ipso facto meaningless, because they had to make it!

Granted, even the greatest men have been and are mired in some respect (however small) in the errors and misconceptions of their age. But the more important truth is that they are likewise in reaction against their time. (And, to an extent that can't be determined by "experiments," against themselves.) There you have the one unbeatable argument against granting government subsidies to writers. There is no great literature under dictatorships—except as vibrant integrity achieves greatness in repudiation of the establishment, as with Livy, Tacitus, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Pushkin, Kafka, Pasternak, Kaiser, Brecht, Solzhenitsyn.

An unexamined premise underlies part of the Skinnerian analysis. He assumes that "survival and maintenance" of a culture is of the first importance. It seems to be implied, further, that survival is a criterion of excellence in judging a culture. Yet is it not true that some civilizations (maybe all, when they have been too long "supersensate") deserve to die? And die they do. Egyptian civilization survived four millennia, but more thanks to geography than to anything innately precious within it, I think.

Alex Comfort, in his thought-provoking novel The Power House, proposes three elements of a secular ethic: humane dealing, integrity, survival. But this pertains to individual human beings. The one thing we must never do is transpose the individual's values, however respectable, to group relationships, to collectives, to abstracts. That is the prime booby-trap in the mind-set of the political "liberal" and the Christian social idealist.

The only mistake Albert Einstein ever made—to my knowledge—was to assert that "common sense" is merely an amalgam of cultural conditioning. Rather, it is an inborn sense of proportion, an observation of the ways of things, touched even with tenderness, which some people in the same culture possess and others (almost) do not. Of course, we can readily perceive the genesis of Einstein's error. It must have been because "common sense," initially, was urged against his seminally new ideas.

But while we gladly forgive the great man his one mistake, the gorge rises, if one has any blood in one's veins, to read a passage such as this by Skinner: 'The controlling self (the conscience or super-ego) is of social origin but the controlled self is more likely to be the product of genetic susceptibilities to reinforcement.…" Thus with one grand sweep of the arm he tosses out the window every humane and troubled spirit from Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Krishna, and Jesus, to Luther, Fox, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

Nice work if you can get it, and you can at Harvard. Such a piddling view about the conscience of man—that point where mind meets heart—is worthy of a television comedian and reminds one of a definition by Elinor Rose, the humor columnist: "Conscience is the sneaking suspicion that somebody may be watching."

People, however, including philosophers, are remarkably uneven. A person with an admirable grasp in one context of affairs is a child in another. Skinner's scoffing at conscience—a cliche current among high intellectuals—does not preclude genuine contributions where illumination has occurred.

One wishes he had been more specific about the application of his general principle. It's there the trouble always comes. It's when you go to apply a good idea that its ambiguities or even vacuities show up.

To take one example, Skinner writes:

The thing to do is simply to "convert" long-range or large scale advantages or reinforcements; R+S or R-L or R-S, that will tend to immediately encourage or suppress behavior with long-run positive or negative payoffs."

Well, here is a sample problem. Should the terminal cancer patient be told? Medical authorities disagree. To tell may shorten the patient's life. Not to tell may occasion untold hardship to the survivors. In practice, probably the majority of physicians do not tell, leaving the decision to relatives. Those who have weighed the question most carefully seem to believe there is no general answer. It depends on the patient and the circumstances.

Here is a genuinely nitty-gritty problem, and Skinner has no help to offer, even theoretically. Is he saying that the large-scale advantage, truthfulness in society, should be converted into a short-term reinforcer, telling the patient? Or is the short-term reinforcer of tenderness, to implement the analogous long-term value, to prevail? In that case we do not tell the patient.

Like the old-time socialists, Skinner wants to build a world where it is easier to be good. His vision of autonomous rewards, built-in reinforcements for desirable actions, is humanely appealing. Experimentally, in small groups, it ought to be tried, and is being tried in certain youth communes. Probably good parents and good teachers—and even some societies—have done something of this sort, stumblingly. Has not even finance capitalism, with the payment of interest on deposits, devised a "method of reinforcement for self-control?"

But every society arrives at moments of crisis. Then nothing but the heroic virtues will save it. The hero rises. He proclaims the needful remedy, and that is seldom one which the people, having been misled, desire to take. He reaps a harvest of scorn and ridicule. The community will never, as Skinner imagines, offer him reinforcers of praise and reward. This is the sheerest moonshine. The community will call him an ass, a traitor, an enemy of the human race.

Isaiah was sawn asunder. Jeremiah was cast into a well. Aristides the Just was exiled. The noble Phocion was spat upon and reviled as he was led through the streets of democratic Athens to be hanged. Cato committed suicide. Thrasea, Seneca, and Helvidius were put to death. Joan of Arc, Bruno, and Servetus were burned at the stake. James Naylor was beheaded. Thomas Paine and Charles Lindbergh were mocked, slandered, and forgotten. Douglas MacArthur was cashiered and brought home in disgrace. Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, Gerald K. Nye of North Dakota, Rush Holt of West Virginia, Wayne Morse of Oregon, and Ernest Gruening of Alaska were sprung out of office by the same people whom they had tried valiantly to save from the horrors of war. Senator Kenneth Keating of New York was a voice crying in the wilderness which told us what we did not want to hear: that there were Russian missile emplacements a few miles off our shore. He was defeated for reelection the next time he faced his constituents. Mankind always rewards its great benefactors with ostracism and a crown of thorns.

Skinner draws a fancy picture of "group self-control." But who will insist on ethical reward-reinforcers for Promethean virtue when the group is enthusiastically engaged in lynching the Promethean? Presumably an elitist cadre would continue to hold high the ideal even when prevented from administering the reinforcer reward. This might actually militate against a good society. Ideals that are not acted upon have the power to corrode. They spawn guilt (with its misplaced aggressiveness), cowering, rationalizations of evil.

Finally—although this is a matter of less moment—Skinner's optimistic brand of social psychology requires some healthy qualification. He makes a strenuous effort to equate "profitable" (expedient?) with "good." If "profitable" means, as it seems to, the "common good," then be it noted that this alleged right of the majority often in practice preempts and supplants precious and irreplaceable values that only a cultivated minority is capable of discerning, understanding, and cherishing. Not only does it erode diversity, it is counter-cultural in the deepest sense.

Skinner declares that the only power in the world that moves men to large efforts is the gap between what is and what might be. According to this proposition, the larger the anticipated improvement or advantage the more it is converted into personal reinforcement for action, for example, in saving, building dams, investing in factories and schools. Skinner states flatly that this principle explains all of economics.

Yet, this evaluation is completely unhistorical. The French Revolution came about not because the material condition of the masses was deteriorating while the king and the nobles remained completely blind to it. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most profound of social historians and a keen psychologist, gives exactly the opposite explanation. In his masterly volume, L'Ancien Regime et la Revolution, he points out that the lighter the yoke the more it seems insupportable. What exasperates is not the crushing burden, but the impediment. What impels revolt is not being oppressed but being humiliated.

The French of 1789 were incensed against the aristocrats because they were almost their equals: it's the slight difference that irks. It's not the depth of degradation that counts. Sunken and sodden and suppressed masses never mount a revolution. The 18th-century middle class in France and America was rich, in a position to fill almost any employment, almost as powerful as the nobility. It was inflamed by this almost. It was stimulated by the proximity of its goal. Impatience is always provoked by the proximity of the final strides.

Certain it is that we must, as Skinner proposes, develop practices that "bring remote consequences of behavior into play," whether that be in diet, procreation, or whatever. Such an advance would have a solid foundation from the feedbacks as positive reinforcement practices grow up, for example, in a cheerful family, or in minuscule groups such as the old anarchists propounded. There can be no such person as Skinnner's "cultural designer" without the institution of a brittle and self-aggrandizing political elite.

Again on the positive side, we do need to perceive problems before they become acute. We do need to "make organisms more sensitive to the consequences of their action." We must not forget, however, that sensitive persons have always been aware of the gap between the ideal vision of themselves or their work and the objective results. No control mechanism had to be imposed on sculptor Alberto Giacometti to make him feel that, in his quest for perfection, he was starting his entire career over every morning. According to James Lord, his biographer, each work on which he was engaged was the one which he felt would express for the very first time what he subjectively experienced in response to objective reality.

W.H. Auden said, "The poet marries the language, and out of his marriage the poem is born." Note the intimate feelings and intimate experiences of artists like Giacometti and Auden—and in our own ways we are all contributors to and practitioners of the art of living—and you see how hollow is the pretentious chatter about "adjusting" people, making them "happy." Intensity of experience and depth of encounter are of the essence, not only of the great life, but of the good life. How are these traits of personhood promoted by training out of people, by simple behavior modification techniques, all conflict and pain and grief and anxiety?

Normal people (as distinguished from neurotics), especially creative people, gladly pay life's price of tension or anxiety or diminished security in pursuit of what they hope to make of themselves or their work. They encounter risk and wrestle with consequences in their individual lives. The dawning awareness of social consequences of collective action in our day shows that a larger perspective in this activity is not beyond the initiative and imagination of free men.

Professor Skinner affirms that society cannot survive without diversity. So, he says, the "cultural designer" must plan for it. Alas, experience demonstrates that planners prefer uniformity: it is easier to manage and administer. Skinner deprecates the way nature plans diversification by chance. A large measure of that may be the price we pay for freedom, even for being human. Besides, it's more fun.

Probably Skinner's influence on the ecology movement is all to the good. In that realm, long-term goals are concurred in because they are obvious, and short-term expedients are being evolved and seen as practicable. Human relations, in contrast, are infinitely more complex, the goals more controversial, the paths to them uncertain. It remains to be seen how well the communes of young people who have voluntarily embraced Skinnerian methods will make out. Maybe—just maybe—those tiny mutual-support groups with their behavior-shaping techniques will fulfill that long-ago dream: a new society within the shell of the old. Such coteries of concern always possess a special sense of vocation and are not typical of society in general.

How many, down the ages, have been "called to be saints," experimented with some special vocation, and then flunked out because the price was too great? Dostoevsky, in The Idiot, describes in Myshkin the character of a person with a very particular sense of vocation. Myshkin does more than trust people; he opens himself to them all, allows himself to respond to each of them. Like Skinner's "cultural designer," he strives for true and ultimate knowledge of the world and extends himself to use that knowledge to make people happy. Myshkin's sensitivity to other people's experience and his attempts to alleviate their misery prove too much for him; he is overwhelmed and broken.

Maybe Myshkin should have been more cerebral, been tough, and operated on a firm theory of truth and consequences, like the managers of Skinner's hypothetical commonwealth. But would that not be an inglorious thing: to cabin and confine "irrational" love, to supplant it with a premeditated system of organized expediency?

Now retired, Richard Crum taught history for many years at Lehigh University. He is the author of Philip of Macedon and The City-State, as well as journal and magazine articles.