The Implications to Philosophy of Skinnerian Behaviorism
The fields of psychology and philosophy have been at odds on innumerable issues, from discussions on the individual to those concerning society. However, it cannot be denied that there is but a fine line that separates the two fields; as such, a level of interference is expected whenever a new theory in psychology arises, or when a contemporary philosophy is introduced. This paper is a brief discussion of the implications of B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism – one of the most popular theories in psychology – on basic philosophical assumptions regarding human nature.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Behaviorism in general as a “movement in psychology and philosophy that emphasized the outward behavioral aspects of thought and dismissed the inward experiential and sometimes the inner procedural aspects as well”. Such a definition brings to light the fact that Behaviorism, despite its being associated with Psychology, has points that need to be addressed from a philosophical viewpoint.
This paper has taken the liberty to look beyond the basic tenets of Skinnerian radical behaviorism and instead employ the first chapters of Skinner’s “Science and Human Behavior” in understanding the psychologist’s view of human nature.
The book “Science and Human Behavior” explores Skinner’s attempt at establishing – and in the process, defending – a science of human behavior that intends to give a more comprehensive, almost quantifiable account of why people behave as they do. The endeavor, even in its nascent stage, clearly deviates from the accepted, traditional view of human nature: in the establishment of a science of behavior, the assumption that behavior is determined and possesses order is necessary. What is the implication of such a statement? If one were to view it with Skinner’s psychology in mind, it would mean that for him, man is not free. This is very much opposed to a long-standing belief that man is a free agent in possession of a “will” that enables him to decide independently of the very external forces that Skinner credits as having the capacity to influence behavior. Simply, it means that man’s behavior is the product of external forces, not of internal ratiocinations. A direct consequence of this kind of thinking is the larger assumption that man is reactive, not proactive. To recall, Skinner’s psychology – which boasts of the theory of operant conditioning – maintains that a person’s behavior is directly influenced by stimuli (in the form of reinforcements).
Although Skinner seems to be painting a bleak picture of human nature, if one were to analyze carefully, a silver lining exists. Man may be devoid of “free will”, but in the same breath he is transformed into a being whose future is tainted with optimism and lacking in existential angst. Given the fact that his behavior is a product of forces outside his control, and with the establishment of a science of behavior, his behavior becomes malleable. As such, steering mankind towards favorable change – towards a “non-punitive society”, his personal utopia – is possible.
Skinner’s radical view of human nature is grounded in practicality in more ways than one. In his lecture “The Non-Punitive Society”, he emphasizes the need for the facilitation of what he termed at that time as “behavior modification”. For him, it is only through the said approach – with a science of behavior firmly grounded, of course – that a level of orderliness in the world can be achieved. Orderliness in this case is tantamount to the eradication – or the lessening – of the sources of human suffering, of which punishment is the least addressed and most prevalent.
The brief discussion of punishment that opened Skinner’s lecture reflects yet another assumption he has of human nature – an assumption which, perhaps, is more readily acceptable as it is grounded in the science of evolution. In his talk, he noted that the pervasion of punishment in society (used as an instrument to control) is telling of the basic scientific fact that man is genetically presupposed to display aggression towards another person – a statement supported by the Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest”. As said: “Those members of the species who were most strongly inclined to defend themselves and their property by physical force, to act aggressively as predators, and to compete aggressively in sexual competition should have been most likely to survive and transmit their tendencies.” (The Non-Punitive Society, p.3) Philosophically and psychologically speaking, then, aggression as a behavior is inherited. However, it can be said that the development of the characteristic of aggression in the earliest of men can be attributed to the environment within which they lived.
Going back to the pragmatism inherent in Skinner’s behaviorism, his commitment to establishing a science of behavior is, as said, accompanied by the desire to achieve a utopia of sorts. As indicated in “Science and Human Behavior”, he believes that “the present unhappy condition of the world may in large measure be traced to our vacillation” (Skinner, p.9). The confusion being referred to here is confusion in theory, relative to the issue of human nature, which led to confusion in practice, which, in the end, is to blame for the presence of human suffering. What is this confusion in human nature theory? Skinner believes that a level of hypocrisy, ambiguity exists where the nature of man is concerned: “We regard the common man as the product of his environment; yet we reserve the right to give personal credit to great men for their achievements” (Skinner, 8). To solve this problem, he proposes the founding of a science that can and will clarify uniformities in behavior and in turn, result to the emergence of order.
Skinnerian behaviorism has long been refuted by the theories on behavior that followed, with the most devastating blow dealt by the onset of “cognitive science”. Although his theory is well thought-out and coherent, it is not anymore as compelling today as it was in its heyday. This is most probably due to the fact that his assumptions have either been disproved or have met dismissal before even coming to fruition. An example of this is his premise that the results obtained from experiments on operant conditioning done with animals as subjects can be applied to humans – an assumption which, without further explanation, is not credible enough to be taken seriously as it defies the basic belief that man is different from animals. And although Skinner boasted of the fact that applications of behavior conditioning were successful in certain fields – i.e., education, in the penitentiary, in the industrial sector – he likewise reported that the results were short-lived. This admission, of course, undermined his credibility all the more.
Skinner’s take on human nature, unfortunately, is too revolutionary to be welcomed in the pool of prevailing world views. To adopt his ideas is to demolish innumerable long-standing beliefs that enable society to function and flourish. To say, for instance, that a person’s behavior is determined is to refuse the idea of man being in possession of the faculty of reasoning which enabled him to live – not merely survive. To say that man’s behavior can be readily changed is to accept the absence of will; and to say that man has no “will” is to put an end to the pursuit of dreams and the shattering of convictions.
Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior. Retrieved from http://www.bfskinner.org/f/Science_and_Human_Behavior.pdf
Skinner, B.F. The Non-Punitive Society [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.bfskinner.org/f/non-punitive_society.pdf
Behaviorism. (n.d.) In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/b/behavior.htm#H3
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