What’s Freedom For? (Part II)   Leave a comment

B F Skinner

Years ago now, I remember furiously reading behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity on a plane.  I was making lots of notes and highlighting the text and writing exclamation points in the margins — at one point my seat-mate, who hadn’t spoken to me otherwise, asked  if I was prepping for a class.  I still have that copy, a cheap paperback, yellowing on my shelf.

But I wasn’t reading to complete an assignment.  I loathed Skinner’s conclusions, and I was gathering ammunition against them — all the false premises and counter-points and fallacies and over-generalizations I could muster. The most egregious of Skinner’s conclusions were that since — apart from genetics — we are machines controlled by our environment, there was no need to sustain delusional beliefs in freedom and dignity.  There is no such thing as an “autonomous” person who thinks and decides and chooses.  Any talk of political rights, a “soul,” consciousness, or freedom or any of a large number of other psychological states, was pointless, unfounded — an obstacle, in fact, to human progress.  We’re formed and motivated by reward and punishment, by reinforcement, Skinner claimed. And he asserted that a “science of human behavior” made designing any human culture we wished both a possibility and a demonstration of his conclusions.

A few years later I found out that linguist and critic Noam Chomsky had already done the job of demolition years before — 40 years ago, now — in a 1971 article in the New York Review of Books.  Chomsky takes Skinner down quite unapologetically:

Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

I mention my personal story here because at the time I didn’t feel “free” to ignore Skinner — another way of saying I didn’t want to.  My freedom in this case was a choice, though one strongly influenced by emotion.

Here’s why I didn’t feel free — why I “had to” critique Skinner — again in Chomsky’s words:

Noam Chomsky

There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. This much is not at issue, and the conclusion is consistent with a belief in “autonomous man.” If a tyrant has the power to require certain acts, whether by threat of punishment or by allowing only those who perform these acts to escape from deprivation (e.g., by restricting employment to such people), his subjects may choose to obey — though some may have the dignity to refuse. They will understand the difference between this compulsion and the laws that govern falling bodies.

Of course, they are not free. Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward. An increase in wages, in Marx’s phrase, “would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.” But it would be absurd to conclude merely from the fact that freedom is limited, that “autonomous man” is an illusion, or to overlook the distinction between a person who chooses to conform, in the face of threat or force or deprivation, and a person who “chooses” to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower.

The inference remains absurd even where we can predict the course of action that most “autonomous men” would select, under conditions of extreme duress and limited opportunity for survival. The absurdity merely becomes more obvious when we consider the real social world, in which determinable “probabilities of response” are so slight as to have virtually no predictive value. And it would be not absurd but grotesque to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable — as in a prison, for example, or the concentration camp society “designed” above — therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of “autonomous man.” When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a “scientific analysis,” one can only be amazed at human gullibility.

OK, there we have the arguments of two white Euro males.  We’re equally gullible, of course, when we think freedom is some absolute thing, so that if we “have” it, it can’t be “taken” from us  except by violating our “rights.”  Societies organize and provide some things at the cost of others.  It’s always a trade-off.  Security in exchange for loss of freedom of movement has been a hot-button issue for some time now, with gated communities, and recent talk of a fence across the southern U.S. border, with the Dept. of Homeland Security scanning us every time we want to fly on a plane, opening our luggage, and fondling our pill bottles and mini-toothpaste tubes.  Have I tried to take away your freedom by slanting my comments here, to influence you and nudge you in the direction I want, so I can manipulate you later on?  Do you have the freedom to stop reading right now, or send me a nasty message?  You know the answers.  But how valuable is that freedom?

Changing gears, we have the pop version of freedom in Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Here’s the chorus:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, no no
Yeah feeling good was easy Lord when he sang the blues
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

Is freedom “feeling good”?  To repeat, if we feel good, are we “free”?  After a medical misdiagnosis of mental illness, electroshock therapy cured my mother of some “delusions” that were actually caused by the onset of dementia, but I can’t ever say she was more free as a result.  Something in her shifted after that treatment.  It certainly sharpened the decline already under way.  It didn’t matter if she “felt good,” though of course I didn’t want to deprive her of whatever positives we could salvage from the situation.  In the other sense the song mentions, she was nearly “free.”  She had (almost) “nothing left to lose.”

But the song doesn’t exactly say that.  The lyrics assert, “Feeling good was easy when he sang the blues.”  In other words, if I have an antidote for my pain, or an outlet or expression for it like the Blues, it’s at least somewhat easier for me to feel good.  But actual freedom is a wash in this case, when I’m suffering.  Take away the suffering, and then I can begin to consider whether or not I’m “free.”  Until then, I got “nothing.”

The radically down and out, the homeless, the street crazies, the druggies — they’re free in many senses that I’m not.  Far fewer obligations, responsibilities, commitments, possessions.  Little of the self-building we do by putting on the right clothes, driving the right car, working at the right job, eating lunch with the right colleagues, and so on.  (I can see it start early, in school, with the cliques and claques and in-out groups.)

But I’m in no hurry for that kind of freedom, at least at the cost the homeless pay.

I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit in this post, rather than arguing closely toward a conclusion. Is that freedom?

More to come in Part III.

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