Seminal American psychologist B.F. Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity
in 1971. The text argues for a more orderly structuring of society, especially through the implementation of psychological research. It was heavily criticized by other prominent intellectuals of the era, including Noam Chomsky, for its devaluation of human agency, and Richard Sennett for its overabundance of unproven statements and its underlying attempt to reinstate 18th century conservative, Victorian values. The criticism sparked a public debate and the book became a rare psychology text to become a New York Times
bestseller for nearly five months.
Its themes include the negation of free will, the urgent relevance of the social sciences, and the possibility of utopia.
According to behaviorism, humans are entirely controlled by their environment and their DNA. Thus, if society wishes to improve its collective habits, it must change its environment. Society can change human behavior through the application of social sciences, such as psychology, especially through behaviorism, a set of theories that say human behavior is best explained by behavior, not through thoughts and feelings. This school of thought was created in reaction to Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious. Skinner took these behavioral principles to the extreme, and his style of thinking is considered “radical behaviorism.” He is thus distinguishable from other leaders in behaviorism, such as Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson.
Skinner maintains that it is unwise to act off emotion, writing “feelings are at best byproducts” of living. At the individual level, people often make rash decisions, and these decisions can become even less logical as more people tag along. When individuals and societies make life decisions based off of their passions or ego, Skinner contends that the results are rarely positive. This includes having too many children and negatively impacting the environment. To reverse the ill-effects of human behavior, society at large needs “a technology of behavior,” i.e. a systematic, tried-and-true way of altering behavior.
Fortunately, with modern scientific research, society can be structured in a way to promote wise human behaviors. These interventions don’t have to be intrusive; if designed correctly, the individual may “willingly” chose the correct action over the incorrect action. Skinner called the people shaping society (presumably all men) to be “benevolent engineers.” Skinner states that the power to shape society through behaviorism can be used for positive or nefarious purposes; he was severely criticized for not elaborating how this power could be abused.
For Skinner, freedom is the removal of physical pain. While Skinner admires advances in human rights, he says that the idea of freedom shouldn’t be concerned with theories of mind or various emotions. When society concerns itself too much with making individuals feel better, they can be less pressed to change the individual’s actual environment. Freedom is not about having a happy state of mind; it’s about living in a well-structured environment.
Skinner defines dignity as a situation where individuals are praised (and criticized) for their actions. This state is also known as moral autonomy. Since Skinner doesn’t see free will as a real phenomenon, he rejects the idea of dignity as a “pre-scientific” concept. This is to say that he rejects the concept of an “autonomous man.” According to Skinner, people are largely not responsible for their actions, so praise or scorn for them is not necessary; one should look to their environment when interpreting their actions.
Punishment is the last major social phenomenon that Skinner passionately refutes. Since people are not responsible for their actions, punishment isn’t a logical use of force; punishment is also ineffective in truly changing behavior (decades of research continuing today confirms this to be true). Unfortunately, common behavioral treatments besides punishment are similarly ineffective, Skinner proposes. This includes “talk” therapy, motivational speakers, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Concepts like dignity, punishment, and freedom have all originated because, according to Skinner, modern society was not founded on scientific best practices. Before the scientific method was well-established, it made sense that cultures would organize themselves based off of individual or group achievement. But nowadays, a system of valuation predicated on personal agency is flawed. In a chapter titled “Values,” Skinner argues that modern society must abandon concepts like dignity, punishment, and freedom if it wants to improve its surrounding environment, which is, according to his research, more effective in sculpting behavior.
In the final chapter, “What Is Man?” Skinner writes that his philosophy of “cultural engineering” is morally neutral. Used appropriately, it will lead to a more just, and above all, productive society. Responding to critics of his previous works which similarly argued that humanity is completely determined by their environment, Skinner insists that his worldview would not create miserable human beings. If anything, humanity would greatly benefit from being able to more adroitly manage their own impulses. Under his method, criminality would be reduced, individuals would be impelled to perform more altruistic actions, and society would be ruled by the enlightened principles of science.