Behaviorism, Therapism, and Moral Agnosticism
Behaviorism had as one of its greatest advocates in the twentieth century, the man named Burrhus Frederic Skinner (known as B. F. Skinner). Skinner radically departed from traditional, and especially Judeo-Christian perspectives, on what is means to be human, a person, and to have an ethic of responsibility and virtue commensurate to the task of living in this world. According to Skinner, the human person, as we have previously defined it, must go. He claimed that there are no private events such as thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions that can be understood as causes of an organism’s behavior, since he believed that it is the human environment which is actually responsible for all human behavior. The logic of this is that in order to produce evolution of human progress the environment of the person must be changed, not the attributes of the individual. As can be seen from a sampling of his thoughts from his famous book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, his view is that the person has no real moral responsibility, other than to modify the environment (social, cultural, economic, genetic) to conditions more conducive of right and good behavior (as defined by conditioned moral categories):
“The concept of responsibility offers little help. The issue is controllability. We cannot change genetic defects by punishment; we can work only through genetic measures which operate on a much longer time scale. What must be changed is not the responsibility of autonomous man but the conditions, environmental or genetic, of which a person’s behaviour is a function.”
“Exoneration is in a sense the obverse of responsibility. Those who undertake to do something about human behaviour – for any reason whatsoever – become part of the environment to which responsibility shifts. In the old view it was the student who failed, the child who went wrong, the citizen who broke the law, and the poor who were poor because they were idle, but it is now commonly said that there are no dull students but only poor teachers, no bad children but only bad parents, no delinquency except on the part of law-enforcement agencies, and no indolent men but only poor incentive systems. But of course we must ask in turn why teachers, parents, governors, and entrepreneurs are bad. The mistake, as we shall see later, is to put the responsibility anywhere, to suppose that somewhere a causal sequence is initiated.”
“In short, we need to make vast changes in human behaviour, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try.”
“The social environment is obviously man-made – it generates the language a person speaks, the customs he follows, and the behaviour he exhibits with respect to the ethical, religious, governmental, economic, educational, and psychotherapeutic institutions which control him.”
Skinner does not deny the social and moral problems plaguing the world, he only says that the many ancient attempts to resolve the problems of humanity need a new solution, and that is a “technology of behavior.” In order to find a workable technology of behavior, we must end the old perspectives of humans as having any kind of autonomy, either in personality, character, cultures, or morals. Most striking are his assertions below that radically advance him away from all traditional (i.e. Judeo-Christian or Greek, or ancient) perspectives that allow (and require) for humans any moral autonomy:
We are told that what is threatened is ‘man qua man’, or ‘man in his humanity’, or ‘man as Thou not It’, or ‘man as a person not a thing’. These are not very helpful expressions, but they supply a clue. What is being abolished is autonomous man – the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity. His abolition has long been overdue. Autonomous man is a device used to explain what we cannot explain in any other way. He has been constructed from our ignorance, and as our understanding increases, the very stuff of which he is composed vanishes. Science does not dehumanize man, it de-homunculizes him, and it must do so if it is to prevent the abolition of the human species. To man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real causes of human behaviour. Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable.
In fact, Skinner’s view is that humans are entirely determined by their environment, and in this sense truly not morally responsible. The inconsistency here is staggering, for even though humans are entirely and totally the product of their evolution and environment, they must somehow create an environment in which humankind can leap forward evolutionally to the perfection he imagines on the other side of the total re-conditioning of the human race according to his (the conditioners’ and manipulators’) ideals and expectations. In short, it can be said that such a model for humanity removes from humans all significance in their dignity, creativity, and moral choice, while removing from them any substantive differentiation from the non-human objects and animals of the physical universe. In this case, humans have no soul, nor a mind that initiates any thought or moral motions, and they certainly cannot make anything uniquely qualified as one’s own creative work, since it is all a product of their biological and cultural evolution and conditioning. As Francis Schaeffer stated it: “This makes Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel purely the result of conditioning. Not only morals but every vestige of everything that makes human life valuable from the standpoint of what God meant us to be as men in his image is eradicated.”
Ethics therefore, properly speaking in biblical terms, cannot arise from Behaviorism. This is not to say that biblical ethics is unconcerned with behavior, but rather that it does not originate from the philosophical presuppositions of the naturalistic determinism and materialism of contemporary Behaviorism. Behaviorism is perhaps the most pervasive philosophical starting point for many secular psychologies and sociologies of human behavior today, even though its key proponent, B.F. Skinner, has for some time been out of the limelight since his death and the widespread rejection of many of his central ideas. Therefore, it is profoundly important that we Christians are aware of the philosophical force of the ideas intrinsic to this ideology, since it has been behind many movements of human manipulation, engineering, and efforts to control human society and human behavior in the past century until the present (see technosapianism, p.171 ). It also has influenced Christian thinking in the ideas intrinsic to the “gospel of sin management” (pp. 96f., 100f., 113f.), and much Christian literature that recycles a behaviorist philosophy in Christian garb. The latter is understandable, considering the weight placed on obedience and action in Scripture. Nevertheless, behaving rightly is never in Scripture the ultimate end-goal of ethics, the law, or wisdom. Rather, it is a new heart and a new character fashioned after the heart and mind of God in Christ. Further, the means of instruction and guidance towards moral thought and action are not the product of environmental conditioning, since moral/immoral actions are not strictly speaking the result of genetic or environment conditions, nor of simply the consequences of external stimuli that reinforce good or bad behavior. Indeed, intrinsically lacking in a Behaviorist framework is a rationale for morals/ethics (right and wrong, good and bad) in the first place.
More questions are raised than answered in the Behaviorist model, since its circularity is self-defeating as a sufficient starting-point for ethical reasoning: that is, if Skinner himself (or any “conditioned” human conditioner) is the starting point, then his conditioning must be sufficient to formulate definitions of “good” and “bad,” yet what precedes his own conditioning must determine what conditioning he received to produce his theories of conditions and ethical categories. This would mean that morality is only conformity to patterns conditioned by the environment. In the simplest terms, if there is no external (pre-existent) moral absolute “outside” (the actant), then all morals are relative to the conditions of the person’s environment and circumstances. In Skinner’s Naturalistic system, survivability (and well-being) becomes the natural guide (the moral “good”) to all ethical formulation, and is therefore the ultimate value by which actions and culture are evaluated. Yet, if human action towards survivability is the context and source of ethical reasoning, then we have the ultimate payload in a conflict of interest, in that the moral actants determine their own morals based on their own moral conditioning determined by their own genetic/social environment and survivability. Is this not at the root of the pervasive moral collapses today, when all wickedness and evil can be explained away by the relativism intrinsic to the victimhood of our social and environmental conditioning? Does this not also include a colossal philosophical irony that all such environmental determinism is an absolute that leads to absolute moral relativity (itself an irresolvable oxymoronic moral conundrum). In a biblical framework, there must of necessity be a morals-giver, a law-Giver, who is transcendent and holy, who is unconditioned and self-existent. Absolute morals can only arise from One who is Absolute. Of course, ethical relativists (by definition) may not claim to be seeking moral absolutes. Yet, that being the case, the consequences will be (as we have seen in the past century) moral horrors beyond human reckoning. When all morals (of should and must) are only socially conditioned, the conditioners who have the power to manipulate and engineer the genetic, social, and environmental conditions should and must also have the power and will to define what is good and what is not.
Intrinsic to Behaviorism:
- Materialism and atheism
- Radical Humanism
- Teleological pragmatism
- Moral individualism and Ethical Egoism
- Subjectivism and Emotivism (non-cognitivist ethics)
In dramatic distinction from such Behaviorist relativism, Herbert Schlossberg expresses well a biblical perspective on the relativizing nature of a transcendent God on such human constructs and ideologies that reject transcendent moral absolutes:
Declining to sacralize any period or institution (including the church) means that Christians are free to do what is right, regardless of how radical it may seem. And refusing to sacralize history itself frees them to do what is right no matter how conservative it may seem. They do not need either to stand fast against change or to go with the tide. There is no movement or ideology, no matter what label it bears, that they are obliged, by custom or by the world’s expectations, to support or to oppose. Their norms come from outside of history, and they do not submit to the judgment of those whose faith they consider to be wrongly placed. That conviction was well expressed by Ranke in his famous statement that eternity is equidistant from all points in time. None of those points is worthy of being invested with sacred aura. That freedom from contingent systems should be regarded as a foretaste of the freedom from bondage and decay, toward which Paul looked, when the whole creation soils obtain “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
Desacralizing history and its elements relativizes all human institutions. There is no ideology, party, movement, or organization that may declare itself to be the absolute judge and arbiter of history. The Christian is free to regard each of them in the light of the absolute that is outside of history, that relativizes and judges them, and provides a point beyond which relativity is not permitted. That absolute, and the judgment it implies, is unacceptable to a generation that seeks to relativize everything without limit, but it is the only bar to Wilson’s and Lippmann’s attempts to make facts and sentiments, respectively, govern the relations between human beings and thereby render everything permissible. There can be no mercy without judgment because only judgment can pronounce the final NO! to relativism’s blessing on barbarity and provide people with the motivation and courage to oppose it.
The related subject of the extraordinary rise of therapism today (I suggest as one of the by-products of Behaviorist ideologies), is chronicled remarkably well by Christina Hoff Sommers and Salley Satel. For example, they discuss the impact of the “self-esteem” movement today (as a positive conditioning initiative of international proportions), noting one of many disturbingly pervasive trends to teach “no-fault history” to students who come to believe it “immoral” to pass moral judgment (even on historical atrocities like the German-Jewish Holocaust). This the authors call a “moral paralysis” and “absolutophobia” that inhibits moral judgment. While ironically, at the same, the persistent encouragement they receive to “esteem thyself,” has led to a generation that is self-absorbed and often narcissistic. Much of this they argue is based on the “myth of the fragile child,” that children must be molly-coddled and spared of all hardship, stress, self-doubt, failure, the disappointment of competitions lost, or bad feelings about anything. This has led to the near “triumph of the therapeutic” view that all people are always fragile and that all of their suffering and hardship must be pathologized in order for the mental health professionals to enter with their healing and salvation through positive conditioning. In terms of ethics, this also includes the loss of understanding the vital need for children to develop character, and rather allows them to remain “happy in the conviction that they should be judged by no-one’s standards but their own.” The bitter pill is that increasing self-esteem has never been shown to increase character nor moral fortitude, nor the ability to cope courageously with life’s challenges. Indeed, “High school dropouts, shoplifters, burglars, car thieves, and even murderers are just as likely to have high self-esteem as Rhodes Scholars or winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor.” High self-regard is well attested among those otherwise deemed as narcissistic and exploitive. The authors also note that many studies now support their concern that there is absolutely no evidence that the self-esteem movement improves anything in academic performance, nor in the development of either virtues or conscientious and humane character. In contrast to the conclusions of therapism, they propose the surprising and refreshing thesis “that human beings, including children, are best regarded as self-reliant, resilient, psychically sound moral agents responsible for their behavior.”
A biblical response to the Behaviorist and Self-esteem movements should include a strong emphasis on the important theology of humans made in God’s (glorious) image, while simultaneously stressing that humans are suffering the consequences of sin since Adam, while also highlighting the pervasive biblical wisdom that Scripture gives for a balanced self-assessment: thinking not too highly, nor too lowly, of oneself.
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1971, p. 74 (latest edition published in IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002).
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 78.
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 10.
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 201.
 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 9.
 Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 196. Francis Schaeffer noted this some time ago in his critique of Jacques Monad, Francis Crick, and B.F. Skinner in Back to Freedom and Dignity, Downers Grove: Ill: Inter-varsity Press, 1973.
 This is most clearly conveyed in his fictional presentation of what a properly conditioned society would look like in Walden II: IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1948.
 According to Skinner, a primary distinction (or attribute) of humans is that humans are more complex animals that are capable of self-awareness that enables them to manipulate their environment to effectively condition their responses to conditioning by it. As he states, “Man is said to differ from the other animals mainly because he is ‘aware of his own existence’” (Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 186). See also fn. 280 below.
 Schaeffer, Back to Freedom and Dignity, p. 36.
 This circularity and its contradiction is highlighted above (fn. 278) in Skinner’s assumptions that humans are only distinguished as animals by their self–awareness, and this itself as the context for their ability, and the “moral” necessity, to radically modify their conditioning environments to produce their desired (“morally” preferred) conditioning. This is seen in his assertion regarding humans and animals: “He differs from the other animals not in possessing a moral or ethical sense but in having been able to generate a moral or ethical social environment” (Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 172.
 It may be that I simply do not understand Skinner here, but the following I suggest is indicative of the radical confusion in his logic: “The controlling self must be distinguished from the controlled self, even when they are both inside the same skin, and when control is exercised through the design of an external environment, the selves are, with minor exceptions, distinct” (Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 202). And, “The man that man has made is the product of the culture man has devised” (Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 203).
 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation With American Society (New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), pp. 31-32.
 Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 32.
 Sommers and Satel, One Nation Under Therapy, pp. 41-44.
 Sommers and Satel, One Nation Under Therapy, p. 43.
 Sommers and Satel, One Nation Under Therapy, p. 25.
 Sommers and Satel, One Nation Under Therapy, p. 31.
 Sommers and Satel, One Nation Under Therapy, p. 10.