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Freedom in the Thought of B.F. Skinner and St. Thomas Aquinas
Freedom is a topic that is often contended in spheres of philosophy. The Christian philosophical view differs greatly from that of a more modern one. In philosophy, there seems to be no universal definition or consensus as to what freedom means or is. Americans are apt to say that freedom means the “ability to do whatever I want.” Whereas the Catholic would say, as did Pope St. John Paul II, “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”1
In this essay, we will examine two differing views regarding freedom. The first we shall delve into is that of the contemporary philosopher and psychologist B.F. Skinner. His view of freedom is largely expounded upon in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) which we shall use as our guide. The second is a more traditional view: that of St. Thomas Aquinas. We shall largely follow what Aquinas has written about free will in his Summa Theologica to gain an understanding of what it means to be free. Then, we shall compare and contrast these differing views and see the inadequacies of Skinner's philosophy compared to that of the Angelic Doctor.
II. Freedom in Skinner's Philosophy
In the second chapter of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner treats the subject of freedom. For Skinner, freedom is a major problem for his idea of a “Technology of Behavior.” He says that the two main oppositions to his “Technology of Behavior” are the traditional views of man's freedom and dignity. He explains what he means by the traditional view of freedom and what he seeks to do with it:
Two features of autonomous man become particularly troublesome. In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment.2
Two things should be noted from what Skinner has written here. The first is that when he goes to treat the topic of freedom later, he will invariably have to do away with the traditional view because it goes against his idea of a “Technology of Behavior.” The second is that Skinner's reasoning as to why the view that man has a free will to choose good or bad is wrong is because such a philosophy does not take into account (as apparently does science) the relationship between man's behavior and environment: “A scientific analysis shifts both the responsibility and the achievement [that freedom can give] to the environment.”3
Continuing his discussion of freedom, Skinner says that “Almost all living things act to free themselves from harmful contacts. A kind of freedom is achieved by the relatively simple forms of behavior called reflexes.”4 If a man refuses to pick up a hot plate of food he is doing so because he is trying to avoid the pain the heat will inflict upon him. By not picking up the hot plate, the man is “freeing” himself from the pain he would receive. Skinner attributes this to evolution: “...they are simply forms of behavior which have proved useful in reducing various threats to the individual and hence the species in the course of evolution.”5
For Skinner, there are what he calls “controllers” of man's environment. Thus, one's behavior is determined by one's environment. Such controllers can use either aversive methods to control the environment or they can use positive reinforcers to control it. For example, the government of a given nation would be seen as a controller of people and thus would be said to affect their behavior. Skinner critiques the “literature of freedom” saying that it is “designed to induce people to act to free themselves from various kinds of intentional control. It does not impart a philosophy of freedom; it induces people to act.”6 Here again freedom is simply escaping from pain: one rebels against a tyrannical government because one does not want to have to pay taxes, one fights a law that would take away something one enjoys, etc.
Skinner believes that control is not wrong and that it can be a good thing. For him, the literature of freedom has helped people break away from aversive methods of control but has not taken into account those methods of positive reinforcement:
The literature of freedom has encouraged escape from or attack upon all controllers. It has done so by making any indication of control aversive. Those who manipulate human behavior are said to be evil men, necessarily bent on exploitation. Control is clearly the opposite of freedom, and if freedom is good, control must be bad. What is overlooked is control which does not have aversive consequences at any time. Many social practices essential to the welfare of the species involve the control of one person by another, and no one can suppress them who has any concern for human achievements.7
For Skinner, control is not the problem. He believes it is possible to live in a utopian-like world in which there are controllers who use methods of control that do not have any aversive consequences. Robert Audi makes an important connection here in an article he wrote on Skinner's book. He says that for Skinner, the good becomes equivalent to the positive reinforcers: “For our purposes the important claim here is the parenthetical one that the good is in some sense equivalent to the (positively) reinforcing, reiterated later where he says 'the only good things are positive reinforcers; the only bad things are negative reinforcers.' (1971, p. 102)”8
In summary, Skinner's view is that there is no real freedom. We act to free ourselves from pain or damage. The decisions we make are based on the controllers of our environment. Aversive methods are bad while positive reinforcers are good.
III. Freedom in St. Thomas Aquinas' Philosophy
We now turn from Skinner's view of freedom to that of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the First Part of the Summa in Question 83, Aquinas discusses man's free will. He treats it in four articles. The first deals with whether man has free will or not. The second deals with whether free will is a power of the soul or not. The third deals with whether free will is an appetitive power or not. And the fourth asks whether free will is separate from the will or not.
In the first article, Aquinas begins by raising objections to the belief that man has free will. In his corpus, he responds “I answer that, Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain.”9 He then notes the distinction between man and animals: man has a rational soul and therefore has free will while animals do not. He says that man acts by his apprehensive powers and makes judgments based on those. He also points out that particular judgments of man are contingent and are not determined: “Now particular operations are contingent, and therefore in such matters the judgment of reason may follow opposite course, and is not determinate to one.”10 For instance, if a man wanted to go for a run and saw that it was raining outside, his reason would probably tell him that he should wait till it is over to go for a run. The man, however, may choose to go for a run regardless of whether it is raining.
In the second article, Aquinas states that free will is not a habit. It is indeed a power. He makes a distinction between the act that was freely willed and the free will that was exercised in making a choice to action: “Although free-will in its strict sense denotes an act, in the common manner of speaking we call free-will, that which is the principle of the act by which man judges freely.”11 In order to judge freely, man must apprehend and deliberate, both powers of the rational soul. Thus, free will is a power.
In the third article, Aquinas says that free will is indeed an appetitive power. Within a choice two powers are at work: 1) the cognitive power and 2) the appetitive power. The cognitive power uses counsel and reason to make a judgment. The appetitive power then accepts what the cognitive power makes a judgment on. Aquinas sums up by saying
And the reason of this is because the proper object of choice is the means to the end: and this, as such, is in the nature of that good which is called useful: wherefore since good, as such, is the object of the appetite, it follows that choice is principally an act of the appetitive power.12
In the fourth and final article of Question 83, Aquinas answers in the affirmative to whether the will is the same as free will with a certain qualification. He distinguishes between the will and the ability to choose:
In like manner on the part of the appetite to will implies the simple appetite for something: wherefore the will is said to regard the end, which is desired for itself. But to choose is to desire something for the sake of obtaining something else: wherefore, properly speaking, in regards the means to the end.13
For Aquinas then, the will and free will are the same power. They differ in that to will is ordered toward the end and choice is ordered toward the means to an end.
IV. Comparison of Philosophies
Having examined separately both Skinner's view and Aquinas' view of freedom and free will, we shall now compare and contrast these differing views and acknowledge the shortcomings and problems with Skinner's view. There is much that could be said in this area but we will limit ourselves to a few comments for the sake of space.
The biggest argument against Skinner's view from Aquinas is that Aquinas holds that man's choice is not pre-determined. A problem also arises with Skinner's view that freedom is avoiding pain or escaping it. If one's choices are already pre-determined as Skinner says, why would a soldier take a bullet for a fellow soldier? Why would a soldier jump on a grenade to protect his fellow troops? Such heroic acts do not seem to have a place in Skinner's philosophy.
Aquinas' philosophy, however, can help to solve this problem. Aquinas says that particular choices are contingent, meaning that they are not determined. A soldier's reason tells him to avoid getting shot since it will cause him pain. A soldier's reason tells him not to jump on a grenade because he will most likely die from it. A soldier may also choose, however, to take a bullet or jump on a grenade because they have a selfless attitude. St. Maximillian Kolbe did not have to take the place of his fellow prisoner but did so knowing that that man had a family to take care of. It seems clear from such real and historical examples that Skinner's philosophy does not hold water.
Skinner does have a point, however, when it comes to one's environment having an influence on one's behavior. It is not, however, the sole influence on it. There are many other factors. Take, for example, St. Peter and Judas. Both lived with Christ for three years. Both betrayed Him. One repented and one committed suicide. Both lived in the same environment for three years and yet the outcome of their lives is in stark contrast. If the environment in which they lived together for three years determined their behavior, then why was it different?
One could argue, however, that an environment could control the behavior of a soldier to sacrifice himself for his fellow soldiers. This, however, would contradict Skinner's view that freedom is avoiding harmful contacts. Destruction of self can hardly be seen as avoiding a harmful contact. Skinner's position seems to be somewhat contradictory.
An objection could be raised that Skinner's philosophy is no different than that of Aquinas, in the sense that if man is created by God and has free will, then God is the cause of our free will and would be considered our environment which determines our choices for us. In this way, one could agree with Skinner that man's choices are ultimately determined by something other than himself, mainly, God. Ralph McInerny helps to undo such an argument:
The shortest form of Thomas' resolution of this difficulty is to say that God is indeed the first and ultimate cause of every entity and event but that He causes them in a way appropriate to their natures, which He has also created. Thus, because He has created man free, He causes men to freely act, just as He causes effects to issue necessarily or for the most part from their proximate created causes.14
Because the ability to choose is a part of man's nature, man indeed freely chooses. God is not some puppet master controlling everything that man does as Skinner's position would suggest.
In this paper we have examined two differing views regarding freedom: the more modern view of B.F. Skinner and the traditional Medieval view of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is clear from our proceedings that the views are in stark contrast. It has also been seen, however, that Skinner's view of freedom is quite flawed. Indeed, Skinner's view of an all-powerful, good, government that controls man's environment with positive reinforcers has been tested and tried in Communistic and Totalitarian states and has been found lacking. His view of freedom, however, has only appeared within the last one-hundred years of history, while Aquinas' philosophy has been around (and is continued to be used by the Church) since the 13th century. Aquinas has an unfair advantage having been in existence for so much longer. It will be interesting to see whose philosophy wins out with time: Aquinas or Skinner.
1 John Paul II, Homily of His Holiness John Paul II given at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore (8 October 1995), par. 7, The Holy See, accessed April 29, 2023, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19951008_baltimore.html.
2 B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, INC, 2002), 19-20.
3 Ibid., 25.
4 Ibid., 26.
6 Ibid., 30.
7 Ibid., 41.
8 Robert Audi, “B.F. Skinner on Freedom, Dignity, and the Explanation of Behavior,” Behaviorism 4, no. 2 (1976): 116.
9 St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Theologica Volume I: 1ᵅ QQ. 1-119-1ᵅ IIᵅᵉQQ. 1-4 (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1948) I, q. 83, a. 1, co. Abbreviated hereafter: ST.
11 ST, I, q. 83, a. 2, co.
12 ST, I, q. 83, a. 3, co.
13 ST, I, q. 83, a. 4, co.
14 Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 68-69.