Behavior: Skinner's Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?

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"I've had only one idea in my life—a true idée fixe. To put it as bluntly as possible—the idea of having my own way. 'Control' expresses it. The control of human behavior. In my early experimental days it was a frenzied, selfish desire to dominate. I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects of my experiments, 'Behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!' "

—B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. 1948

THE speaker is T.E. Frazier, a character in Walden Two and the fictional founder of the Utopian community described in that novel. He is also an alter ego of the author, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who is both a psychology professor and an institution at Harvard. Skinner is the most influential of living American psychologists, and the most controversial contemporary figure in the science of human behavior, adored as a messiah and abhorred as a menace. As leader of the "behavioristic" psychologists, who liken man to a machine, Skinner is vigorously opposed both by humanists and by Freudian psychoanalysts. Next week that opposition is bound to flare anew with the publication of Skinner's latest book. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Knopf; $6.95). Its message is one that is familiar to followers of Skinner, but startling to the uninitiated: we can no longer afford freedom, and so it must be replaced with control over man, his conduct''and his culture. This thesis, proposed not by a writer of science fiction but by a man of science, raises the specter of a 1984 Orwellian society that might really come to pass. It accounts, also, for the alarm and anger that Skinner's current popularity arouses in his opponents.

Like the Utopians who preceded him, Skinner hopes for a society in which men of good will can work, love and live in security and in harmony. For mankind he wants enough to eat, a clean environment, and safety from nuclear cataclysm. He longs for a worldwide culture based on the principles of his famous didactic novel, Walden Two. Those principles include: communal ownership of land and buildings, egalitarian relationships between men and women, devotion to art, music and literature, liberal rewards for constructive behavior, freedom from jealousy, gossip, and—astonishingly—from the ideal of freedom. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in fact, is really a nonfiction version of Walden Two.

Disastrous Results

Skinner acknowledges that the concept of freedom played a vital role in man's successful efforts to overthrow the tyrants who oppressed him, bolstering his courage and spurring him to nearly superhuman effort. But the same ideal, Skinner maintains, now threatens 20th century man's continued existence. "My book,'' says Skinner, ''is an effort to demonstrate how things go bad when you make a fetish out of individual freedom and dignity. If you insist that individual rights are the summum bonum, then the whole structure of society falls down." In fact, Skinner believes that Western culture may die and be replaced, perhaps, with the more disciplined culture of the Soviet Union or of China. If that happens. Western man will have lost the only form of immortality he can hope for—the survival of his way of life.

Skinner's reasoning is that freedom and free will are no more than illusions;

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