[From Rick Marken (950130.1545)]
I discovered an article in the February, 1995 _The Atlantic Monthly_ by John
Staddon. It is entitled "On Responsibility and Punishment" and the blurb for
the article reads as follows: "The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner
argued that punishment is bad and that the idea of individual responsibility
is a myth. The author takes exception". The author is described as the "James
B. Duke Professor of Psychology at Duke University" which leads me to believe
that John Staddon is one J.E.R. Staddon, who does operant conditioning
research at Duke and had a brief fling with PCT, which ended with the
discovery that there are "irreconcilable differences" between the operant
and PCT models of behavior. Here follows the first draft of a letter I'm
think of sending to the Atlantic as a reply to Staddon.
In his article "On Responsibility and Punishment" Staddon argues that the
findings of modern behavioral science are not inconsistent with the notion
that people should be held responsible for their actions and punished for
acting irresponsibly. Given the temper of the times, Staddon is wise to argue
as he does, if nothing else for the sake of future federal funding of
behavioral research. The new Republican majority in Congress is not likely to
relish paying for research aimed at identifying the environmental and
genetic factors that control behavior; even a freshman Congressman from the
wrong side of the Bell Curve can figure out just how responsible people are
for behavior they don't control. This same Congressman can probably also
figure out how eager a capital punishment-starved electorate will be to learn
that people are not responsible for what they do.
Staddon tries to put personal responsibility back into the behaviorist
picture of human nature by irresponsibly attacking B. F. Skinner, a
behaviorist who can no longer fight back. Skinner believed that psychological
research (his own and that done by the likes of John Staddon) had proved
environmental control of behavior beyond a reasonable doubt and he knew
what this meant: people are not responsible for what they do if what they do
is controlled by their environment. Staddon now says "Skinner's argument is
simply wrong". It is wrong, says Staddon, because people "feel free". Even
though people are not in control of what they do, they they can be held
responsible becuase they feel like they are.
I can personally confirm that I do _feel_ like I am free to do what I want; I
feel like I am in control of what I do. But I also feel like I am standing on
the flat surface of a stationary earth. If what we feel were the arbiter of
scientific fact, then Copernicus would be unknown today. The behaviorist
claim that the environment controls behavior is equivalent to the Copernican
claim that the earth turns on its axis as it rotates around the sun; if the
behaviorist claim is true, then we are not responsible for what we do, no
matter how much we feel that we are.
Staddon is trying to have his determinist cake and eat it (responsibly) too.
He wants to keep Skinner's mantle of environmental control and dispense with
its implications. Staddon apparently does not want to do the one thing that
would legitimately bring personal responsibility back into our understanding
of human nature: he does not want to reject the idea that the environment
controls behavior. Staddon doesn't want to do this because, in doing so, he
would be rejecting the foundations of his discipline; if the environment
does not determine behavior than a science of behavior would seem to be
impossible. According to Staddon (and Skinner) the alternative to
environmental control of behavior is unpredictability and caprice;
psychology becomes a crap shoot rather than a science.
In fact, the alternative to environmental control of behavior is not caprice;
it is behavioral control of the environment. This alternative view of of
behavior, which is called _control theory_, is already a well developed
science supported by a considerable mass of evidence. The control theory view
not only explains what it means for people to be responsible for what they
do, it also explains why it often looks (as it did to the behaviorists)
as though the environment is responsible for what people do.
Like Skinner, Staddon unconsciously accepts the control theory view of human
nature, but only for the select few who know the way people "should" behave.
For example, Staddon advocates the use of punishment because it "predictably
deters" behavior. Clearly, he believes that people can control because
deterring behavior is a way of controlling it. Staddon's article is full of
recommendations that would only make sense if they were being given to
people who could control. But Staddon's audience of controlling people is
invisible; Staddon's main concern is with the people to be controlled. People
who can be controlled must be different than Staddon and his audience; they
must be controllable. So Staddon assumes that all people can be controlled
(by the environment) so that he (and his audience) can control them (with the
threat of punishment). But just to make sure that we're punishing people who,
like us, are in control (are responsible for what they do) we add the magic
of _feeling free_.
It takes a mature science to admit that it's wrong; behavioral psychology has
a lot of growing up to do.