Life in the Cage
Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
by B. F. Skinner.
Knopf. 225 pp. $6.95.
It is now familiar in the teaching and publishing world to be confronted by aroused and militant scientists who wish to turn their science to the uses of social reform. Value neutrality was the old established principle which trained scientists to make the strongest distinctions between theory and practice, the possible and the desirable. Since Hiroshima, the anomaly of such distinctions has troubled scientists in every field, and the torment of conscience increased triple-fold with the civil-rights decade, the Vietnam war, and the ecology crusade. The practical world has gone along with this trend. Today, 19th-century Marxist “science” has renewed respectability as a political weapon. And it is instructive to remember that in liberal America the strongest impetus for the Supreme Court civil-rights decision came from pleaders before the Court who represented the views of psychology and sociology on the effects of segregation.
Speaking for an aggressive sect of social scientists, B. F. Skinner, for long the most famous of behaviorist psychologists, has written the culminating book of his career, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which can be interpreted as nothing less than a bid for power by a new leader class, called, in his words, the “technologists of behavior.” The book therefore rightly commands the wide attention it has received. A cover story in Time magazine is a familiar accolade the American Establishment offers to the latest novelties of the Zeitgeist, ripples before the wave of the future. But this is no new fashion, nor mere revolutionary chic. The practices of American industry and advertising, of the communications media, and of high-pressure millionaire politics have long conducted the experiments in “operant conditioning” which Skinner recommends for wholesale use. What is new here reflects a change in the basic predispositions of intellectual leaders in the universities, traditionally bastions in the defense of democratic principles in our society.
The primary purpose of Skinner’s book is not to set up a model for the future so much as to eliminate the psychological obstacles in its path. He has unlimited confidence in the capacity of behavioral science to solve human problems; what he doubts is our will to use it. The chief obstacles are generated from what he calls the “literature of freedom and dignity.” He is not specific, in fact he is surprisingly vague in his references to this literature, but we gather what he means easily enough. The reference could of course include the whole Western religious and literary tradition. Briefly, the troublesome postulate is the concept of individual autonomy in the ethical sphere, the responsibility and the right to choose behavior. The principle had its source not only in man’s higher responsibility to God in his conscience, but also in his right to resist force from men who wished to control his behavior. The difficulty for Skinner, putting both God and primitive violence aside, is the task now of making men amenable to control, that is, conscious, sophisticated control in the modern “scientific” sense. Control, conditioning, we have always had, but it was masked. The problem now is how to pursue a direct and purified technology of control, which though peaceful and benign, is still likely to arouse men’s prejudices on behalf of “freedom” and “dignity.”
In his book Skinner proposes that the science of behavior has an answer not only about what people do but whether what they do is good for them. What is good for people should be described, Skinner says, as the “reinforcing effects of things.” This is “the province of behavioral science, which, to the extent that it is concerned with operant reinforcement, is a science of values.” Ascertaining what is good for people has been made difficult in the past by the need to ask them and being dependent in some measure on their answer. But if the question is shifted from inner feeling to behavior, one needn’t ask anything of people to find out what is good for them; one need only observe their behavior. Reinforcements are the contingencies which follow behavior with either gratification or its opposite, and so induce the recurrence or avoidance of behavior. “Negative reinforcements” are also called the “aversive consequences” of behavior, which can be either the effect of directed conditioning or the natural sequence of behavior which has unpleasant effects, like forgetting one’s coat and catching cold. Pain, sickness, and death are the simplest terms for describing the aversive consequences of behavior, and they form the model for Skinner’s effort to construct a value system, which we discover is chiefly articulate on the issue of human survival. This is a natural criterion for a scientist but it may be found by others to be a singularly barren source for an ethic and a culture.
But things are even more severe than that. Not only do we live on close terms with extinction, but paradoxically in our human environments we are like caged animals.
A culture is very much like the experimental space used in the analysis of behavior. Both are sets of contingencies of reinforcement. A child is born into a culture as an organism is placed in an experimental space. Designing a culture is like designing an experiment; contingencies are arranged and effects noted. In an experiment we are interested in what happens, in designing a culture with whether it will work. This is the difference between science and technology.
Certain questions become pressing, as Skinner acknowledges. If we are in a cage, who are its keepers? Who is to arrange the contingencies and note their effects? Who is to say and what is it to say that “it works”?
There is a circularity of argument in Skinner’s book which blurs a direct answer to these questions, though he does confront them. There are contingencies which induce and reward behavior. There is behavior which receives desired contingencies. The pigeon pecks a button and obtains a kernel of corn. To obtain a kernel of corn the pigeon pecks a button. We know that pigeons like corn but what do men like? This is ascertainable, Skinner says. Whatever men want is the reward for the behavior that gets them what they want. But it is not entirely a free-for-all in the forest, where contingencies are of the natural environment and there is a natural selection of behavior. Society controls most contingencies and therefore controls behavior. But who controls society?, one asks again, not entirely satisfied with Skinner’s answer in his book. The main qualification for controllers, he says, is the right knowledge of contingencies and the behavior related to contingencies. That, so far, is the technology of behavior. Someone is going to have to pronounce on desirable behavior and desirable contingencies, but these must be observable in behavior and not judged by a poll of subjective choices. To depend on what is measurable would certainly simplify choices, What is most measurable and observable in the consequences of behavior, one is tempted to say, is the body count. And I don’t think this is greatly unjust to Skinner as a description of his moral sensitivity. If we ask what is desirable, his best answer seems to be nature’s answer after all, the survival of the individual and the species. The controllers do not really replace natural selection. They merely predict and enact its will.
The moral imagination of men like Skinner, scientists who must use definite criteria in their laboratories, has been chiefly stimulated by the crisis psychology of our civilization. This gives them boldness today and very wide appeal. They are concerned about things like overpopulation, the waste of natural resources, pollution, the threat of nuclear extinction. It may be that our problem is indeed that of survival before anything else, and we need the ministrations of social doctors and engineers, but their prescriptions will not make a culture. At best they can keep it alive.
Whether we live in a democracy or an authoritarian state, as men we wish to have rapport with our “controllers.” It is difficult, as those in government discover every day, to have rapport on the basis of long-run contingencies of behavior, which are too distant to be effective, as Skinner admits. In a democracy these issues may be represented in the short run by the mythologies of “freedom,” “dignity,” and the myth of the autonomous personality, which suggests that one might even feel ennobled, self-affirmed, in making a sacrifice for the future. What will represent the interests of long-run survival in Skinner’s system of control? He has said that “Survival is the only value according to which a culture is eventually to be judged. . . .” It is the value of values, and what cannot be done in its name? One imagines such requirements as the generation of new and stronger myths, the censorship of information, even the seductions of bread and circuses. Not terror and violence, however. Skinner is explicit in rejecting the use of anything but the most pleasant reinforcements in determining behavior. But this is a sobering requirement; one recognizes that in such an order the power of the controllers must approach the absolute, far exceeding that of dictators of the past. God himself failed in the Garden of Eden, and will Skinner succeed?
Skinner might reject that imaginative contrast with indignation. But he admits the problems that Jehovah had with the troublesome Children of Israel. There are, for instance, personal reinforcements, which are directed toward the gratification of the individual. There are other conditioning reinforcements which are produced in organized society to “induce a man to behave ‘for the good of others.’” As these contingencies become more powerful they overshadow the contingencies of personal reinforcement. But this involves a struggle, painful and always ambiguous in its resolution, except where control is unambiguous, that is, violent and unswerving in its determination. Now “freedom” has been a useful word, particularly in the American democratic tradition, because it involved itself in the exigencies of this struggle between the individual and society and made provision that sacrifices, if there were to be sacrifices, would not be by threat but by consent. Is there an alternative to either threat or consent other than deception, that is, the various humiliating (beyond dignity?) forms of mind and behavior control that modern political societies have developed with such great skill? And if relatively mature and intelligent use of consent is preferable to both threat and deception, are we not back in the great tradition of the literature of freedom?
The problem with Skinner’s work and mind is that he is not interested in the dialectic of conflict. He prefers to speak of, “an optimal state of equilibrium in which everyone is maximally reinforced.” It is the confidence that this optimum is achievable and measurable that relieves us of the need for “freedom” and reduces it to a superstition. At that point one reflects on the curious marriage between scientific and utopian thought in our time. That our society is in acute disequilibrium is easy to point out. But this rage for order in the mind of a man like Skinner probably has a different source, the discipline of the laboratory or the purity of results in the natural sciences which rest on their techniques of objectification. One has to have a great affection for the human animal to be patient with his waywardness. So too the utopian drift of mind moves toward the abstractions of welfare or justice. These are “equilibriums,” and “freedom,” or what is expressed in its name, is obviously a priority of another kind. Perhaps the great defect of modern democratic culture is that it cannot adequately imagine what that priority is.
On the other hand we may still be better off than we would be with Skinner’s lucid and simple idea of an “optimal equilibrium.” He has admitted that behavior may be conditioned to require considerable sacrifice, even that of life itself, for the good which comes “after my death.”1 We are not then in a happy hedonistic playground at all. The culture experiment begins to assume sinister proportions. We will presumably be surrounded by agents of evolutionary survival, some of them to be controllers, who will be ready to act at our individual expense as well as their own. The only reserve will be that they must condition us to like it.
It is out of place here to tell Skinner what freedom is, if he doesn’t know, and why it is a value that might determine the survivability of a culture. And yet curiously enough, he comes up with an analogous term, useful for his own purposes in his lexicon of human behavior. For example, he understands the need to limit or restrain “wrong” control. But this happens naturally enough in the form of what he calls “counter-control.” By this he sometimes seems to mean the way in which laboratory animals control the experiment by their reactions to positive or aversive contingencies. If you prick me, I bleed. In the cultural area the equivalent would be the breeding of revolt or milder manifestations of discontent. Any good controller would then bring up counter-counter-controls which would cancel what was aversive; in the most reductive example we might call it sugaring the pill. Basically I think Skinner imagines counter-control coming from other controllers or scientists. In science if someone does a poor experiment, someone else does a better, and the competitive exchange of knowledge weeds out the failures. Scientists, let us say, work in order to impress other scientists. But what if the social technologist were satisfied with the impression he made on his own subjects in the empire of his experiment?
Such questions aside, Skinner admits that “The great problem is to arrange effective counter-control and hence to bring some important consequences to bear on the behavior of the controller.” His book and his theory betray the moral resourcelessness of his “science” at exactly this point. It might be, he says, that democracy will work better than other systems. “Self-government often seems to solve the problem by identifying the controller with the controlled.” But, he goes on to say, a culture is controlled by what happens to it, and what happens to it affects both controller and controlled. If survival is the chief criterion of value and if institutionalized freedom, or democracy, is ineffective in terms of survival, something else must be substituted. In sum the only real or important counter-control is success or failure in the effort at control. But that is tautological unless I pronounce what I regard as worthy of survival.
And so we are back to the issue of values, which Skinner has not escaped by speaking of survival. Nor will other reformers who use the blackmail of crisis psychology, the warning of the holocaust, think that they can escape the problem of values. Perhaps it will be best to admit that the values of a free society were not created in the interest of biological survival. It could be argued that in basic aspects human culture was created in contempt of nature. Men were determined to subordinate its will to theirs, not only in terms of outwitting and outguessing nature, but also in refusing to define themselves and their relationships on the restricted basis of naturalist values.
What values exist beyond these is more and more difficult to formulate for ourselves, but I doubt if social science will succeed very soon in doing so. Skinner is a particularly crude but honest sort of social scientist. In a taped dialogue with Richard I. Evans (published as a book2), Skinner expressed his impatience with anything but observable events. In talking about the training of children while accounting for their emotional needs, he says,
I don’t see the reason to postulate a need anywhere along the line. . . . I could make a pigeon a high achiever by reinforcing it on a proper schedule. I can’t do it by ordering the needs. I don’t know how to order needs. There is no way you can put a key in a slot and twist a need.
He makes his point as strongly as possible.
It doesn’t make any difference to me whether things are conscious or unconscious; the causality in behavior doesn’t depend on consciousness.
In effect consciousness follows behavior and not the reverse. If we can gain access to behavior without going through consciousness, so much the better and easier for everyone. But then we are still left with that mysterious undefined consciousness which belongs to the controllers interested in behavior. What Skinner doesn’t see is that consciousness is not of primary use to behavior except in relation to another consciousness. “It is the environment which acts upon the perceiving person, not the perceiving person who acts upon the environment.” But in saying this he forgets that we are dominantly in a human environment, not a natural one, and the human environment is made up of “perceiving persons,” endowed for better or worse with consciousness.
I think Skinner must have had some sort of reversed religious experience, converting to the puritanism of science, when he could not find an ultimate autonomous person in behavior, acting independently at any point from his environment. But if there is no metaphysical or scientific way of locating this person, the traditional “inner man,” or “homunculus,” Skinner calls him, is that a reason for denying what is obvious, that we live by a kind of functioning disguise of autonomy, that we have selves in any case, and that the best definition of the self comes not in the objective exposition of the laboratory but in a dialogue of persons? The context of this dialogue is political and ethical and it is the right context for locating the valid use of the word “freedom.”
It is an unhappy paradox in a time of righteous fervor, when moral hysteria is almost as rampant as it must have been in 17th-century Salem, that a campaign is so steadily being fought against the traditional idea of an ethical personality. From one side the romantic anarchists, taught by Norman O. Brown or Wilhelm Reich, would discharge men from controls and give them up to the libidinal sea where identities embrace and fuse in an organic bliss. Or if we prefer we are in a world of completely integrated selves who might have sprung, insofar as any environmentalist could tell, from the forehead of Zeus. From Skinner’s side, social control takes over; it defines itself as ubiquitous, omnipotent, and quite naturally benevolent, if we would let it be. Good environments replace the natural goodness of the romantic “homunculus.” In Skinner’s words, “man has not evolved as an ethical or moral animal.” He has no inherent ethical nature or even a need for ethical standards. “He has evolved to the point at which he has constructed an ethical or moral culture.” There is no value in talking about an ethical self. There are only ethical cultures which manipulate selves.
The answer to both these extremes must take, I think, the way of explaining the distinction between man and his culture, between behavior and consciousness, between freedom and power. In the end freedom is only a word which describes the indeterminacy of being in the human understanding. This becomes not only a truth but a necessary moral assumption. Intelligence requires a counterintelligence, power, a counter-power. Survival is not nearly so much a value-fact as are the productive ways in which we live our lives, the ways of communicating consciousness. Why should culture be managed on terms different from the deepest personal relationships? The answer is that it can’t.
Finally one must acknowledge a level of experience which may be considered prior to or culminating from behavior, it doesn’t matter which. Behavior begins or ends with consciousness and the latter becomes the fact of distinctive personal existence. For Skinner it is not so much a matter that a man is hungry and you’ve fed him, but what behavior you get out of him when you feed him. Personality dissolves in a sequence of events which lead to an accumulation of non-aversive results, presumably measured from the outside by the intelligence of controllers. But the human subject demands that to some extent at least events be interpreted as they stop with him. If I am hungry I wish to be fed regardless of further enabling consequences. My hunger is an existential datum of my life and consciousness, and I will demand that it be respected independently of anything else. If it is not I shall know where I am, as Melville’s Bartleby said in somewhat similar circumstances, imprisoned in the New York Tombs. It will not do any good to confront me with my usefulness or uselessness to something called the survival of a species or a culture. This may actually express my original condition in nature but that gives me no comfort at all. It was not to repeat the condition of nature that I have embarked upon the life in culture.
1 Skinner says as an afterthought that personal survival after death may be a metaphorical adumbration of the evolutionary concept of survival value.
2 B. F. Skinner, The Man and His Ideas (Dutton, 1968).