February 8, 2011
I spent much of high school trying not to be interested in ideas. I studied hard and made good grades, but I didn't hang out with the nerds. This was partly because hanging out with nerds wasn't cool and partly because the kind of intellectualism they exuded didn't enthrall me. They talked about Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche -- people I hadn't heard much about in my life as an Army brat and people my mildly anti-intellectual father would have disdained had anyone explained to him who they were.
Then my sister's husband (an aspiring psychologist whose preference for graduate school over employment my father wasn't wild about) suggested I read Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner.
As intellectuals go, Skinner was pretty dismissive of intellectuals -- at least the ones who blathered unproductively about "freedom" and "dignity," the ones he considered insufficiently hard-nosed and scientific.
Look, he said, people are animals. Kind of like laboratory rats, except taller. Their behavioral proclivities are a product of the positive and negative reinforcements they've gotten in the past. Want to build a better society? Discern the links between past reinforcement and future proclivity, and then adjust society's disbursement of reinforcements accordingly. No need to speculate about unobservable states of mind or ponder the role of "free will" or any other imponderables. Epistemology, phenomenology, metaphysics, and 25 cents will get you a ride on the New York subway.
This was my kind of intellectual -- an anti-intellectual intellectual! I became an ardent Skinnerian.
The ardor eventually faded. I ended up spending a fair amount of my writing career disagreeing with Skinner. He believed, for example, that people are almost infinitely malleable. In his utopian novel, Walden Two, he takes readers to a magical place where things like jealousy and envy are becoming relics of the primitive past, thanks to the masterful deployment of positive and negative reinforcement during childhood.
In high school, I bought into this view, but in college, a reference to the "socio-biology" controversy on the cover of Time magazine caught my eye, and I started looking into the Darwinian underpinnings of human behavior. This train of thought culminated -- about two decades after I encountered Skinner -- in my book The Moral Animal, a full-throated defense of evolutionary psychology.
The book wasn't unrelievedly anti-Skinnerian. Positive and negative reinforcement do shape us, and my Skinnerian roots led me to emphasize that fact much more than the average Darwinian. But natural selection has placed limits on how easy that shaping is. Jealousy can be tamed, but good luck killing it.
There is, though, one big Skinnerian theme to which I stayed true. It has to do with the "freedom" referred to in Skinner's title. Once you could explain an organism's behavior entirely as a product of genetic heritage and environmental history -- which Skinner considered doable in principle -- there's no behavior left to attribute to free will. So why obsess over the "culpability" of criminals? If you need to lock them up to keep society safe, fine, but don't pretend they "deserve" to suffer in some deep philosophical sense.
Here evolutionary psychology proved complementary to Skinner's view. It explained how natural selection had ingrained in us the intuition that wrongdoers deserve punishment, that their suffering somehow rights the moral scales. And once you've reduced a philosophical intuition to a mere instinct, a product of our species' natural history, its rightness, in my view, comes into question. So I've argued that punishment isn't a moral good in itself and is warranted only to the extent that it either keeps criminals off the street or deters would-be criminals. (Here, as elsewhere, my arguments haven't carried the day; the intrinsic goodness of retribution remains part of judicial doctrine.)
Perhaps my biggest departure from the Skinnerian line has been the time I've spent pondering things like free will and the mind-body problem, two probably related conundrums that I consider more challenging than, as I recall, Skinner did. But even this unSkinnerian fascination I probably owe to Skinner, because I had never given much thought to free will or consciousness until I watched with awe as he casually tossed them aside.
I've held on to the essential spirit of Skinner -- which, I now see, was also the spirit of my father. By that I don't mean anti-intellectualism as much as a bedrock pragmatism. Got a problem? Analyze it as cleanly as possible, and then, having seen its roots, solve it. And don't waste time dropping the names of any fancy French philosophers. This is still my basic view.