The Catholic Thing
The Behaviorists Are Back Print E-mail
By George Marlin   
Monday, 29 December 2008

In his search for a prescription to cure America’s ailing economy, President-elect Barack Obama is consulting scores of leftist interventionists including behavioral economists. The New York Times recently reported that Obama may hire economic psychologists “specifically charged with translating the lessons of the behavioral revolution into real-world policies.” One proponent of this approach, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, told the Times, “The issues we struggle with today are inherently behavioral as never before. It’s impossible to think of the current mortgage crisis without thinking seriously about underlying consumer psychology. And it’s impossible to think of future regulatory fixes without thinking seriously about that issue.” Excited by the prospects, the Times concluded, “The promise of behavioral economics is that it can help create a better government, one that wastes less money and does more to improve peoples’ lives. That’s hardly a modest goal.”

It should come as no surprise that the 1970s radicals taking over the Federal Government in January are promoting this brand of economics because the hero of their youth was the leader of America’s behavioral revolution, B.F. Skinner. Skinner, who, in the early 1970s, made the cover of Time magazine and whose book Beyond Freedom and Dignity hit the Times bestseller list, proudly proclaimed to his adoring public, “We not only can control human behavior, we must!” Behaviorists like Skinner argue that psychology should be limited to observations and tenets related to behavior. As epistemological descendants of Descartes, they attempt to sever any connections between the study of man and philosophy, by methodologically denying the existence of the mind and the scientific validity of philosophical psychology in the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense.

Skinner and his followers deny the existence of the mind and reduce human psychology to the mere study of intersubjectively demonstrable events – that is behavior. Consistent with Cartesian reductionism, qualitative differences are denied by behaviorists. By recognizing nothing beyond the perversely simple materialistic continuity derived from mere quantitative reductionism, behaviorists boast they can study rats to draw conclusions about man. Skinner emphasizes that man is no more responsible (nor laudable) for his creative accomplishments in music, art, literature, economics, science, and invention, than is the warthog for his warts. Accordingly, there is then no essential difference between modern “objective” psychology and rodentology, or between man and rat.

Behaviorists also deny the freedom to choose between good and evil, the will to resist temptation or to succumb to sin. Skinner writes that man’s struggle for freedom is not due to a will to be free but “to certain behavioral processes characteristic of the human organism, the chief of which is the avoidance or the escape from so-called aversive features of the environment.” Moral choice, then, is nothing more than the tropism of an automaton conditioned by various genetic, social, and historical contingencies.

The behaviorist wishes to control in his own image, every aspect of man in society. B.F. Skinner in his novel Walden II, describes this Utopia: “There is complete equality of the sexes in all things. Men and women marry and mate in their late teens, thus averting sexual frustration and its consequences. When the women are in their twenties, they have finished bearing all the children they want and they then take up personal goals. Babies are raised in communal nurseries, in which the mothers may work as they choose. The children grow up equally in an atmosphere of care and concern, free of envy, strife, shock, competition, and punishment.”

Walden II’s alleged perfect society is possible only through the application of a behavioral technique known as positive reinforcement. The chief engineer and architect of the community, Frazier, exercises control in this fashion: “Now that we know how positive reinforcement works and why negative doesn’t … we can be more deliberate and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement – there’s no restraint and no revolt.”

Skinner’s society, based on behavioral methods, also takes the ideological position that democracy is not a worthy system of government: “The only solution is to make an honest admission that democracy is outmoded and replace it with a more effective system namely, technical meritocracy.”

If behaviorists have their way, man will be dehumanized by the planning and redevelopment of the cultural, economic and social system by government overseers. What a scary intellectual basis for Washington’s forthcoming managerial revolution.

Let’s hope that the Obama administration turns out better than some of his more radical camp followers, because otherwise it’s welcome to Barack’s brave new world.

George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact. (St. Augustine's Press)

(c) 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Charlie, December 30, 2008
I love this site but sometimes I am pretty shocked by how far you guys stretch these ideas. Yes, it's fun to do and serves a philosophical purpose but it becomes borderline silly sometimes. I am afraid that you risk losing the respect of readers who may not be as grounded in the Truth as you guys are. Some people might write you off when they see you writing things like Obama's "BNW." Funny and thought-provoking for some, but for others- perhaps a little more tact? Just a little.
Professor of Law
written by Perry Dane, December 30, 2008
I think that you're incorrectly inflating contemporary economic psychologists with old-fashioned Skinnerian behaviorists. The two groups are radically different in their assumptions about how the human mind works. In the current context, economic psychologists, far from leading us to a "brave new world," can simply provide some useful practical insights into, for example, which form of government spending might most quickly and effectively stimulate private productive economic activit
Professor of Law
written by Perry Dane, December 30, 2008
Finally, I wonder where you get the idea that 1970s radicals embraced Skinnerian behaviorism. That's a stretch, to say the least.
written by Ron, December 30, 2008
Eleven paragraphs of philosophical analysis and then abruptly back to the now old canard of Obama as the "problem". It seems to me we could have benefited from some meritocray over the last eight years.
written by Thomas C. coleman, Jr., December 30, 2008
Has no one else thought to connect the dots between Marxism-Leninsim and Skinnerism? Lenin believed that once humans were forced long enough to behave communistically, without families or private property, such behavior would become automatic and the "apparatus of coercion" (the State) would disappear like "a vestigial organ." The meritocracy is the Party. This is what atheism (Marx's or Skinner's) leads to. Viva Crsito Rey! Only the Social Kingship of Christ will save the world!
Well Done!
written by Mr. Wonderful, January 02, 2009
So, because "behavioral economics" and "behavioralism" have the same root, the author thinks the one proceeds from the other? Would it have been asking too much for him to have checked on exactly what behavioral economics is before gassing off with this ludicrous "analysis" and warning?

Or does he also think that, e.g., a cubic zirconium is a zirconium as painted by Picasso and Braque? In which case, never mind. Carry on gassing.
written by we can have the deseigner baby, January 03, 2009
It is only a matter of time before partial birth abortion, embryo harvesting and genetic engineering become routine. Barack Obama is beholding to this. Just think
written by Tom Byrne, January 16, 2009
Worry? I'd buy popcorn and watch the show. Behaviorism never worked in the classroom and won't work in the economy. We went through all this in the 1960s and 1970s and the schools have largely tossed these ideas.
written by David, January 19, 2009
Majoirty of Americans are betting future on OBAMA. Soon they will understand that they were absolutely wrong. The so called Economic theories ,behavioural /pschological theories have failed.The Political systems ,be it Commnunism or democracy can not provide the lasting solutions. The solution is in Human behaviour . ? Its only the Behaviour that pleases The Almighty God. The horrible sins committed by Abortions , Homosexuality , Same sex marriages. Give them up. Turn to God . No FOCA
written by David, January 19, 2009
Current Economic problems can be solved not by any Human Expert but only by God.Let the Country obey the Commandments of God.No more sins of immorality- Abortions,Same sex marriages , Homosexual/Lesbian relationships. Fear God .Let Catholic Hierarchy switch back to Traditional Mass , Sacraments and catechism. They can save,Will they listen to the call of God. Establish the Kingdom of Jesus.He will save not only the U.S. but the whole world. Please be a LEADER. KNOW THAT OBAMA CANNOT DO IT.

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