Tag Archives: B F Skinner

B. F. Skinner and the inherent worth and dignity…

Notes from my week of study leave

The April 1, 2005, edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good essay on the work of B. F. Skinner by David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington. Barash reflects, among other things, on how it is that we can see ourselves as we truly are:

The problem is not simply one of seeing ourselves as others see us, but as we really are. Thus for a long time the best view in the city of Warsaw has been from the top of the Ministry of Culture. Why? Because this is practically the only place in that otherwise appealing city from which it is impossible to see the Ministry of Culture (a thoroughly regrettable example of Stalinist architecture at its worst). By the same token, we all see the world from the ministry of our own perceptions, having only this very limited viewpoint from which to see ourselves.

It was Skinner who identified, more clearly than anyone before — or after — the key stumbling block for those of us trying to see ourselves accurately; namely, a reluctance to countenance that human actions are caused, because the more causation, the less credit. ‘We recognize a person’s dignity or worth,’ writes Skinner, ‘when we give him credit for what he has done. The amount we give is inversely proportional to the conspicuousness of the causes of his behavior. If we do not know why a person acts as he does, we attribute his behavior to him. We try to gain additional credit for ourselves by concealing the reasons why we behave in given ways or by claiming to have acted for less powerful reasons.’ Ironically, there is something flattering and legitimizing in actions or thoughts that spring unbidden from our ‘self’ — whatever that may be — and that aren’t otherwise explicable. By the same token, the more our actions are caused, the less are we credited for them.

Skinner, again: ‘Any evidence that a person’s behavior may be attributed to external circumstances seems to threaten his dignity or worth. We are not inclined to give a person credit for achievements which are in fact due to forces over which he has no control. We tolerate a certain amount of such evidence, as we accept without alarm some evidence that a man is not free. No one is greatly disturbed when important details of works of art and literature, political careers, and scientific discoveries are attributed to ‘influences’ in the lives of artists, writers, statesmen, and scientists respectively. But as an analysis of behavior adds further evidence, the achievements for which a person himself is to be given credit seem to approach zero, and both the evidence and the science which produces it are then challenged.’ And not only achievements: The quotidian events of normal living also qualify.”

Isn’t that an interesting reflection on our much-used phrase “inherent worth and dignity”? That phrase — “inherent worth and dignity” — is one we Unitarian Universalists toss around without really thinking about it. I strongly believe that the real task of congregations is to do theology — which means to reflect carefully on our religious faith, to reflect carefully on words and phrases and texts we use regularly.

David Barash shows us that the phrase “inherent worth and dignity” must lead us to reflections on free will, consciousness and subjectivity, and the mind/body “split.” But read it for yourself, and then start really thinking about what Unitarian Unviersalists mean when they off-handedly mention “the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals — what does that actually mean?!

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