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Beyond Freedom and Dignity
– B. F. Skinner

“Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.” 

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”. [From: Wikipedia.com]

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. ” 

One of the most controversial figures in the history of psychology, the name ‘BF Skinner’ still has the power to create controversy. Recently, the book Opening Skinner’s Box (Lauren Slater) revived the story of the great psychologist’s infant daughter having been raised in a sterile enclosed plastic crib – which in later life turned her insane and led to her suicide.

In fact, Deborah Skinner was alive and well and living in London, and in a newspaper story recounted a happy childhood and devoted father. The crib was designed to free up infant movement, and had done her no harm. Her father’s actual term for it was a ‘baby tender’, but it had been confused with the apparatus used in his experiments with animals, the ‘Skinner box’.

The subtext of most Skinner stories is that he saw humans as no different to animals, and to some extent this was true. Even as a young psychology graduate student he had rebelled against what he saw as the romantic idea that human action was the result of inner emotions, thoughts and drives (the ‘psyche’). Rather, as Pavlov’s work had indicated, humans should be analyzed as physical beings interacting with their environment.

Yet in his theory of ‘operant behavior’, Skinner went beyond Pavlov. Humans were not simply reflexive machines, but also changed their actions according to the consequences of their behavior. This philosophical distinction allowed for the incredible variety of human difference, while allowing adhesion to the behaviorist line that humans were basically creatures of their environment.

John B Watson may have been Behaviorism’s founder, but Skinner became its most famous exponent, partly because he was a brilliant experimenter (pigeons were to Skinner as dogs were to Pavlov) but also because he could write. His combination of technical skill and a desire to see the big, philosophical picture was unusual, the result being esteem by his peers and the production of best-selling books that made people think.

In the United States, Beyond Freedom & Dignity was controversial from the start, and it is no wonder: not only did it say that the ethos of the individual, upon which America rested, was philosophical hogwash, but that the ethos would end up destroying the planet. [From: Butler-bowdon.com]

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.” 

In this profound and profoundly controversial work, a landmark of 20th-century thought originally published in 1971, B. F. Skinner makes his definitive statement about humankind and society.

Insisting that the problems of the world today can be solved only by dealing much more effectively with human behavior, Skinner argues that our traditional concepts of freedom and dignity must be sharply revised. They have played an important historical role in our struggle against many kinds of tyranny, he acknowledges, but they are now responsible for the futile defense of a presumed free and autonomous individual; they are perpetuating our use of punishment and blocking the development of more effective cultural practices. Basing his arguments on the massive results of the experimental analysis of behavior he pioneered, Skinner rejects traditional explanations of behavior in terms of states of mind, feelings, and other mental attributes in favor of explanations to be sought in the interaction between genetic endowment and personal history. He argues that instead of promoting freedom and dignity as personal attributes, we should direct our attention to the physical and social environments in which people live. It is the environment rather than humankind itself that must be changed if the traditional goals of the struggle for freedom and dignity are to be reached.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity urges us to re-examine the ideals we have taken for granted and to consider the possibility of a radically behaviorist approach to human problems-one that has appeared to some incompatible with those ideals, but which envisions the building of a world in which humankind can attain its greatest possible achievements. [From: Amazon.com]

“The only geniuses produced by the chaos of society are those who do something about it. Chaos breeds geniuses. It offers a man something to be a genius about.” 


The book is organized into nine 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.”


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 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…”


Dignity is the process by which people are given credit for their actions, 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.”

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.

Skinner argues that this misunderstanding 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.”


Skinner notes a ‘pre-scientific’ view of man allows for personal achievement. The ‘scientific view’ moves human action to be explained by species evolution and environmental history 

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.

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 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. 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. 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. Skinner notes that ‘behavior modification’ is ethically neutral.

Skinner notes that Utopian speculations, like his novel Walden Two are a kind of cultural engineering. 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. 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”. Skinner addresses the issue of mechanical models of human action, which are better addressed elsewhere. 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.” [From: Wikipedia.com]

“No one asks how to motivate a baby. A baby naturally explores everything it can get at, unless restraining forces have already been at work. And this tendency doesn’t die out, it’s wiped out.” 

About the Author:
B. F. Skinner
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Burrhus Frederic Skinner was a highly influential American psychologist, author, inventor, advocate for social reform and poet. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. He invented the operant conditioning chamber, innovated his own philosophy of science called Radical Behaviorism, and founded his own school of experimental research psychology – the experimental analysis of behavior. His analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior, which has recently seen enormous increase in interest experimentally and in applied settings. He discovered and advanced the rate of response as a dependent variable in psychological research. He invented the cumulative recorder to measure rate of responding as part of his highly influential work on schedules of reinforcement. In a recent survey, Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. He was a prolific author, publishing 21 books and 180 articles. [From: Goodreads.com]

“A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.” 

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