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We Are Not the Masters of Our Own Fates

Photo: Unknown photographer. B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department. 1950, Wikimedia Commons.

“I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.” — B.F. Skinner

.F. Skinner, a renowned American psychologist of the 20th century, is credited to be one of the founding fathers of behaviorism, the field of psychology concerned with understanding humans and animals by their behavior, rather than their cognitive processes.

Operant conditioning is the central epithet of Skinner’s theory of behaviorism. It may be defined as a method of learning where one’s behavior is modified by their environment. While Freud argued that “we are more than the sum of our parts”, Skinner essentially argued the opposite. According to Skinner, we are solely the product of our environment.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

In 1971, Skinner released a controversial book titled Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He argued that moral autonomy and free-will are an illusion, meaning that humans are essentially both a product and a slave to their environments.

The capstone of Skinner’s philosophy was that building better environments that promote prosocial behavior would produce a better society, rather than relying on humans to generate prosocial behavior via their own morality (since he believed that there was no such thing). Of the assertions Skinner made, three stand out as the cornerstones that contributed to this philosophy: 1) Humans are solely a product of their environments, 2) morality is externally generated by one’s environment, 3) humans do not possess free-will.

Are we simply the product of our environments?

Skinner argued that “although cultures are improved by people whose wisdom and compassion may supply clues to what they do or will do, the ultimate improvement comes from the environment which makes them wise and compassionate,” (Skinner, 1979). “What we consider ‘traits of character’ are really the culmination of a history of environmental reinforcement,” (Butler-Bowdon, 2017). This statement would hold true if individuals experienced an environment similarly. However, that isn’t always the case. For instance, a schizophrenic individual’s perception of reality can be vastly different from someone who is non schizophrenic. While this may be an extreme example, it questions Skinner’s postulation that the whole of one’s behavior can be determined solely by their environment. What this assumption suggests is that everyone’s perspective of reality is the same, so therefore, continuity will follow everyone’s interactions with it. Obviously, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, since one’s perception of their environment is a contributing variable to their response to it.

It isn’t anything novel that some children may experience the same up-bringing and the same hardships (or lack thereof), and evolve into two completely different people. Similarly reversed, research shows that monozygotic twins, who are separated at birth and raised apart from one another, have the same chance of being similar as twins who were raised together (Bouchard et al., 1990). While behaviorism is a fundamental member to understanding the whole of humanity, modern psychology understands that it isn’t the only one. Nature and nurture (or, in other words, one’s environment and biology) are equally necessary variables to understanding the human psyche. After all, if the whole of human psychology could be understood by an individual’s environmental stimuli, psychology would be considered a “hard science” of absolute laws, similar to chemistry and physics.

The issue of moral autonomy

Regarding the morality of humanity, “Skinner had to say this: ‘…man is not a moral animal in the sense of possessing a special trait or virtue, he has built a kind of social environment which induces him to behave in moral ways,’” (Butler-Bowdon, 2017).

History can account for the innumerable amount of individuals who have committed deeds in the name of their beliefs despite it going against the grain of their “social environments”. Take, for example, any renowned religious figure or follower in their day when they were a minority in their faith and faced persecution for it. Why would anyone be willing to sacrifice their material and social comforts, let alone their survival, if one’s social environment was the only thing that reinforced one’s sense of “right” and “wrong”? If an individual is only concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior that are defined by their subjective environment, then why would they rebel against that environment in the name of another “right” and “wrong” of their own invention? Ultimately however, if humanity is amoral in the sense of their own choosing that’s independent of their environment, why does the notion of there being (or not being) a “right” and “wrong” even exist in the first place? The fact that Skinner argues against the existence of morality while having knowledge of the concept of morality is itself an oxymoron, the equivalent of the self-refuting statement that “there is no absolute truth” being an absolute truth in of itself.

The issue of free-will

According to Merriam-Webster, free-will is defined as one’s voluntary choice or decision; moreover, the freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention (Free-will, n.d.).

Much like it’s dictionary definition, free-will, as it applies to humans (who are bound by the third-dimension and its physical laws), is the ability to make a choice of one’s own choosing when one has options to choose from. Arguably, that definition is as far as it will take us on the matter of how much free-will we as humans have. We understand that we can’t do whatever we want, such as walk through walls, because of the laws of physics as they apply to the dimension that we’re bound by. We can’t rob a convenience store in front of a cop without facing the consequences of the law, because of the society we live in (e.g. the presence of other “wills” than just our own). Those kinds of “options” aren’t available to us. The kinds of options that humans may have are contextual to the physical and social environment just as we are. Arguably, the only way for one to have absolute free-will would be if they were above all that, or in other words, “God”.

According to this definition of free-will, Skinner may be correct in his assertion that there is none; however, in the sense that humans cannot exercise free-will due to their environmental programming, Skinner misses the mark for the reasons previously argued.

Nature and nurture

The nature versus nurture debate is the question of whether human behavior is determined by the environment, either prenatal or during an individual’s life, or by their genes. While the debate has existed since the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, it wasn’t until the inclusion of behaviorism as a field of psychology that it received greater attention. B.F. Skinner’s research made immense contributions to modern psychology, but much like other fields within the discipline, it is only a single member of the larger animal of the human mind.

Bouchard, T., Lykken, D., McGue, M., Segal, N., & Tellegen, A. (1990). Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science, 250(4978), 223–228.

Butler-Bowdon, T. “B.F. Skinner: Beyond Freedom and Dignity” 50 Psychology Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on the mind, personality, and human nature. Nicholas Brealey, 2017.

Freewill. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/free%20will

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.

Psychology | Philosophy | Faith

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