In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner summarized his ideas about the nature of science, the techniques for controlling human behavior, and the possibility of building a happier and more stable society. Convinced that all human behavior is determined by environment and biology, he denied the existence of free will (or freedom) and moral autonomy (or dignity). Indeed, he held that illusions about their existence are harmful, because they militate against the establishment of an effective technology to eliminate harmful forms of behavior. Skinner had already discussed his theories in previous publications, but Beyond Freedom and Dignity had the advantages of being more readable and relatively concise, comprising 215 pages of text. When published in 1971, the book created a great deal of interest and controversy, and it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for eighteen weeks—an unusual occurrence for a theoretical work of this kind.
More than two decades earlier, Skinner had published his utopian novel, Walden Two (1948), in which protagonist T. E. Frazier told about a happy community that utilized Skinnerian principles of control to produce a way of life inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s writings. As was true of many persons in the early 1970’s, Skinner had become alarmed about population growth and environmental degradation, and he wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity with the goal of providing an additional theoretical explanation about how to design and operate the kind of culture that his character Frazier had described.
Skinner confidently proclaimed that, because of modern science, engineering a better society is entirely possible and that, once established, such a society would produce people who voluntarily pursue policies that promote survival. In particular, citizens would embrace limitations on population growth and restrictions on practices that damage the environment. With confidence in the engineering skills of those who would design and control the community, he was happy to give these benevolent engineers the power to change “the conditions under which men live and, hence, [to engage] in the control of human behavior.” With Frazier-like optimism, Skinner appeared to see no need to put any limitations on the powers of the new, enlightened leadership.
Skinner’s psychological system, which is commonly called “radical behaviorism,” included three major components. First, he focused exclusively on behaviors that can be observed and measured empirically, and he argued that it was unscientific (or prescientific) to investigate “mentalist” phenomena such as thoughts, cognitions, and intentions. Second, he concentrated on behaviors that are learned (or conditioned) as a result of reinforcements, with an emphasis on the benefits of positive reinforcements rather than those that are negative. Third, in contrast to Pavlovian conditioning (also called “classical conditioning”), which was directed at involuntary reflexes, as in Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with the salivation of dogs, Skinner called his approach “operant conditioning,” which referred to the teaching of voluntary behaviors that interact with the environment, as in his experiments in teaching mice to push levers to obtain food.
The key term for Skinner was “operant,” by which he referred to any nonreflexive behavior that reacts to the environment and produces reinforcing effects. Although every operant exists naturally, it tends to...
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