Monday, July 20, 2009

Freedom and Dignity

I've almost finished reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity by Burrhus Frederick Skinner. I put some beginning notes on Goodreads. Skinner seems to turn philosophical convention on its head by ending with "What is man?" and starting with the concept of a technology of behavior. I think form echoes content here, since his purpose is to show that freedom, dignity, and man QUA man (referencing CS Lewis's Abolition of Man specifically) are all non-existent. By starting with a description of how things like "freedom" and "dignity" are actual contingent and controlled by reinforcement, and how all means of influencing human behavior are forms of technology distinguished by effectiveness, he hopes to make the case for a more scientific use of controls in accomplishing social ends.

He does not go into specifics about how behavior should be more effectively controlled. I was disappointed by that, having looked forward to how the new technology would be applied in real life, but his book is an opener in that respect, not a final solution of the admitted difficulties. He merely says that scientific behaviorism should strive to answer those questions in order to be more effective and less guided by instinct and "feelings". Once the terms "freedom and dignity" are done away with, methods can be pursued with sole reference to scientific means and results.

He proposes an evolutionary basis for society -- that is, he proposes that by definition, a society that succeeds is successful -- but does not make it clear how it is to be discerned how a society succeeds except that it survives. This is clearly a contingent criterion, as he freely admits himself; the success of a given society is purely relativistic. His main point is that the criterion for society's success should be scientific.

These sections I found unsatisfactory even on their own terms, though fairly often interesting in their frank assessment of some of the common thinking errors. If I went into detail, this post would absolutely go on forever.

These chapters were quite interesting:
They were the ones I wanted to go into in more detail, but it will have to wait.
Here is A summary of the argument of the book. -- with reading questions.

Anyway, now I have a clearer idea of what is going on behind some of the educational practices of nowadays. I actually think that his analyses of behavior control are rather clever, though shallow. Where I think he goes wrong is in his conclusion, stated as a premise, that all forms of behavior can be analyzed and affected by purely scientific means. More later, no doubt -- presently I'm supposed to watch Bleak House with my teens (wonder what operant conditioning is driving me there? ; - )).

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