Guests: Frankel, Charles; Kennedy, Eugene; Skinner, B.F.
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Charles Frankel, BF Skinner and Father Eugene Kennedy
Title: “The Limits of Human Freedom”
Good evening, I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Many years ago I was privileged to edit the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic volumes on Democracy in America. And what particularly intrigued me as I attempted briefly to introduce this brilliant assessment of a negative impact of a quality upon freedom, the tyranny of the majority, what for me emerged singularly from his text was the degree to which Tocqueville saw man’s fate as his own, his destiny awaiting his own creation. As he wrote, “I am aware that many of my contemporaries maintain that nations are never their own masters here below, and that they necessarily obey some insurmountable and unintelligent power rising from anterior events, from their race, or from the soil and climate of their country. Such principles are false and cowardly. Such principles could never produce ought but feeble men and pusillanimous nations”. Yet he wrote, “Providence had not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free. It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced, beyond which he cannot pass. But within the wide dirge of that circle he is powerful and he is free. As it is with men, so with communities”. Well, that mix of freedom and determinism has always fascinated me. What indeed are the limits of human freedom? Where in the constellation of human will and behavior is that fatal circle traced beyond which men cannot pass, within which he is powerful and free? Today perhaps more than ever before this question is a matter of deep personal concern for many of us. Indeed, the degree to which it is may be told in the extraordinarily heated reception that was afforded the publication just a few years ago of BF Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and in the continuing debate about the book and the man. Well, the man is here in the studio with me now. But our program is not, may I note, to be ad hominem. It is about the limits of human freedom. And it begins with an idea, not a person. Although this is clearly the time for me to introduce the three men who have come to join me in our discussion today.
First, Professor BF Skinner, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and author, among many other books, of World in Two, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and most recently, About Behavioralism. Then, my second guest is Father Eugene C. Kennedy, Professor of Psychology at Loyola University, author also, among many other books, most recently, of one on the nature of belief and its role in our lives. And that book is called Believing. Third, Professor Charles Frankel, Old Dominion Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University, author and editor of many books such as The Case for Modern Man, the Democratic Prospect. And Dr. Frankel has been prominent in the world of political and international affairs too, particularly as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. And I suppose the most appropriate question to begin this discussion might well be whether the title is appropriate, whether we dare think the unthinkable, whether there are indeed limits to human freedom. Perhaps one of you would care to begin. Dr. Skinner?
Skinner: Well, it’s so hard to define freedom that to measure it, see how far it extends, where one could cut it off and say it goes no further would be a particularly difficult thing. I like to distinguish between our feelings of freedom, which I think are extraordinarily important, and life without a feeling of freedom would be unlivable; and the scientific case, whether or not human behavior is indeed free in any literal sense, or whether it is caused, as de Tocqueville says, by genetic endowment, the product of a long history of the evolution of the species, and by the life of the individual member of that species from birth to the present moment, and by the present situation. I, myself, I should make quite clear, believe that our search for some reason to hold to that kind of freedom is to a considerable extent simply a measure of our ignorance. And the time which has elapsed between de Tocqueville and the present has, I believe, narrowed the circle very considerably by revealing kinds of control of with he was not aware. I would say the Freud made a very great contribution here. I don’t like the Freudian mental apparatus, but Freud did reveal kinds of orderliness and behavior that have been dismissed as accidental caprice. I think we’ve gone beyond that by studying the relation between behavior and the environment of the individual which, although it cannot of course ever be said to prove that there are not elements of freedom in the system, make it reasonable to me to proceed on the assumption that man is not in that sense free, and to ask what are the sources of the feelings of freedom which are so important to us.
Heffner: Dr. Frankel?
Frankel: Well, I think I would approach it a little bit, really very differently from Professor Skinner. In part, the question of freedom is the question of the limits on human choice. And we have to begin by seeing that if there were no limits on human choice, we couldn’t make any intelligent. If there were no costs, no obstacles, if it didn’t make any difference what happened, if there were no independent factors in the world which affected the results of the choices we make, why, our freedom would be as meaningless as anything else. We’d live in a chaotic world. So that the fact that there are limits to human choice doesn’t seem to me in itself to say we can’t be free. The freedom and the limitedness are related. The next question is, is to what extent at these limits limits that we don’t like, can’t do anything about. And here I do believe, perhaps more strongly than dr. skinner, in this sense, that we’re not free. We are mortal creatures. We range between five feet and, these days, seven feet high. We come into the world at a time not of our choice. We mature and under the impulsion of imperious drives. We die not at our desire, but the powers that be. And any freedom we have must be a freedom within these limits.
Now, the rest is red herring. When one starts talking about the fact that all our behavior is caused, that doesn’t mean that all our behavior is coerced, nor does it mean that all our behavior is controlled. There are all sorts of variations here. But broadly speaking, I would think the important distinction not make is the practical one between voluntary and involuntary behavior. If you go into a courtroom and you want to distinguish between a mature person who commits arson, who isn’t crazy, who isn’t sick, who says, “I know what i was doing and I did it to make money”, and a child of six who, by lighting a match, burned down a building, you make distinctions in terms of knowing and ignorant behavior, voluntary and involuntary behavior, or someone does it in a rage, as against doing it with premeditation. All of these distinctions are absolutely necessary to human life. We will all go on talking this way. And they’re not illusions. We must go on talking this way. They are no more illusory than…the fact that science says everything is caused has nothing to do with the question of whether some behavior is voluntary and some is involuntary in this sense. All behavior can be caused, but someone can do something knowingly and intentionally and deliberately, or someone can do something ignorantly, impulsively and the like, and that’s why I think all the rest is red herring.
Now, how much of our behavior is voluntary and how much is involuntary? I think that’s the great struggle. I think that’s what Tocqueville’s talking about. Within this rather narrow circle with which we have choices, human dignity consists of making as much of our behavior voluntary as possible. And I don’t think dignity and freedom are bypassed by science. Now, I don’t think you do either.
Heffner: Father Kennedy?
Kennedy: I suppose I look at this with a kind of a compassionate, somewhat pastoral glance as well as a scientific one. I think that the question is a crucial one in everybody’s life, and I think that the, if you look at man and listen to man, I suppose that is one of the functions of philosophers and scientists. I’ve always felt human beings are trying to tell us the truth about themselves basically. And our task is to listen very carefully and try to be as sensitive as we can to the signals and messages to try to put some order into this kind of a discussion. And I think that we find men revealing one of the things we find him telling is all the time is that he is trapped. That his behavior is in some way limited. That whatever world view you take or whatever basic image you have of man, we realize the enormity of his struggle to understand what is going on and why and what forces impel him. And that it is only as we begin to read the symbols, it is only as we begin to hear what he is saying, which may be very different from what it looks like or what he claims to be doing or saying, that we get beneath the level of some kind of argument about it and begin to understand something about man and this long, very difficult effort, it seems to me, to experience his freedom. Now, that’s very complex, and we’re only at the beginning, it seems to me, of understanding just how many pressures are there and how this works and that the highest function of intelligent men is to try to understand this with as much sensitivity as we possibly can, this great search for the experience of freedom and responsibility, as Professor Skinner speaks about.
One of the things that I admire in his work is that he is making room for the feelings of freedom or for anyone’s philosophy of freedom, but he is also trying to present us with an orderly way of dealing with human behavior. This very complex thing that’s acted out in a thousand different ways and that is the most fascinating and most challenging thing we have to understand. And although I think we are just dealing with the beginnings of it, we need to do this in a very systematic and compassionate way. That’s the way I would…
Heffner: Well, gentlemen, we don’t want to make it one, two, three around. Please, a discussion at your own discretion. But Professor Skinner, you…
Skinner: Well, I would like to respond to Charles Frankel. I make the distinction between things we say we have to do and the things we say we want to do or like to do. And I would suppose that both of them involve choice, because we can refuse to do the things we have to do and suffer the consequences, or we can, and we can refuse to do things we want to do if there are other reasons. But the difference, from the scientific point of view, is a very important one. Because the difference between whether we are acting to escape from some aversive situation of the threat of one, or whether we are acting to produce what I would call a reinforcing or rewarding situation, and those are very important differences, because they are differences not only in why we behave, but in how we feel about our behavior. WE FEEL FREE WHEN WE ARE DOING THINGS WE ARE REINFORCED FOR DOING IN A POSITIV WAY. We feel unfree and coerced when we have to act to escape from a very strong punitive or coercive situation. Choice to me, it seems to me to be the red herring here though, because in the case of a single act, you have choice. You can act or not to act. The choice does not mean two possibilities or any large number of possibilities. The whole issue of choice reduces to a single instance. Do you or do you not behave in a different way. And if you look for the reasons why, then I think you find that they are classified in two different ways. And it’s not exactly distinctly voluntary or involuntary; it’s whether our behavior is aversive or positively reinforced. And I think this is the main thing, because if people have in the past reinforced us through the threats of force o force itself, and we have been refused, we don’t tolerate that and attack those who control us, that’s fine. But then the would-be controller shifts to the kinds of control which we do not resist, then we’re in real danger. I’ve done as much as I can do to make clear the controlling power of the things we want to do.
Frankel: Well, I think this is probably the, certainly the biggest difference between us, Professor Skinner. But it is also the question that is raised by your views, and that leads, I think, to their misunderstanding. You quite properly, I think, don’t like people being in pain or being punished. And I don’t either. But I think you turn a great many things on this moral concern. And I think your work has demonstrated how much more we can accomplish by bringing up people through rewards than through punishment. And about this there’s no argument. But the argument comes when you deal with freedom as an inner or subjective feeling that people have when they’re doing what they want to do. I can have – we’ll come to the question of choice – but in ordinary English and in ordinary situations I often do what I want to do and feel fine doing it, but in fact have no choice but to do it. And it isn’t free. I’m if I’m exhausted – take a simple question – I’m exhausted and I want to go to sleep and I can’t keep my eyes open, I mean, I don’t have a choice. Nevertheless, go to sleep. It feels great. I’m doing what I want to do. But it’s not a free act. That’s a bodily, clearly-determined act.
Now, there are many things that I can do that I really don’t like to do, like doing my duty, very often, which I do, and it seems to me I don’t really feel free, but I had a genuine choice. It seems to me the same problem that you raised before now comes up in terms of if the choice, if the alternative that I choose can itself be explained in terms of some causal mechanism, then I haven’t really made a choice. But the fact is that if there’s a glass of whiskey here and a glass of water, and there they are, that is empirically, scientifically a quite different situation from just having the water. A convict in jail isn’t free to drink whiskey. Now, maybe he loves water. Maybe he was brought up so that that’s what he wants. But you can’t say he’s free. And this seems to me always a problem, that you look inside the cranium and say, “How does he feel”? But you won’t look at the world. There are millions of people in the world who have no choice but to do what they want to do. And while they may be happy, they’re not free.
Heffner: but that does raise the…excuse me.
Frankel: I would always look at the world. I don’t look in the cranium at all.
Skinner: Well, I mentioned feelings only because people force me to do so, as a matter of fact.
Frankel: Well, isn’t there a difference though between having the glass of water on the table and having the glass of water and the glass of whiskey?
Skinner: Oh yes, of course. And you asked what it means to be free in a specified situation. And to be free in that situation is very different from being free in a different situation of course. And whether you are able to act in a given way, this is an important question.
Heffner: But if you gentlemen resolve your difference or if you do not, what are the consequences of the two approaches. In terms of, Professor Frankel, you raised the question of the world outside perhaps. You’re talking about millions of people. And I know from what Dr. Skinner has said to me before, he is very much concerned with the fate of freedom in the world and the degree to which we can appropriately understand the role of freedom as we go into the 21st century. What are the implications? What can you…?
Frankel: Well, I think the difference is that there is a notion of freedom abroad in the world, which consists in defining it as a feeling good or feeling righteous or not feeling any inner split or division or alienation. It’s a feeling of auscheloss, you know, no barriers. Now, that feeling on one side leads, I think, to a kind of life of impulse, and on the other to a kind of totally planned society in which people fix it so that you will want to do what you ought to do every day of your life. It seems to me the life of freedom has many disagreeable features to it, the most disagreeable being choosing. But I believe in it. I like it. I prefer it. And in any case, we oughtn’t confuse that with feeling good or doing what one wants to do.
Skinner: Well, I wouldn’t call it the feelings have any causal efficacy at all. They are by-products. That’s why I want to look at the contingencies and the individual history which are responsible, as far as I can see, in deciding whether a person does this or that. And that would mean his personal history, a genetic history, and the momentary situation. Now, I can’t, I’m certain i…
Frankel: Dr. Skinner, it does sound funny to say, “Well, feelings don’t have any efficacy at all”. A man feels very strongly about a woman and jumps off the bridge because she’s jilted him, in normal English, it was his feelings that made him do this. Now, why…
Skinner: Ah, no. it was the jilt that did it. The jilt did two things…
Frankel: But the jilt wasn’t physical.
Skinner …it made him jump off the bridge and made him feel awful.
Frankel: But the jilt wasn’t physical.
Frankel: The jilt was not physical. It was a blow to his pride or to his love or to his desires or feelings.
Skinner: Oh, I think what you describe is physical. She said, “No, I won’t marry you. Thought I promised to, I’m not going to marry you”. So that…
Frankel: And it’s those words turds in the air.
Skinner: I would think that’s entirely a physical stimulus. And he then, two things then happen to him. Some of them he would describe to you as his feelings, and others you describe when you describe the jump off the bridge. The episode in his life which caused him to jump is the episode which caused him to have the feelings.
Frankel: but cats don’t jump off bridges because they’re broken hearted.
Skinner: I don’t think anyone jumped off a bridge because of a broken heart.
Skinner: You don’t even, not literally, you don’t mean that. But I want to know why the heart broke and why the jump took place. And I suspect it would be just one cause for both.
Frankel: You see, I bet you take feelings as seriously as I do, but to you they’re kind of illusions.
Skinner: No, I don’t. They’re not granted any causal efficacy on the part of feelings. They are by-products, they can be extraordinarily strong. And since they’re the first thing you see in your own behavior, you’re likely to take them as causes of the behavior.
Frankel: Could i meet you halfway and say it depends on what language you speak? If one wishes to speak in another language, legal language, where all these things, or a moral language, all these things have reality, fine. If one wishes to speak behavioral language…
Skinner: No, I won’t…
Frankel: …then these become secondary. But you won’t meet me halfway.
Skinner: …I won’t say that. No, I won’t. I won’t subscribe to that at all.
Heffner: But what are the consequences of this disagreement between the two of you for the rest of us mere mortals?
Skinner: Of course that’s the main issue. I think which position is going to help us do something about the problems which face us in the world today? Are we going to solve problems by changing people’s feelings? Or are they going to solve them by changing the situation which has given rise to these feelings? This is the thing…
Frankel: Well, I take issue…
Skinner: Well, I think that to change the situation will change both. You change the feelings and what is done about it. But it’s very dangerous to enjoy one’s feelings too much in trying to solve a social problem. I am very much concerned about our present focusing on the man, Richard Nixon, for example. I think he’s an evil man. I’ll be quite frank in saying that. And if I could push a button that would get him out of the White House, I’d push the button, certainly. But the thing that’s important is not Nixon or his character or his evil character, but the situation that makes a man like that able to do those things. And that is what we should not overlook. Because unless we change the political system that permits a man to arrive in that position, we’ve made no progress whatsoever. Simply getting rid of that man isn’t going to make a big difference.
Frankel: Well, behaviorism isn’t going to tell you what political system will avoid that situation. I mean, we don’t know what political situation will keep scoundrels out.
Kennedy: Well, I have great sympathy for Professor Frankel’s viewpoint from my tradition, naturally. And I understand freedom as a value, and I think most people perceive it as a value, and we all hold it as a value that we would like to see extended and so forth. But I can also see that we have very confused ways of talking about freedom and very, it’s very unsatisfactory for most people to talk about i in a mystical way or in a rhetorical or a romantic way. And I think that from my reading of Professor Skinner, he’s saying there is an orderly way of approaching the study of behavior which allows us, without collapsing any of the things that people perceive as values or live by as values, we can still study behavior, what people do, study the environment and the contingencies which we know a little about in so many of these circumstances which produce these things. And then if we did that, we would indeed be able to design environments which would be more congenial to mankind and to the fruition of the kind of values that other people would identify, we would identify, as human. I was leaving Chicago this morning, I couldn’t help but think, as I drove along that expressway which was cleft through the city and therefore made a permanent environment of alienation for dozens of black project dwellers who have no way of escaping that environment. They are not free in any way. That is a permanent environment that truncates what we would speak about…
Frankel: That’s right.
Kennedy: …congealing and familiar philosophical and theological terms as their humanity. Now, that makes sense to me, that you can understand how their lives are under the control of that environment. How politically, economically, and every other way, it makes a good deal of sense for me to say there’s a way that we can understand that and do something about it. And that to me is where trying to blend something of these traditions becomes an urgent matter. And I think that we can preach for freedom and people can easily get up and arouse people one way or the other. We’ve all seen that in our educational experience. But to do something that isn’t just going to make way for the next highway because the conditions have remained unchanged, is, that’s the story of most revolutions.
Heffner: Well, of course, the question that occurs to me, and I wonder how you gentlemen respond to it, is whether we have not done ourselves a disservice in this century in putting quite so much emphasis upon the tradition of freedom. I think you touch upon this quite appropriately, Professor Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and I guess I particularly am concerned here with Father Kennedy and Professor Frankel on this. Have we…Dr. Frankel, you were talking before about the limits on freedom. You mentioned them, you enumerated many of them. But what happens after you enumerate them? Mustn’t you conclude that the continuing teaching experience or learning experience in our schools in which freedom is untrammeled, it is a limitless affair, doesn’t this prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we must take as we move into this.
Frankel: Well, I think liberty is a, or freedom is a value which has to be measured against other values. And one has tradeoffs, and one balances and weighs. But it is a value, and it isn’t a mere subjective illusion of…
Let me go to your first question, Professor Heffner. I do think there is a kind of idolatry or delusion of freedom that many of us have been guilty of in the modern world. That is the notion that man will something, and if he can get the knowledge he can then accomplish it. The notion that we live in a world in which there are unintended consequences, in which there are contingencies, doesn’t really penetrate. For instance, take the case of psychological conditioning. I don’t think any psychology, no matter how complete – and behaviorism is a program that’s not yet complete – but no psychology, no matter how complete, can eliminate human conflict insofar as, for example, there were shortages of resources. And I don’t think there is any way in this world of getting around shortages of resources. If it’s only two men fighting for one woman or what have you. People’s interests collide and conflict. People’s arcs of growth, however one may grow up, don’t necessarily fit the institutions that the best of societies can provide. So that there is this tragedy in human life, and there is this limit to what human beings can do. And I do think one of the heresies of our time, if I may borrow a word…
Skinner: The hazards…
Frankel: (Laughter)…is, one of the heresies of our time is the notion that there is just no limit to human possibility. But the other side of the thing is that within this limited world freedom is responsible for, I think, our noblest achievements, responsible for the zest and adventure and lightness of life, and responsible for the feeling of responsibility for what happens, which is an ennobling feeling, and which is a feeling that you have to call upon, anyone has to call upon. We can’t feel responsible if we’re not free. And then, if I may say so, politically and socially, the best antidote to a Richard Nixon that I know is an independent legal system an independent press, free citizens who can say, “Get the rascal out”. And I don’t know any theory, scientific or otherwise, that can guarantee us political leaders who won’t be rascals. The theory on which our own society is based seems to me a very substantially sound one. And that is that to a very considerable extent the lust for power drives professional political figures, and they have to be watched all the time. And if you think of people who devote their lives to politics, while there are some very good men in the crowd, this is a temptation. So I don’t think we have any mystery of how to control it. The idea is to find the rascals and get them out. The much more difficult problem is what to do about that slum area in Chicago.
Kennedy: Most interesting is the fact that I find most people…what is the average person’s experience of this question? And many of the people with whom I deal in one way or another tell me all the time, following that principle that i do believe people are trying to tell the truth about themselves, that they are not free.
Frankel: Uh hum. They’re not.
Kennedy: They’ve found life is full of restrictions. It’s full of hobbling events, inner and outer circumstances. They feel that they have freely chosen to live in the suburbs, and the next thing they feel they are trapped in the suburbs or trapped in this job or that they have lost this freedom. There are all kinds of sides to this that can be explored in this way in terms of the value of freedom. To make a commitment means naturally that you make a choice of various values. Give up certain freedoms, but achieve what people would experience as some wholeness, as you were suggesting before, or a sense of inner command of their lives. But ordinarily to do that and to live in any way in a society where we want to make that available for as many people as possible, we have to do something about the environment in which they live. I think…
Frankel: I think people are objectively trapped. I mean, a poor man decides to drop out of school, a kid, and he goes to work. When he’s 25 or 30 he says, “Why didn’t I go to school?” but now it’s too late. He’s got a wife, two kids, and the institutions don’t provide the opportunity. But they could.
Heffner: But both of you seem to be saying he becomes trapped, he loses the freedom. And what, where is that freedom in the first place?
Kennedy: he expresses a sense of being trapped.
Frankel: Yeah, that’s how he talks about it.
Skinner: We need to look at the traps. I quite agree on the importance of free press, free speech. And I believe you’re right that in our present system noting but constant criticism will prevent the misuse of the power our Constitution does permit a person to take. However, that is not going to design a better structure. And you apparently feel that no design is possible, and since this is your field I’d better shut up on that.
Frankel: No, I’d love to hear. I mean, I need to know. (Laughter)
Skinner: Let me take your other point about the shortage. We have shortages and the world is moving toward a very acute shortage at this present time. There are people starving in various parts of the world. We have food here at the moment. This does not pose a behavioral problem. How can you get 200 million Americans to eat only a basic diet so that now what they now overeat and waste could go to feed – as it could – 800 million other people? Now, I submit that that is going to call for some controls. We’re not going to get this from anyone’s free exercise of judgment or conference or sense of ethics or anything else. It’s going to take a lot of education. It may very well take economic controls, price chain manipulation and so on. It may take governmental controls and so on.
Frankel: Oh, of course.
Skinner: and so we are dealing here with…
Frankel: And it may not work anyway.
Skinner: Well, it probably won’t. But we are dealing with very few choices concerning human freedom. Now, if you are really laissez-faire and believe that a person has a right to raise and eat or buy and eat as much as he likes without respect to what’s happening in the rest of the world, then we’ll go on as we are now, there’ll be fantastic starvation in various parts of the world, and something will break somewhere and we’ll suffer other kinds of consequences.
Frankel: Well, I’m not defending laissez-faire. That’s part of my problem, you see. I think in at least some of our social views we’re very much alike. And therefore I’m a little puzzled as to what is the difference between us, you see. I don’t feel I have to deny the reality of freedom in order to say that under certain conditions it’s desirable to abridge or limit it. For example, the marketplace, or the tax system, or what have you. So I simply say it’s a value and sometimes we have to give it up. But you seem to think it’s an illusion.
Skinner: Well, I want to know what’s left after you’ve gotten rid of the educational effects and you’ve taught people to clean their plates and so on, when you have imposed taxes on foods and prices have gone up, when you’ve made it illegal for restaurants to serve portions beyond a certain size to people and all of that kind of thing, what is left?
Frankel: The black market to start with.
Skinner: You mean you call that freedom?
Frankel: Well, i…in your sense. I mean, that is, people will choose to disobey the law. All of this isn’t going to change that. Now, if they don’t’ find…but the fact is that I was brought up to clean my plate. I was brought up to do the dishes after dinner. I don’t always do the dishes after dinner. And I was very strongly conditioned to do the dishes after dinner. People still don’t do what they’re told to. (Laughter)
Skinner: Oh, there’s no question about that.
Heffner: Would it be fair, if I may, Professor Skinner, to ask Professor Frankel a question? Would it be fair or unfair if one were to observe that perhaps given the agreement in terms of social objectives between you and Dr. Skinner, and I suspect Father Kennedy too, that what’s left is an unwillingness to abandon the rhetoric of freedom?
Frankel: Well, all right. But I don’t think it’s rhetoric. I think my choices are, in certain key areas, are mine to make. I want the feeling, but I want more than the feeling. I want the reality. I don’t want o be told or forced into marrying her, not her; into going to this school, not that school. One need merely compare modern free societies with most of the societies that have existed in human history to see that historically, sociologically, and quite objectively, just as objectively as anything that happens in an artificially arranged laboratory, I have choices about whom to marry, what jobs to perform, how I shall live, what i shall read, who my friends shall be, all of that. All of these things seem to me absolutely crucial to the feeling of life, and not only the feeling of life but achievements like the Sistine Chapel, Spinoza’s Epics.
Heffner: But if you teach your students that – and you did when I was your student – aren’t you making it less and less possible for those of us who sit at your feet than to deal adequately with the kinds of crises that Professor?
Frankel: Oh, I see your point. Now, I think that maybe i should say something very briefly. I think the planners have shown themselves to be asses in this century. They’ve also shown themselves very often to be terribly cruel and ruthless. But the best ones of them have shown themselves to be asses. Now, behaviorism has never been tried. So that would leave out Professor Skinner and the like. (Laughter) but the ones who’ve had some power and have tried to plan have usually not known what they were doing. And they have had hubris and arrogance and thought they knew what they were doing. I have a great deal of skepticism, and I do them to instill in my own students, in their own self-defense (laughter) and in mine, a certain amount of skepticism about the planners. Now, do we need planning? Of course we need planning. The free market has also not worked well. There are all sorts of obligations we have in the world that can only be done through planning. But I would want to write into all those plans, even at the expense of the inefficiency, the strongest vetoes, the most checking and balancing of powers, and in this sense I don’t think there’s a mystery about getting ourselves a better political system. Our political system has perhaps too many vetoes. Perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t let anybody have enough power. But on the whole, if you must err, I will err on that side because the record of the people who have known what the human race needed and they were prepared to do it has been execrable, not only in this century. Churches and everybody else. I don’t trust the ones who know what’s good for their fellow man.
Kennedy: Well, I think I’d agree with that. I am very wary of do-gooders, and we’ve suffered from do-gooders enormously. I’m concerned of course, with the same questions that you are. And I would like just to reflect for a few moments on the individual experience of freedom in a person’s life. And they would define maturity as a gradual acquisition of a sense of freedom and responsibility about the choices and so forth that one makes in life. But what we really have learned about man, and I’m beginning not learn – I’m only beginning – is how complex even that choice, “I’m going to marry her instead of her”. And if you take a psychoanalytic interpretation of that, you find out how unfree this person who thought he was very free in marrying this woman might be over that woman. In other words, we’re beginning only now to understand…
Frankel: You feel determined, don’t you?
Kennedy: No, I’m saying that a man acts out a scenario quite often that is coming out of his life, and that you can, if you listen carefully enough you’ll hear what the truth is. It’s like the day Senator Eagleton was nominated for the vice presidency, if I can use a familiar example. I was with a psychiatrist friend that day, and his first statement to the press, which was regarded as a very apt and witty statement was, he said, “Senator McGovern called me and asked me if I’d run for vice president. And I said, ‘Yes, before you change your mind’”. And the psychiatrist said, “He said a good deal more than it sounds like”. And that’s what I mean about…he was presenting to us in a way a whole life history far wiser than he himself knew. Those are startling illustrations of the way the human drama is acted out. If we’re going to look at man with any kind of regard, you know, when I hear you speaking about him, you’re saying man could be defined as the guy who will screw things up if you don’t keep a check on him.
Frankel: Oh, but he’s also the man who does the Sistine Chapel.
Kennedy: Well, that’s right. But I heard a good deal of your saying he has to really be checked up on.
Frankel: In power.
Kennedy: And I’m saying…right. But I’m holding for some position where before we close the books one way or the other on this, how can we approach human beings preserving this value of freedom, as indeed I would be interested in doing in the name of the Christian tradition and so forth. And yet at the same time helping all of us to see deeply enough into ourselves to understand the complex bumbling and anything else one might want to call it that goes into any action which we might feel is a free choice. The more we attain a sense of mastery and insight, to use a word that is used by many people and is used by Professor Skinner with his own explanation of it in his work, the more we really get some sense of the way man is not the way he says he is. And this takes us to a whole other order of analysis. I’m not saying he’s an automaton or anything like that. I’m merely saying it’s very easy to make rhetorical arguments for freedom. It’s very hard to understand human freedom and human activity unless we are very patient, very listening, and I think very analytical of the environments which mean creates within which to live his life. And everybody create these environments. The way you decorate your home, your office. And that environments. And that environment that we build our buildings, and then our building will be less, according to the old saying of psycho architecture. You can see this all the time. We build the world, and live in this world. And I don’t see any reason for getting caught up too abstractly. I’d like to have a more compassionate, sensitive, almost poetic, I suppose I’m saying, look at man that makes room for this kind of very practical, orderly look at his activity through his behavior. And when you look at a man’s behavior and study the contingencies, we can begin to put some order into this. And I don’t think that necessarily imperils the traditions dear to us.
Frankel: But I think you, I think, Father, you’re forcing a false alternative on all of us. I don’t think that because one believes in freedom one cannot logically believe in the scientific study and explanation of human behavior.
Frankel: One not only can believe in its possibility, but one can believe in its desirability. I don’t think that determinism and a belief that all our behavior is determined is incompatible logically with a belief in freedom. Now, so I am not arguing against that. Moreover, I think it’s terribly important to have, if you will, a Greek or tragic view of life. I started that way. We do have limits. We do read out scenarios of which we’re unaware written for us in advance. I believe that. Not always though, and not inevitably. We also have, some of us, a few of us, who have powers of self-control and self-determination, and maybe only a few are free. Nevertheless, I would say…
Kennedy: Freedom is an achievement. That’s what I’m saying.
Frankel: Well, it is and it isn’t. But it’s there. It’s real. It’s as observable as anything else in the universe. The fact that one can speak a language of scientific causation doesn’t change this anymore than, frankly, I don’t see any particular advantage in saying if a man throws himself off a bridge because he says, “I’m broken hearted, I was jilted”, that isn’t your feelings that cause you to do so.
Heffner: Professor Skinner has been demonstrating a great deal of self-control.
Frankel: Very much, yeah.
Skinner: Well, I would go back to Professor Frankel’s noting of how much we have gained over earlier civilizations and centuries in our current freedoms. And I believe that every single one of them is an example of a point that I have made, that the struggle for freedom has been a freeing of man from punitive or aversive control. If you are, if you feel free to marry the girl of your choice, it’s because your family is not turning to a marriage broker to turn up with a wife for you. When you would then, because of religious tradition or some family pride then have to go, you’d have to marry that person. And I think that I sense that Father Kennedy agreed with me that after you have gotten rid of the coercive kinds of control, there are still, let’s say, determinations to be taken into account. You seem to worry about the word “cause” as against determinism…
Frankel: No, no, no. I don’t. I hope there are causes for my choosing the person or…
Frankel: Well, there are causes. I hope it’s not random.
Skinner: Well no. I assume it is not. But if cause is simply the push-pull causality of nineteenth century physics you can now throw that out. I’m not talking about that at all. I’m talking about a variation of observables in a system. And I believe that although I cannot prove to you that you cannot, that you were wrong when you say that there is a little area in which we’re still free but the general direction of inquiry in the past, even the past 25 years has been, or make it 50 years and get Freud into this, in narrowing the thing down so that things that we used to regard as within that circle of freedom are now outside it.
Frankel: I mean that I’m free, Dr. Skinner, and maybe we should be blunt and ask you whether you think this never happens. I mean that I am free when I choose my wife, for example, not in a sense that it isn’t me that chose it and that I don’t have a character. I mean, after all, I would want to make the choice. Me, with my wants and desires. It’s not a question of causal determinative. I mean that as a free choice in the sense that nobody made me, nobody coerced me.
Skinner: Oh, I would agree to that.
Frankel: Well, but that’s not a minor thing.
Skinner: And this is not. And I’m all for getting rid of coercion. In fact, what I have devoted…
Frankel: but nobody rewarded me.
Heffner: Your wife didn’t?
Frankel: My wife didn’t.
Skinner: No, no, no. but you don’t…that’s a misunderstanding of a whole concept of reward. Your past history, of course I can’t make a judgment. I can’t demonstrate this. All of us do this, but I think there’s every evidence to believe, in the first place, you, yourself have mentioned the physical probability. After all, how many girls had you met at the time? A thousand? There must have been many, many millions.
Skinner: …you’re not free to marry all the other ones, obviously, for physical reasons. You made that point about the man in jail.
Frankel: Oh yes, well, there are legal restrictions too.
Skinner: All right. Of course.
Frankel: Also my own desires.
Skinner: Well (Laughter) Yes, exactly. But where do they come from?
Frankel: Oh, of course.
Skinner: Right. And the physiognomy of your parents and sisters if you have them, and so on, and people you met when you were in grade school and all of this.
Frankel: but, Dr. Skinner, I said some time ago that limits, to admit there are limits has nothing to do with whether one is free or not.
Skinner: Well, all I can say is that although I can’t pile up all those little causes as I recall them, and therefore clinch the case and say there was no alternative to your marrying your wife…still, we have learned more about these influences and the direction of inquiry, and that reason is toward, is a complete story.
Frankel: Well, I do think we…
Skinner: We will never arrive at the complete explanation of behavior of any individual, obviously. And you know we can’t explain the weather. You know, it was supposed to be clear today.
Kennedy: You’re talking about falling in love.
Frankel: There is no such thing as freedom because we – this is very important – if we will never arrive that this complete explanation, which ideally, in your life, proves we’re not free, then as a matter of daily fact for you and for me, we must operate on the hypothesis of freedom. I mean, I’m talking in your language…
Kennedy: No, no.
Frankel: …because we will never know enough to predict any of this behavior anyway, or to predict most of it.
Skinner: Why do we have to make…
Frankel: Or even some of it. But this is Dr. Skinner who said it. He said we will never know enough to predict people’s behavior.
Skinner: To make it a statistical interpretation.
Frankel: And the individual particles…
Skinner: I think the only possible theory of knowledge that emerges from an analysis of behavior is necessarily statistical, that we are giving probabilities, always.
Heffner: Dr. Skinner, we have not very many minutes left. I’d like to see if I could elicit from you a more positive response to the thought that I presented to Dr. Frankel, and that has to do with my own feeling as a teacher, that the doctrine of freedom, even with the limitations you put upon it, Dr. Frankel, because you sort of throw them out, and then we leave them, but you grant them, we leave them very quickly, the limitations upon freedom. It seems to me that I find in my students, I find in society around me, a kind of arrogance that stems from the notion of freedom unlimited by the knowledge that we are the function of many, many, many inputs. And it seems to me that if you gentlemen want to talk about a political situation, you’re talking about people who have to make choices within the context of their sense of themselves in relation to the world around them. If they’re not fully enough aware of the degree to which they are the function of these inputs, then I would submit they’re not going to make the right decisions. If they still think of themselves in the autonomous terms that I think would be fair to say you stress.
Frankel: Oh, I don’t at all. Oh, no.
Heffner: You don’t?
Frankel: Oh no, no, no. I think others will speak, but I don’t believe our behavior is uncaused. I don’t believe it’s undetermined or, I don’t believe in autonomy in this sense. I believe very simple things with which I think now Dr. Skinner believes too that you can make predictions about the behavior of groups, but that individual behavior is to some extent unpredictable. He says so himself.
Heffner: Well, but the question that i would put to Dr. Skinner is…
Skinner: But that’s not freedom?
Frankel: Well, then we’re arguing about words. What i think the word is an extremely important one, and I go back to elementary cases. I don’t want to treat all my fellow citizens like hospital patients. If a man walks into a courtroom and he’s 40 years old and he has been beating a child, I want to be sure, ask whether he is mad or drunk or what-have-you. But I would certainly at some point have a cut-off line and say as part of the causal controls over that man’s behavior, “You, sir, shall be held responsible as a free agent for the things you did”.
Heffner: But aren’t you avoiding the notion…
Kennedy: I know. I have sympathy for them. I’m not saying that. But just to restate what I’m saying, there’s a good deal more to that man’s story than can be summed up in that kind of a judgment. And if we’re to understand him as a person and what led him to this activity is a far more complex process than passing judgment and restricting his freedom. Granted that this must occur. I…
Frankel: Do you believe that to explain all is to excuse all?
Kennedy: I believe that if you look closely enough and listen long enough you’d never really get mad at anybody (Laughter).
Frankel: But Father, you didn’t answer my question. I didn’t talk about getting mad. You didn’t answer it, and it’s a very important question for your theology. Do you believe that to explain all is to excuse all?
Kennedy: I think to understand is a self-justifying enterprise. And I think it’s a theological enterprise. And I myself would feel very little need to condemn, nor would i hope a need to control. But I feel very much a need to understand a man and his behavior and his environments as clearly and sensitivity as possible.
Skinner: Yes, you excuse all, but that doesn’t mean forego sanctions. We excuse the man, but he is still not allowed to just go and beat up children and do nothing about it.
Kennedy: That’s right.
Frankel: I believe.
Skinner: But the main thing is that if you shift the emphasis from that particular man who has been guilty or sinned or so on, to the situation that led to this, then you are much more likely to make these cases rarer in the future. And that, I think, is the alternative I would be interested in. I’m not so much for punishing individuals, but I am in making it less necessary to enforce sanctions in the future. And to take it out on the individual because he is a bad man gets us nowhere in looking at the circumstances that induced him to behave badly.
Kennedy: And I think that’s what churches have even set out to do. Create environments which one could really interpret in terms of positive reinforcements if one wanted to, which are going to enhance certain kinds of desirable behaviors and create the atmosphere which will minimize other situations which give rise to this kind of social problem.
Frankel: Well, I’ve always suspected there was a lot in common between churches and behaviorism.
Kennedy: Oh, I think that the church had a…
Skinner: yes, yes, they still…
Frankel: …too a long time ago.
Skinner: yes, yes. They…
Kennedy: People escape from Eden after awhile.
Frankel: And those are the fellows I want to celebrate. The ones who escape from Eden, we’re damned glad, and we don’t…
Kennedy: I can agree with that.
Frankel: God gave us a burden and we found a way to break it.
Kennedy: We are sinners. That’s a good way to define us all.
Frankel: We’re free.
Kennedy: You have to be free to be a sinner.
Frankel: Yeah, but we’re free…it takes a lot of freedom…some of us free men are sinners and some of us aren’t, and those of us who are should be held responsible
Skinner: Oh, my goodness. I think we should be forgiven.
Heffner: Dr. Skinner, go ahead. Go ahead, I think you wanted to participate in this.
Skinner: Not particularly. I would say that your freedom is simply the conflict of two cultures, and your religion wasn’t as complete as Father Kennedy’s, and that led you to do things which according to him would be judged in a religious or…
Heffner: Well, I wondered, Dr. Frankel, before we talked about not wanting to treat us all as participants or patients in a great hospital.
Heffner: I have a suspicion that we increasingly are going to treat ourselves as patients in a great hospital, given the kinds of plagues that you and Dr. Skinner agree may be upon us unless we take active, we participate in a great deal of social action. And it seems to be that we’re avoiding the fact that increasingly throughout this century we have imposed controls, controls, controls upon mankind, and they’re going to increase…
Frankel: We have indeed. And we must impose these controls. Some of them, of course, have removed limits on behavior. To take elementary things, we now control employers with respect to particular limits. The presupposition, of course, of all of this is that when people make choices, at least sometimes, they are choices for which you may legitimately or reasonably hold the chooser responsible. And I do indeed believe that we, if we treat the word “freedom” as the name for an illusion, we will contribute to the disappearance of freedom. I don’t believe for a moment that that’s what Dr. Skinner wants to do.
Heffner: Well, Dr. Skinner has 30 seconds left in which to say.
Skinner: Let’s talk about the word “responsibility”. “Responsibility” is a term which is used to justify punishment. We don’t hold people responsible for doing good. They’re responsible for doing ill, and you punish them accordingly. That is, I would not deny the need for sanctions. I would deny the need to say that a person is responsible and therefore must be punished.
Heffner: And that’s the point at which I must say gentlemen, that’s all the time we have for today. But thank you very much for joining me today, Professor BF Skinner of Harvard University, Father Eugene C. Kennedy, of Loyola University, and Professor Charles Frankel, of Columbia University. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join me again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”