I wrote this review of B. F. Skinnerís book Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971, when the book first came out, to vent my anger at Skinnerís monumental stupidity. The review was never published, nor did I try to get it published, but Walter Grinder distributed a few copies of it to his students at Rutgers University. I made some minor editorial changes from the typescript draft as I entered it into my computer 31 years later, but I left most of my original words unchanged because I still agree with my younger self.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Reason

by Roy Halliday

B. F. Skinner, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is recognized as the most influential behavioral scientist alive. In his new book he presents the case for the further development of behaviorism, which he depicts as the only valid science of human behavior. He characterizes all other social sciences as methodologically pre-scientific.

The title of this provocative book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, is a slap in the face to libertarians, and each page of it stuns the reader with more unsettling ideas.

Skinner writes about "the literature of freedom," which includes John Stuart Millís essay "On Liberty" and other writings opposed to tyranny and despotism. This literature, says Skinner, was useful in its day but is now obsolete. We know now that regimentation is a bad way to run a society. Diversity is important, and any society without it is poorly designed. The literature of freedom was helpful in getting people to realize this fact, but, says Skinner, this literature fosters other ideas that act as barriers to further advances in the technology of controlling human behavior. These barriers are individual autonomy, free will, volition, and consciousness itself. All of these concepts are supposed to have been fostered and made popular by the literature of freedom, and all of them, according to B. F. Skinner, are myths.

A few quotations from his book should convince the reader that I do not misrepresent Skinner. He rules out independent consciousness:

Without the help of a verbal community all behavior would be unconscious. Consciousness is a social product. It is not only not the special field of autonomous man, it is not within the range of a solitary man. (192)

He doesnít forget memory:

The environment is often said to be stored in the form of memories: to recall something we search for a copy of it, which can then be seen as the original was seen. As far as we know, however, there are no copies of the environment in the individual at any time, even when a thing is present and being observed. (196-197)

He tosses out autonomy, abstraction, and association:

Rather than suppose that it is therefore autonomous man who discriminates, generalizes, forms concepts, or abstractions, recalls or remembers, and associates, we can put matters in good order simply by noting that these terms do not refer to forms of behavior. (194)

Skinner believes the "literature of freedom" attributes these imaginary qualities to man in order to set him apart from other animals and to stifle the advance of behaviorism. If man is unique because he possesses the attributes of consciousness, autonomy, volition, and free will, then man is the only animal whose behavior cannot be fully controlled by the technology to be developed by behaviorists. For this reason Skinner feels that the "literature of freedom" is the greatest obstruction to the advance of behaviorism.

To man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real causes of human behavior. Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable. (200-201)

Behaviorist Jargon

Skinnerís writing is difficult to understand. His style suffers from his attempt to eliminate all words that suggest people act because of ideas. He writes of positive and negative reinforcers instead of likes and dislikes. He translates English into the jargon of behaviorism, which is an attempt to eliminate all words that suggest conscious, purposeful, motivation of human behavior. He explains:

We change the relative strengths of responses by differential reinforcement of alternative courses of action; we do not change something called a preference. We change the probability of an act by changing a condition of deprivation or aversive stimulation; we do not change a need. We reinforce behavior in particular ways; we do not give a person a purpose or an intention. We change behavior toward something, not an attitude toward it. We sample and change verbal behavior, not opinions. (94-95)

Despite all his effort, Skinner does not succeed in translating the entire book. It would be completely incomprehensible if he did. Fortunately, he lapses into lucidity every once in a while, and invariably, it is because he sneaks in some introspective knowledge to explain behavior and make it understandable.

The most interesting part of his chapter on dignity is his discussion of the role dignity plays in motivating human action. It is a strange topic for a behaviorist to discuss because, as a behaviorist, Skinner has no means of knowing about the subjective experience of pride or dignity. Pride, dignity, and admiration cannot be measured or observed by behaviorists. We have introspective knowledge of their existence only. Skinner smuggles introspective knowledge into the discussion to explain many kinds of human action. If he didnít, the book would be unintelligible.

Behaviorists cannot contribute significantly to our understanding of human behavior without deviating from their own epistemology. Behaviorism denies that there is any such thing as human nature as a legitimate scientific concern. It denies that people act because they have ideas, values, and plans. It is no wonder that the jargon of behaviorism is hard to understand. By denying the existence of introspective knowledge and reason, it denies understanding itself.

Control by Behaviorists

The word control often implies purpose, but this is not what Skinner means to imply when he says that behavior is always controlled. He means that behavior is always determined by causes that are either genetic or environmental. Freedom (lack of control) is an impossible notion. But Skinner goes beyond this to assert that the individual plays no part in controlling his own actions.

The fundamental mistake made by all those who choose weak methods of control is to assume that the balance of control is left to the individual, when in fact it is left to other conditions. (99)

Skinner wants to replace existing control of human behavior with "scientific" control; that is, external control by "cultural designers" based on the findings of the behaviorists. Since freedom is imaginary anyway, Skinner says there would be no loss of freedom if the behaviorists gained control, and mankind would benefit by submitting to "scientific" controls administered by trained experts. The alternative is to continue to be controlled by a haphazard environment made up of unplanned controls. [Notice that (1) Skinner gives a reason for submitting to control by behaviorists, even though he claims to believe that people donít do things for conscious reasons, and notice that (2) control by behaviorists would be for the purpose of making our collective life better, even though people, including behaviorists, do not act for such imaginary things as purposes.]

In order to change existing controls one would have to change either existing hereditary traits or existing environmental controls. We cannot change heredity, but Skinner believes environmental factors are more important anyway, so he proposes controlling us by changing our cultural environment.

Skinner wants to design a culture that will survive. So he proclaims survival of the culture to be the only value needed for testing the scientific control of our cultural environment. This standard makes all the sticky questions that people might raise about the causes of human behavior insignificant.

Just as we do not need to explain the origin of a genetic mutation in order to account for its effect in natural selection, so we do not need to explain the origin of a cultural practice in order to account for its contribution to the survival of a culture. (136)

The cultural designers (ruling class) are a paradox of Skinnerism because they are alleged to have the ability to control the behavior of everyone in society but they do not have the ability to control their own behavior. If you ask how he can attribute the design of a culture to a behavioral scientist and not also attribute the design of the scientistís own life to him, Skinner answers:

He is indeed controlled by his environment, but we must remember it is an environment largely of his own making. The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control. (215)

So, cultures can control themselves, but people canít. An individual apparently has no self, but a culture has. This is the thinking of a collectivist. Skinner sees no contradiction here. The only problem he recognizes is the need to control the controllers:

The great problem is to arrange effective counter control and hence to bring some important consequences to bear on the behavior of the controller. (171)

This problem will be solved by the scientific approach itself. The thing being controlled determines the design of the controlling forces. The cultural designers, being true scientists, will be responsive to the reactions of their human guinea pigs and will modify their methods of control accordingly. Furthermore, the controllers will have to live under the controls of their own design. Skinner tries to make it sound like the controlled can more easily control the controllers than the controllers can control the controlled. He assumes that the controllers will be pure behaviorists who will be guided exclusively by the principles he sets forth, but he does not explain how this could be guaranteed, even if we agreed that it would be desirable.

Designing a culture is like designing an experiment, contingencies are arranged and effects noted. (153)

How is it possible to conceive of an experiment without reference to the purpose of the experiment? What is an experiment if not the testing of a hypothesis--an idea? If men do not possess the capability to implement ideas--to act purposefully--as Skinner supposes, then there can be no such thing as an experiment! The concept of an experiment becomes meaningless without the prior concepts of hypotheses, purposes, and proof.

It is unfortunate for libertarians that the issue raised by Skinner that attracts the most attention is the one where his argument is strongest; namely, the issue of free will. This is an emotional issue for many people. It provokes bitter debate. Let us first examine some of the other issues raised by Skinner and then come back to this one, which I contend is not as crucial as is commonly thought. For a change, let us attack Skinner where he is weakest--as a scientist.

Behaviorism as Trivial History

Behaviorism, by denying the significant role played by mental categories, cannot go beyond the study of independent, unrelated, trivial events. It views cultures as sets of unrelated practices and it views practices as purposeless activities. All that Skinner can do without departing from the behaviorist view of human action is to compile meaningless facts about purposeless behavior driven by contingencies of which no one is conscious. Ludwig von Mises, the founder of praxeology (the science of purposeful human action), saw through the behaviorist ideology when he wrote about its founder (Watson):

Only by deceiving itself could behaviorism reach the point where it would be in a position to say anything about action. If, true to its resolve, behaviorism were completely to renounce the attempt to grasp meaning, it could not even succeed in singling out what it declares to be the subject matter of its research from all that the senses observe of human and animal behavior. It would not succeed in marking off its function from that of physiology. Physiology, Watson maintains, is concerned in particular with the behavior of the parts of the animal. Yet surely neither the reaction of the body to an infection not the phenomena of growth and age are to be classified as "behavior of the parts." If, on he other hand, one chooses to regard a movement of a hand as an instance of behavior on the part of the "whole animal," one can, of course, do so only on the view that in this movement something becomes operative that cannot be attributed to any particular part of the body. This something, however, can be nothing else than "meaning" or that which begets "meaning."1

Behaviorism cannot even define itself consistently. This is a poor beginning for an ideology that characterizes itself as a science.

The Fallacy of Scientism

Because ideas cannot be measured, observed, or experimented with by the methods of the physical sciences, Skinner says the assertion that they exist is unscientific. And if ideas are not scientific neither is any explanation of human action that is based on the assumption that people have ideas and act because of ideas.

The physical sciences began by dispelling anthropomorphic explanations of physical phenomena. To attribute purpose, consciousness, volition, and other human characteristics to the inanimate and subhuman came to be regarded by scientists as superstitious nonsense.

Scientists regarded the subjects of their investigations as objects governed exclusively by discoverable laws of nature, completely determined in all their actions by their inherent physical characteristics and by external forces. The purpose of scientific investigations was to discover the physical properties and the natural laws governing objects.

The method devised by scientists for this purpose was controlled observation. By carefully changing only one variable at a time, observing the results, and repeating the process and getting the same results each time, scientists could infer natural laws. This method led to great successes in fields such as physics and chemistry. Since the time of Saint-Simon this scientific method has come to be regarded, more and more, as the only truly scientific method.2

This method, whether it is called empiricism or scientism, when applied to the social sciences is not only objectionable for its violations of human freedom and dignity, it is incorrect, illogical, and unscientific. It does not take into account the fundamental facts about human nature that differentiate the social sciences from the physical sciences.

In their attempt to be scientific and to abolish superstitious anthropomorphism, empiricists have gone too far. They have gone from declaring it unscientific to ascribe human characteristics to inanimate objects to declaring it unscientific to ascribe human characteristics to humans! Excluding anthropomorphism from the social sciences is the fallacy of scientism.

By assuming that knowledge is limited to what is measurable and observable, Skinner unwittingly rules out all the logical sciences. Mathematical proofs, for example, are not based on empirical evidence, but on logical deductions from axioms. In fact, logic itself is based on "unscientific" axioms that are self-evident to us only through introspection. The logical and mathematical relationships underlying the theories of behaviorism and all the empirical science are a priori categories of the human mind. They are only know to us through introspection. In a review of Jacques Monadís Chance and Necessity Gunther Stent observed:

Certainly the most basic law projected by man into nature is causality, or the belief that the events he observes in the outer world resemble his own conscious acts in their being connected as cause and effect, rather than occurring haphazardly ... Indeed, even the most elementary dimensions in terms of which scientists attempt to describe the very events that causality is supposed to connect, such as time, space, mass, and temperature, are nothing more than projections into nature of manís own physiology and anatomy.3

By denying the importance of introspective knowledge, Skinner denies any basis for the physical sciences and denies the significance of behaviorism.

Human Practices

Most people would agree that new practices arise because individuals have values, get ideas, make plans to achieve their values, try them, and adopt the plans that seem to work. This is a praxeological explanation of new practices. Skinner, however, does not think it is an explanation at all. To his way of thinking, attributing human action to unmeasurable ideas, values, plans, and purposes is a supernatural explanation like calling God the first cause and claiming thereby to have explained existence. All that it accomplishes, he feels, is the satisfaction of the curiosity of superficial thinkers. Truly inquisitive people will still wonder what caused the ideas or what caused God.

Inquisitive people will demand an explanation of the explanation ad infinitum, regardless of what is being explained and regardless of whether the explanation is a praxeological, behaviorist, or supernatural one. Praxeological explanations, unlike supernatural explanations, do not pretend to deal with final causes. Skinner goes too far when he says,

If our understanding of contingencies of reinforcement is not yet sufficient to explain all kinds of thinking, we must remember that the appeal to the mind explains nothing at all. (195)

On the contrary, it explains the private internal experiences that we all know are most real. The external world is more abstract than the internal one. And praxeology, because it recognizes the significance of the internal world, is more fundamental than behaviorism for understanding human action. What does understanding mean if not a mental state? The fact that we cannot observe or measure other peopleís thoughts only means they cannot be scientifically studied by the limited tools of the empirical sciences. It does not follow that logical analysis of values and intentions is not of the utmost importance. Mankind would not have survived this long if the average man did not have a better understanding of human nature than the average behaviorist.

Skinner is wrong to imply that purposes, values, and ideas, which praxeology assumes underlie human action, are supernatural categories. Ideas, values, memory, reasoning, and purposes are directly experienced by all men. They are not supernatural. They are facts that are part of general human experience, unlike the gods who manifest themselves to only a select few. We can be more sure of the existence of ideas that we experience directly than we can be of the existence of the external world, which we merely surmise from the data supplied by our senses. All experience is subjective, including experience of external events. Empirical observation presupposes consciousness. So ideas, values, consciousness, memory, reasoning, and other activities of the mind that we know directly are just as fit subjects for natural science as the more abstract objects studied by the empirical sciences.

It is hardly scientific to rule out the unique knowledge, values, memories, and experiences of the individual acting man from the chain of causes that results in his behavior. Studying human behavior without recognizing the significance of ideas and purposes is like studying the behavior of an automobile without considering the possibility that there might be a driver inside. What praxeology postulates is a driver in the driverís seat, not a ghost in the machine.

How does Skinner explain the emergence of a new practice? Well, since intent is ruled out for being a prescientific explanation, the only alternative is accident. To put it in the enlightening and "scientific" language of behaviorism, a new practice arises when controlling contingencies, excluding ideas, cause a person to behave in a way that produces a reinforcing result (one which the controlling contingencies, by accident, cause repetition of). Then, because the controlling contingencies, unintentionally, produce a reinforcing result in one case, the controlling contingencies cause other people to duplicate the behavior for no reason. Now isnít that as clear as can be? Does it sound like an explanation or a restatement of the question? How is this behaviorist explanation any meatier than simply saying that new practices arise somehow?

My negative reaction to Skinnerís analysis of human behavior is not due so much to his disparagement of human freedom and dignity as it is due to his assault on the things I am most certain of, namely, consciousness, values, volitions, and emotions. By denying the importance of these things Skinner is denying the most fundamental human experiences. His behavioral science, whatever else it may be, is not a study of human life or human action.

Skinner is the master of the self-refuting argument. He denies that ideas play a role in human action, then he explains that it is because of unscientific ideas people have about their freedom and dignity that they show disrespect for his behaviorist theories.4

Free Will

Skinnerís best point is his attack on the godlike man whose actions are entirely self-caused or uncaused. But even to argue against free will Skinner has to deviate from his behaviorist epistemology and conger up the mental category of causality, which logically precedes empirical inquiry. Empirical science does not prove the law of causality, it assumes it. Historical evidence may suggest antecedent causes of human action, but historical evidence cannot disprove free will. The disproof of free will comes from the a priori idea of causality. It is impossible for us to understand an event happening without a cause. The concept of free will postulates and event, a man willing something, that is not caused by any preceding contingencies. This contradicts the law of causality and is therefore unnatural and unscientific. Skinner does not present the argument this way. He not only denies the existence of free will, he relegated volition itself to the realm of the supernatural or prescientific.

Some of the confusion about free will may be semantic. Many people equate volition with freedom of the will as though the two terms were synonymous. Volition and will are the same, but neither volition nor will means the same thing as the term free will. No one can convincingly deny the existence of volition as a human trait because we are directly aware of our own volitions. A volition is a conscious decision and resolution to act. It is a part in the chain of causality leading to an action that we take. It is the part that takes place in our conscious mind, so it is the part that seems most significant to us. Free will, however, is the notion that our volitions are spontaneous and uncaused rather than determined by our character, experiences, and circumstances. It is this kind of will that determinists deny. Determinists hold that nothing occurs spontaneously; nothing is uncaused. Human volitions are not exceptions to this law. A manís will, at any particular time, is an event that needs to be explained like any other--in terms of causes.

Proponents of free will, on the other hand, deny that free will is inconsistent with the law of causality. Instead, they say that free will means manís will is self-caused rather than externally caused or spontaneous.

But what does "self-caused" mean? If it means merely that the immediate cause for a man willing something is not only external contingencies but also the previously determined personality of the man, then self-causation and the law of causality are not contradictory. However, this is not what the free will proponents mean to suggest. Instead, when they say a manís will is self-caused, they imply that his self, his personality, is self-caused and is not ultimately determined by external contingencies.

Determinists reply that self-causation is only a proximate explanation of volition, not a final one. A volition is a finite thing that has not existed since the beginning of the universe, so it cannot be its own first cause. One of the causes of a manís current volition may be a previous one. But then the origin of that previous volition needs to be explained, and so on, until we reach a point in the chain of events where the cause of his volition submerges to the unconscious level. But even unconscious or subconscious events are not exempt from the law of causality. Although we do not sufficiently understand them, we know the origin of subconscious events must in principle be explainable in terms of a mixture of prior mental states and the environment at the time, the origin of which, in turn, needs to be explained. Even if all his mental states were direct results of his first thoughts, we must recognize that his first thoughts must have been determined by his heredity and environment inside his motherís womb and they could not have been willful acts on his part.

It is unfortunate that the issue of free will is regarded by Skinner and his critics as the crucial issue. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, it does not follow that if we donít have free will we donít have volitions at all. The fact that our volitions are determined means that they exist not that they donít exist! It should be easier to dismiss the claim that we make choices if we conceive of volitions as free and uncaused than if we think of them as arising naturally from our past history and current circumstances. Skinner, like so many others on both sides of the issue, overlooks the possibility of determined volitions causing human action.

Proponents of free will often point to the failure of determinists to predict the future as proof that we have free will. Predicting the future is not impossible in principle, it is only impossible in practice. This does not disprove causality, it only disproves the omniscience of predictors. Causality is not a hypothesis the needs to be tested empirically. It is an a priori category of the mind that we must possess before we can formulate a hypothesis about anything.

Nonetheless there as some fairly obvious correlations that free will proponents prefer to ignore because they imply external causes for many important human choices. If our choices are not determined by our genetics and our history and our environment, then the same proportion of people from all groups should be making the same major life decisions and the fact that there is a disproportionate number of young black men in American prisons or the fact that there is a disproportionate number of Hindus in India is simply an amazing coincidence.

If the only alternative to Skinnerís behaviorism required a belief in free will, behaviorism, as stupid as it is, would have to be regarded as the only scientific approach to human action. Fortunately, Ludwig von Mises, the great libertarian social scientist did not base his analysis of human action on the unscientific and unnatural premise of free will.5

Go to "Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Reason Part 2"


Back to Pieces from My Radical Libertarian Period

Back to Book Reviews

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday

This page was last updated on October 1, 2012.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to
royhalliday@mindspring.com.