Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

"Beyond Freedom and Dignity" is a book written by American psychologist B. F. Skinner and first published in 1971. The book argues that entrenched belief in free will and the moral autonomy of the individual (which Skinner referred to as "dignity") hinders the prospect of using scientific methods to modify behavior for the purpose of building a happier and better organized society.

"Beyond Freedom and Dignity" may be summarized as an attempt to promote Skinner's philosophy of science, the technology of human behavior, his conception of determinism, and what Skinner calls 'cultural engineering'.


The book is organized into 9 chapters.

A Technology of Behavior

In this chapter Skinner argues that a technology of behavior is possible and that it can be used to help solve currently pressing human issues such as over-population and warfare.

"Almost all major problems involve human behavior, and they cannot be solved by physical and biological technology alone. What is needed is a technology of human behavior." [Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. page 24 Hardback edition]


In this chapter Skinner argues for a more precise definition of freedom, one that allows for his conception of determinism (action that is free from certain kinds of control), and speaks to the conventional notion of freedom. Skinner argues against "autonomous man". [Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. p.26]

Skinner notes that the forces of Freedom and Dignity have led to many positive advances in the human condition, but may now be hindering the advance of a technology of human behavior. " [the literature of freedom and dignity] has been successful in reducing the aversive stimuli used in intentional control, but it has made the mistake of defining freedom in terms of states of mind or feelings..." [ibid p.42]


Dignity is the process by which people are given credit for their actions [Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 58 "We recognize a person's dignity or worth when we give him credit for what he has done"] , or alternatively punished for them under the notion of responsibility. Skinner's analysis rejects both as "dignity" - a false notion of inner causality which removes both credit for action and blame for misdeeds. "...the achievements for which a person himself is to be given credit seem to approach zero..." [ibid p.44]

Skinner notes that credit is typically a function of the conspicuousness of control. We give less or no credit, or blame, to those who are overtly coached, compelled, prompted or otherwise not appearing to be producing actions spontaneously.


Skinner saw punishment as the logical consequence of an unscientific analysis of behavior as well as the tradition of "freedom and dignity". Since individuals are seen to be making choices they are then able to be punished for those choices. Since Skinner argued against free will he therefore argued against punishment which he saw to be ineffective in controlling behavior.

Alternatives to Punishment

Skinner notes that the previous solutions to punishment are often not very useful and may create additional problems. Permissiveness, the metaphor of mid-wifery (or maieutics), "guidance", a dependence on things, "changing minds", all contain either problems or faulty assumptions about what is going on. ["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." p.99 - Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity ]

Skinner argues that this mis-understanding of control championed by the defenders of freedom and dignity "encourage [s] the misuse of controlling practices and block progress towards a more effective technology of behavior." [ibid p.100]


Skinner notes a 'prescientific' view of man allows for personal achievement. The 'scientific view' moves human action to be explained by species evolution and environmental history [ibid p.101]

Skinner speaks to feelings about what is right, as well as popular notions of "good". Skinner translates popular words and phrases around value issues into his view of contingencies of reinforcement. Skinner notes that even if the technology of behavior produces "goods" to improve human life, they expose environmental control which is offensive to the "freedom and dignity" perspective. ["A technology of behavior is available...but the defenders of freedom oppose its use." Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity p. 125]

The Evolution of a Culture

Skinner suggests that cultural evolution is a way to describe the aggregate of (operant) behavior. A culture is a collection of behavior, or practices [ibid p.131]

Skinner addresses "Social Darwinism" and argues that as a justification of the subordination of other nations or of war competition with others is a small part of natural selection. A much more important part is competition with the physical environment itself [ibid p.133] . Skinner relates the idea of cultural evolution back to the question of values: whose values are to survive?

The Design of a Culture

Skinner notes that cultural design is not new, but is already existing and on-going. [ibid. 145] . Skinner notes that most discussions of current problems are dominated by metaphors, concerns for feelings and states of mind which do not illuminate possible solutions. [ibid p.148] . Skinner notes that 'behavior modification' is ethically neutral [p.150 "Such a technology is ethically neutral. It can be used by villain or saint." Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.]

Skinner notes that Utopian speculations, like his novel Walden Two is a kind of cultural engineering. [Although Skinner mentions Plato, Augustine and was presumably inspired by Bacon's Atlantic and does not explicitly mention Walden Two in this reference. p.153 ibid ] . He then devotes much of the rest of this chapter to addressing the criticisms and complaints against cultural engineering.

What is Man?

Skinner again addresses the notion of the individual, and discusses how aspects of a person's character could be assigned to environmental factors. [ ibid p.186 aggression, industry, attention are addressed specifically] . He also covers cognition, problem solving, self-control and counters some arguments or possible misconceptions. Skinner notes that his analysis does not "leave an empty organism" [ "A great deal goes on inside the organism" ibid. p195] . Skinner addresses the issue of mechanical models of human action, which are better addressed elsewhere [Mecca Chiesa's Radical Behaviorism deals with the misunderstanding of Skinner's analysis as "mechanistic" in some detail] . Skinner notes that, "The evolution of a culture is a gigantic effort in self-control." and ends with, "A scientific view of man offers exciting possibilities. We have not yet seen what man can make of man."

Walden Two

"Beyond Freedom and Dignity" is consistent with "Walden Two", an earlier novel in which Skinner depicted a utopian community based on his ideas regarding behavior modification. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner extends his argument for explicit cultural engineering of which Walden Two may be seen as an example.


Linguist Noam Chomsky wrote influential works attacking Skinner's methods and conclusions [See e.g. [ The one hundred most influential works in cognitive science from the 20th century] or Skinner's own ironic acknowledgment of Chomsky's influence in On 'Having' A Poem ( [ RealAudio] )] . Chomsky devoted much of the essay "The Case Against B.F. Skinner" to attacking 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' as well as more general attacks on behaviorism and empiricism [Chomsky, N. The Case Against B.F.Skinner]


People are not free

:"In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment." ["Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (New York: Bantam Vintage paperback, 1972), p. 17.]

People are bodies displaying repertoires of behavior

:"The picture which emerges from a scientific analysis is not of a body with a person inside, but of a body which "is" a person in the sense that it displays a complex repertoire of behavior. . . . What is being abolished is autonomous man — the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity. His abolition has long been overdue. . . . Science does not dehumanize man, it de-homunculizes him." ["Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (New York: Bantam Vintage, 1972), pp. 190-191. By "homunculus," Skinner refers to what he would describe as a mistaken view that there is a "little man" inside one's head (a mind, soul, or will). See, for example, here.]

ee also

*Behavior Modification
*B.F. Skinner
*Verbal Behavior
*Walden Two
*Applied Behavior Analysis


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