Staddon, Rick and Responsibility

From Bruce Buchanan (950202.2140 EST)

Rick Marken (950130.1545) writes:

Here follows the first draft of a letter I'm
think of sending to the Atlantic as a reply to Staddon.

Perhaps a few comments from an occasional lurker not yet totally converted
to exclusively PCT views can provide feedback concerning possible
interpretations of Rick's draft article.

Staddon is wise to argue as he does, if nothing else for the sake of future
federal funding of behavioral research.

My immediate reaction is that this is gratuitous irony which suggest the
Staddon has ulterior motives. On rereading I realize that you are perhaps
making a more general comment on the political implications of the views he
is expressing, but I wonder if the point is not something of a diversion.

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.

This is not what I see Staddon doing. I think he is saying that Skinner's
behaviorism is a narrow view which is irrelevant to the social and moral
questions at issue. To note that Skinner cannot fight back suggests that
Staddon's argument might fall if Skinner were there to defend behaviorism,
which I think simply leads us astray. Staddon seeks gounds for personal
responsibility in other ways, i.e. in commitments to values beyond science
and to social and legal expectations. In any case I do not think this tack
advances the argument for PCT.

"Skinner's argument is
simply 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.

What Staddon actually says is: "It depends upon what you mean by 'freedom'.
The bottom line is that you're free _if you feel free_.

Granted, this is a greatly oversimplified statement on a complex matter. My
interpretation is that the primary appeal for evidence with respect to
freedom is to direct experience, not theory, and that one's individual
awareness of possible alternatives is the condition and foundation of
relationships in society. In contrast, Skinner's position is relatively
theory-laden i.e. freedom as the absence of aversive conditioning. These
are quite different levels of attempted justification - on the one hand
that of direct personal experience, and on the other that of a highly
theoretical model.

Staddon... does not want to reject the idea that the environment
controls behavior. . . . 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

Isn't this an overstatement? Staddon explicitly notes that heredity is
involved, and logically this would include all the mechanisms heredity
provides for and that nature-nuture interactions allow to develop.

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).

No, Staddon assumes and says that society and the law have an interest in
societal incentives - praise and blame, reward and punishment - and have
the view that the individual's knowledge of possible consequences may
influence his/her behavior, that this knowledge is required for
responsibility. These views have in fact developed over centuries of trying
to keep societies organized, and are not due to theories of psychology, the
scope of which is more limited. Where more is claimed for scientific
theories, Staddon says, the claimants are peddling not science but faith.

In another post Rick says:

A responsible person is one who can be regarded as the agentive "cause" of a
particular result. I take the word "behavior" to refer to a "controlled
result of action".

O.K., I think I understand this. However most people for practical
purposes also consider responsibility to involve social commitment (as in a
promise) and accountability for choices made, and believe that knowledge of
alternative consequences play some role in such choices. To try to
redefine the terminology to avoid dealing with these social and legal
aspects risks losing credibility and relevance in relation to an audience
not yet familiar with PCT.

PCT shows that the everyday notion of "responsibility" does apply to behavior
(control), but only in a relative manner. [etc.]

As I see it, even limited relativity, e.g. to higher levels of language and
social concepts (which set reference criteria at their own levels for lower
level action), may be quite sufficient to explain the usefulness of
everyday notions in controlling ordinary social behavior. I am not sure
whether there would be much disagreement with this view.

. . . All I meant to say is that an honest understanding of the
behaviorist model of human nature allows no room for seeing people as
responsible for (ie. the agentive cause of) the results of their actions.

Right, and I think Staddon says this has been the unfortunate effect of
behaviorist teachings within modern culture. I also think Staddon seeks to
sidestep the implications of this, e.g. by setting aside psychology as not
concerned with values (i.e. purposes and responsibility), and to that
degree irrelevant to social policy.

Control theory shows that people are "responsible", in a relative sort of
way. Control theory helps us understand, scientifically, notions like
"purpose", "intention" and "responsibility", that are only understood in an
intuitive way by lay people and behaviorists.

This, I think, might be the main theme of the most interesting commentary.
Staddon says, in effect, that the social and moral issues are beyond
psychology. But Rick says in effect (my words), that the insights of PCT
into behavior as the control of perception, with implications for
individual self-organization and autonomy, may give a more positive and
constructive approach to real understanding of the wellsprings of human

Control theory shows that "responsibility" is not such a simple notion. What
responsiblity "means" from a control theory perspective can really only be
gleaned by watching a hierarchical control systems in action. The meaning of
"responsibility" is in the model of hierarchical control.. . .

And perhaps if parents and others want a particular individual's control
systems to be such that they benefit both the individual and others in
society then they need to understand better the principles of formation of
hierarchical control systems, what are their special features, and their
limitations in regard to many commonly held expectations.

... "responsibility",... is really a synonym for purposefulness.

O.K., but from the points of view of others and society some purposes are
more "responsible" (e.g. those involving, say, promises made to others,
etc.) than purposes of individuals alone, so they are not always quite
synonymous. I suppose that this too depends upon the meanings assigned
within an individual's control hierarchy.

I am sure that's more than enough!

Cheers and best wishes to Rick and all.

Bruce B.