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46 pages 1 hour read

B. F. Skinner

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1971

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) is a scientific philosophical text written by B. F. Skinner. Skinner (1904-1990) was a psychologist from the United States who is widely recognized for his contributions to behaviorism, the psychological theory that human behavior is determined or based on antecedent and external circumstances. Beyond Freedom and Dignity has been highly criticized for its repudiation of free will and its underlying Victorian ideals; however, this heavy criticism resulted in the popularization of the text.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner asserts the need for a technology of human behavior, which can be implemented to rectify social tribulations, such as overpopulation and violence. He addresses common barriers to this behaviorist approach, including social emphases on freedom and dignity, and hypothesizes how a scientific approach could be used to ethically modify human behavior to create an idyllic world.

This guide uses the eBook version of Beyond Freedom and Dignity published by Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. in 1971 and reprinted in 2002.

Content Warning: The source material presents outdated and offensive beliefs and language, which is reproduced only in direct quotations of the source text.

Summary

Skinner asserts that, while technological advancements have served humanity, they have also created some of humanity’s most pressing problems. To address these problems and create a more cohesive society, Skinner proposes a scientific approach, which he terms a technology of human behavior or social sciences. A scientific approach to behavior has been ignored or rejected by many because of the persistent notion that humans possess free will. In contrast, Skinner argues that human behavior is determined, or is caused by antecedent, environmental, and physiological factors. If this concept were adopted and put into practice, humans could vastly improve society and the environment.

Skinner presents the concepts of freedom and dignity as illusory. Freedom is an illusion that arises from the ability to avoid negative reinforcement. Control is the inverse of freedom, and freedom is negated by both positive and negative reinforcers. While freedom-related literature often generalizes control as corrupt, Skinner argues this mindset inhibits a technology of human behavior. Dignity and credit are recognized as erroneous through Skinner’s behaviorist approach; if behavior is determined, then praise is illogical. Freedom and dignity are often at odds with each other, with freedom promoting ease and dignity promoting hard work, but the former is generally prioritized.

Skinner examines the punitive and non-punitive methods that societies commonly use to control human behavior. Most humans, he argues, are under consistent threat of punishment, which negates both dignity and freedom. Punishment is often ineffective and impractical. It can result in unintended consequences, such as individuals defecting from controlling bodies. Skinner examines several so-called weak methods of behavioral control, including permissiveness, the maieutic method, and dependence. Such methods are favored because they absolve controlling parties of responsibility and award credit to the acting individuals; however, they do not eliminate controlling forces. Rather, they allow for less visible controlling forces to control behavior. Instead of punishment or its ineffective alternatives, Skinner calls for the redesigning of society using a technology of behavior. Such a culture would reduce or eliminate the need for punishment by providing a safe and practical environment for citizens, much in the same way children are given safe environments in which to learn and interact with the world.

Values emerge via group controllers and behavioral reinforcements, though they are often attributed to emotional responses. This negation of the role of emotions has been criticized. Skinner divides values into three categories—personal, altruistic, and cultural. He suggests that collectivism is beneficial while individualism is paradoxical: Humans are inevitably influenced by peers, institutions, and culture, making individualism functionally impossible. As such, he explores altruistic and cultural values more in-depth. Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that both forms rely on natural selection to promote or eradicate certain traits. However, the analogy falls short when comparing the transmission of traits. Skinner discusses cultural evolution to support his recommendation that humanity, moving forward, should intentionally design cultures. He argues that it is a natural process, as humans have evolved to manipulate their environments. The process is morally neutral, and, if used properly, will result in an improved world.

In his final chapter, Skinner explores how a technology of human behavior impacts how humans perceive themselves. Humans have traditionally viewed themselves as superior to other lifeforms and as separate from their bodies. Skinner counters that humans are their bodies and that comparisons between humans and animals are not dehumanizing. He ends his text with the optimistic notion that humans can overcome some of the worst social and global crises if they implement a technology of behavior.

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