Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Beyond Freedom and Dignity. B.F. Skinner. New York: Hackett Publishing Company, 1971. 215.

This book discusses B.F. Skinner’s beliefs and plans to change people in society through the use of operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner is the man widely known for the psychology of behavior, or Behaviorism. Skinner feels that if people continue to head down the path they are going, that they will be heading for total disaster. He feels that people have a great problem of looking highly on what is a negative path of freedom and dignity. The concept of freedom and dignity place people in a separate category from the rest of creation and make their drives and beliefs hard to attain. This aspect about people and their inner beliefs have restricted the study of the psychology of the individual, and the study of the psychology of society as a whole. The human being is a closed book, and nobody can determine his or her thoughts and inner motives. B. F. Skinner looked around these difficulties by stating that the inner workings of a persons mind were irrelevant. Skinners goal was to look at the study of psychology as a science. For psychology to be a science, it had to have measurable subject material. The inner workings of a mind, its motivations, and emotions, were not measurable and did not lend themselves to scientific study. Skinner labeled such study as irrelevant and turned to study what he could, the relationship between people and their environment.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity begins by calling for a technology of behavior, a favorite phrase of Skinner. Psychology should look beyond the useless study of mental states and motivations, and study behavior itself, without being concerned with what motivates people. A detail study of behaviors could lead us to methods to change the behavior of the individual to the common good, without a sense of loss to the individual. The study of behavior also gives itself scientific properties and verifiable, reproducible results, a quality that is necessary to consider psychology a science. Skinner looks at a technology of behavior as being a powerful tool to shape the society around us. He sees this as a good thing, to bring people to greater harmony with their environment, but finds difficulty with the question of who will control such technology. The one who controls the function of behavior would have great power to set the values of culture and the opinions of people. This would raise serious questions as to who would be capable to use such power, and to what ends they would use it.

B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity attempted to reinforce the scientific psychologist’s belief that all behavior is directly related to the environment and conditioning. In Skinner’s worldview displayed here, the individual does not act upon the world; the world acts upon the individual. Skinner is a materialist, a determinist, and an empiricist who sees the world as a box wherein there are no universals, only particulars. Every effect has a material cause and there is no overall big picture or set way the pieces of life fit together. Skinner’s goal is not to understand man, something he is not sure is possible, but instead he tries to predict and control behavior. Skinner’s view outraged religious leaders and others who thought his attempt to undermine “freedom” and “dignity” and replace them with a controlled external environment to manipulate behavior was absurd. As Skinner wrote, “To man qua man we readily say good riddance” (Skinner 191).

Skinner argues that all human behavior results in three consequences. The behavior is either reinforced (increasing its likelihood), punished (decreasing its likelihood), or results in no reinforcement or punishment (decreasing its likelihood). In other words, Skinner argues that people act good because they are rewarded for it and people act bad because they are rewarded for it. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner argues that if we construct society with the appropriate reinforcements and punishments, we will be able to extinguish all undesirable behaviors. Skinner felt concepts like freedom and dignity were mentalistic constructs, unobservable and useless for a scientific psychology. He argues that things like morality, freedom, morals, archetypes, coping mechanisms, self-actualization, and others also represent these constructs. The most important example