Category Archives: motivation and action

Op-Ed: Worse than Bigotry: An incident in Wilmington

Cancel culture on the beach

Bigotry is bad. But the steps that must be taken to completely eliminate it are much, much worse.

Here is an example.  The conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  Their comments were picked up via a monthly video audit.  The comments were unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” A second officer told this one that he was “crazy: the recording ceased at that point.

The officers conduct was deplorable; no doubt about that. On their other hand, their conversation was intended to be private. The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was used by MLK and is still used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund.

The point is that racial language is so touchy that what is acceptable changes frequently.  You can see the same phenomenon in relation to mental handicap.  Once mentally handicapped people were just called “idiots”.  After the term idiot became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”  If a person or a condition is regarded as socially undesirable, the words used for it tend to change: as one word becomes stigmatized, another will take its place. This is just the nature of language,

Even if they were confused about the acceptable term for people of color, there is no doubt that the rest of the cops’ conversation was blatantly racist. The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was not public; in effect it was a “thought crime”. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly in the way their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing).

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, all three cops have been fired.

Many people will regard this as a just punishment. They should reflect on what it means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of the officers is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Hasty, arbitrary and severe treatment like this suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But a more measured punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they serve neither society nor themselves by caving to the mob.

John Staddon

Was Darwin Wrong?

Or have critics – and some fans – missed the point?

This is an updated version of a piece that originally appeared in Intellectual Takeout

Christopher Booker is a contrarian English journalist who writes extensively on science-related issues.  He has produced possibly the best available critical review of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. He has cast justifiable doubt on the alleged ill effects of low-level pollutants like airborne asbestos and second-hand tobacco smoke.

Booker has also lobbed a few hand-grenades at Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He identifies a real problem, but his criticism misses a point which is also missed even by some Darwin fans.

Is anti-Darwin ‘politically incorrect’?

In that 2010 article, Booker was reacting to a comments from a seminar of Darwin skeptics, many very distinguished in their own fields.  These folk had faced hostility from the scientific establishment which seemed to Booker excessive or at least unfair. Their discussion provided all the ingredients for a conspiracy novel:

[T]hey had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment. Even to raise such questions was just not permissible. One had been fired as editor of a major scientific journal because he dared publish a paper sceptical of Darwin’s theory. Another, the leading expert on his subject, had only come lately to his dissenting view and had not yet worked out how to admit this to his fellow academics for fear that he too might lose his post.

The problem was raised at an earlier conference:

[A] number of expert scientists came together in America to share their conviction that, in light of the astonishing intricacies of construction revealed by molecular biology, Darwin’s gradualism could not possibly account for them. So organizationally complex, for instance, are the structures of DNA and cell reproduction that they could not conceivably have evolved just through minute, random variations. Some other unknown factor must have been responsible for the appearance of these ‘irreducibly complex’ micromechanisms, to which they gave the name ‘intelligent design’. [my emphasis]

I am a big fan of Darwin. I also have respect for Booker’s skepticism.  The contradiction can be resolved if we look more carefully at what we know now – and at what Darwin actually said.

The logic of evolution

There are three parts to the theory of evolution:

  1. The fact of evolution itself. The fact that the human species shares common ancestors with the great apes.  The fact that there is a phylogenetic “tree of life” which connects all species, beginning with one or a few ancestors who successively subdivided or became extinct in favor of a growing variety of descendants.  Small divergences became large ones as one species gave rise to two and so on.
  2. Variation: the fact that individual organisms vary – have different phenotypes, different physical bodies and behaviors – and that some of these individual differences are caused by different genotypes, which are heritable and so are passed on to descendants .
  3. Selection: the fact that individual variants in a population will also vary in the number of viable offspring to which they give rise. If number of offspring is correlated with some heritable characteristic – if particular genes are carried by a fitter phenotype – then the next generation may differ phenotypically from the preceding one.
    Notice that in order for selection to work, at every stage the new variant must be more successful than the old.

An example: Rosemary and Peter Grant looked at birds on the Galapagos Islands.  They studied populations of finches, and noticed surprisingly rapid increases in beak size from year to year. The cause was weather changes. Dry weather for a succession of years favored nuts with thick, hard-to-crack shells. Birds with larger beaks were more successful in cracking the thick-shelled nuts; thus got more food and  left more descendants.  Natural selection had operated amazingly quickly, leading to larger average beak size within just a few years.

Bernard Kettlewell observed a similar change, over a slightly longer term, in the color of the peppered moth in England.  As tree bark changed from light to dark to light again as industrial pollution waxed and waned over the years, so did the camouflage-color of the moths. There are several other “natural experiments” that make this same point.

None of the serious critics of Darwinian evolution seems to question evolution itself, the fact that organisms are all related and that the living world has developed over many millions of years.  The idea of evolution preceded Darwin. His contribution was to suggest a mechanism, a process – natural selection – by which evolution comes about.  It is the supposed inadequacy of this process that exercises Booker and other critics.

Looked at from one point of view, Darwin’s theory is almost a tautology, like a theorem in mathematics:

  1. Organisms vary (have different phenotypes).
  2. Some of this variation is heritable, passed from one generation to the next (have different genotypes).
  3. Some heritable variations (phenotypes) are fitter (produce more offspring) than others because they are better adapted to their environment.
  4. Ergo, each generation will be better adapted than the preceding one. Organisms will evolve.

Expressed in this way, Darwin’s idea seems self-evidently true.  But the simplicity is only apparent.

The direction of evolution

Darwinian evolution depends on not one but two forces: selection, the gradual improvement from generation to generation as better-adapted phenotypes are selected; and variation: the set of heritable characteristics that are offered up for selection in each generation.  This joint process can be progressive or stabilizing, depending on the pattern of variation.  Selection/variation does not necessarily produce progressive change.  This should have been obvious, for a reason I describe in a moment.

The usual assumption is that  among the heritable variants in each generation will be some that fare better than average.  If these are selected, then the average must improve, the species will change – adapt better – from one generation to the next.

But what if  variation only offers up individuals that fare worse than the modal individual?  These will all be selected against and there will be no shift in the average; adaptation will remain as before.  This is called stabilizing selection and is perhaps the usual pattern.  Stabilizing selection is why many species in the geological record have remained unchanged for many hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years.  Indeed, a forerunner of Darwin, the ‘father of geology’ the Scot, James Hutton (1726-1797), came up with the idea of natural selection as an explanation for the constancy  of species.  The difference – progress or stasis – depends not just on selection but on the range and type of variation.

The structure of variation

Darwin’s process has two parts: variation is just as important as selection.  Indeed, without variation, there is nothing to select. But like many others, Richard Dawkins, a Darwinian fundamentalist, puts all weight on selection: “natural selection is the force that drives evolution on.” says Dawkins in one of his many TV shows.  Variation represents “random mistakes” and the effect of selection is like “modelling clay”.  Like Christopher Booker, he seems to believe that natural selection operates on small, random variations.

Critics of evolution simply find it hard to believe that the complexity of the living world can all be explained by selection from small, random variations.  Darwin was very well aware of the problem: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” [Origin]  But he was being either naïve or disingenuous here.  He should surely have known that outside the realm of logic, proving a negative, proving that you can’t do something, is next to impossible.  Poverty of imagination is not disproof!

Darwin was concerned about the evolution of the vertebrate eye: focusing lens, sensitive retina and so on.  How could the bits of an eye evolve and be useful before the whole perfect structure has evolved?  He justified his argument by pointing to the wide variety of primitive eyes in a range of species that lack many of the elements of the fully-formed vertebrate eye but are nevertheless better than the structures that preceded them.

There is general agreement that the focusing eye could have evolved in just the way that Darwin proposed.  But there is some skepticism about many other extravagances of evolution: all that useless patterning and behavior associated with sexual reproduction in bower birds and birds of paradise, the unnecessary ornamentation of the male peacock and many other examples of apparently maladaptive behavior associated with reproduction, even human super-intelligence: we seem to be much smarter than we needed to be as hunter-gatherers thought the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.  The theory of sexual selection was developed to deal with cases like these, but it must be admitted that many details are still missing.

The fundamental error in Booker’s criticism of Darwin as well as Dawkins’ celebration of him, is the claim that evolution always occurred “just through [selection of] minute, random variations.  Selection, natural or otherwise, is just a filter.  It creates nothing.  Variation proposes, selection just disposes.  All the creation is supplied by the processes of variation.  If variation is not totally random or always small in extent, if it is creating complex structures, not just tiny variations in existing structures, then it is doing the work, not selection.

Non-random variation

In Darwin’s day, nothing was known about genetics.  He saw no easy pattern in variation, but was impressed by the power of selection, which was demonstrated in artificial selection of animals and crops.  It was therefore reasonable and parsimonious for him to assume as little structure in variation as possible.  But he also discussed many cases where variation is neither small nor random.  So-called “sporting” plants are  examples of quite large changes from one generation to the next, “that is, of plants which have suddenly produced a single bud with a new and sometimes widely different character from that of the other buds on the same plant.” What Darwin called correlated variation is an example of linked, hence non-random, characteristics.  He quotes another distinguished naturalist writing that “Breeders believe that long limbs are almost always accompanied by an elongated head” and “Colour and constitutional peculiarities go together, of which many remarkable cases could be given among animals and plants.”  Darwin’s observation about correlated variation has been strikingly confirmed by a long-term Russian experiment with silver foxes selectively bred for their friendliness to humans.  After several generations, the now-friendly animals began to show many of the features of domestic dogs, like floppy ears and wagging tails.

“Monster” fetuses and infants with characters much different from normal have been known for centuries.  Most are mutants and they show large effects.  But again, they are not random.  It is well known that some inherited deformities, like extra fingers and limbs or two heads, are relatively common, but others – a partial finger or half a head, are rare to non-existent.

Most monsters die before or soon after birth.  But once in a very long while such a non-random variant may turn out to succeed better than the normal organism, perhaps lighting the fuse to a huge jump in evolution like the Cambrian explosion.  Stephen Jay Gould publicized George Gaylord Simpson’s “tempo and mode in evolution” as punctuated equilibrium, to describe the sometimes sudden shift from stasis to change in the history of species evolution.  Sometimes these jumps  may result from a change in selection pressures.  But some may be triggered by an occasional large monster-like change in phenotype with no change in the selection environment.

The kinds of phenotypic (observed form) variation that can occur depend on the way the genetic instructions in the fertilized egg are translated into the growing organism.  Genetic errors (mutations) may be random, but the phenotypes to which they give rise are most certainly not.  It is the phenotypes that are selected not the genes themselves.  So selection operates on a pool of (phenotypic) variation that is not always “small and random”.

Even mutations themselves do not in fact occur at random.  Recurrent mutations occur more frequently than others, so would resist any attempt to select them out.  There are sometimes links between mutations so that mutation A is more likely to be accompanied by mutation B (“hitchhiking”) and so on.

Is there structure to variation?

Selection acts on phenotypes, but the results are passed on from generation to generation through the genotype.  Just how this process works is still a mystery: how is the information in the genes translated during development into the adult organism?  How might one or two modest mutations sometimes result in large structured changes in the phenotype?  Is there any directionality to such changes?  Is there a pattern?  Some recent studies of the evolution of African lake fish suggests that there may be a predetermined pattern. Genetically different cichlid fish in different lakes have evolved to look and behave almost identically:  Armand Leroi concludes in the video:  “In other words, the ‘tape’ of cichlid evolution has been run twice. And both times, the outcome has been much the same.” Moreover, the process occurred very quickly: “the more than 500 species that live [in Lake Victoria]  and only there today all evolved within the past 15,000 to 10,000 years – an eyeblink in geologic terms…”  There is room, in other words, for the hypothesis that natural selection is not the sole “driving force” in evolution.  Natural selection works. But its role may be large or small, depending on circumstances.  Variation may sometimes be highly structured and not “small and random”. The ways that this may come about are being mapped out.

The laws of development (ontogenesis), if laws there be, still elude discovery. But the origin of species (phylogenesis) surely depends as much on them as on selection.  Perhaps these largely unknown laws are what Darwin’s critics mean by ‘intelligent design’?  But if so, the term is deeply unfortunate because it implies that evolution is guided by intention, by an inscrutable agent, not by impersonal laws.  As a hypothesis it is untestable.  Darwin’s critics are right to see a problem with “small, random variation” Darwinism.  But they are wrong to insert an intelligent agent as a solution and still claim they are doing science. Appealing to intelligent design just begs the question of how development actually works. It is not science, but faith.

Darwin’s theory is not wrong. As he knew, but many of his fans do not, it is incomplete.  Instead of paying attention to the gaps, and seeking to fill them, these enthusiasts have provided a straw man for opponents to attack.  Emboldened by its imperfections they have proposed as an alternative ‘intelligent design’: an untestable non-solution that blocks further advance.   Darwin was closer to the truth than his critics – and closer than some simple-minded supporters.

On Responsibility and Punishment

Published as: Staddon, J. (1995) On responsibility and punishment.  The Atlantic Monthly, Feb., 88-94.

The litany of social dysfunction is now familiar.  The rates of violent crime are higher than they have ever been: Americans kill and maim one another at per-capita rates an order of magnitude higher than other industrialized nations.  The rate of marriage has been generally declining and the rate of illegitimacy hits new highs each year.  Tens of thousands of children have no fathers and no family member or close acquaintance who has a regular job.  This pattern is now repeating into a second and third generation.  Illiteracy is becoming a problem and schools have so lost authority that the accepted response to armed pupils is to install metal detectors.  Senator Moynihan in a celebrated article recently pointed out how we cope with social disintegration by redefining deviancy, so that crimes become “normal” behavior.

How did we arrive at this condition?  There’s no short answer, but I have come increasingly to believe that my own profession — psychology — bears a large part of the blame.  The story began many years ago, when psychology defined itself as a science. By thus anointing itself, psychology gained great prestige.  People accepted with little demur prescriptions that would earlier have been condemned on moral grounds.  Don’t spank your child.  Don’t attempt to deter sexual exploration by young people — deterrence is probably bad and will certainly fail.  Punishment is ineffective and should be replaced by positive reinforcement.  Self-esteem is good, social stigma bad.  It is not clear that this advice was all wrong.  What is clear, and what I will show in this article, is that it was not based on science.

Some questions about behavior can be answered — either now or in the future — through the methods of science.  How does visual perception work?  What are the effects of different reward schedules?  How accurate is memory for words and faces?  What lighting conditions are best for different kinds of task?  Which people are likely to succeed in which professions?  Other questions, including apparently simple ones such as the value of some teaching techniques or the legitimacy of corporal punishment, cannot be answered.  They cannot be answered by science because they have consequences that go beyond the individual or far into the future.  Corporal punishment and teaching methods affect not just the child but, eventually, the nature of society.  Society cannot be the subject of experiments, and even if it could, effects of social changes usually take decades or even centuries to play out.  Hence we cannot expect to get hard scientific answers to many social questions.

Obviously, we need to separate those questions that belong in the domain of science from those that do not; to separate questions which can be answered definitively from those which cannot.  Unfortunately, psychology as a profession tends to assume that all questions about human action fall within its domain and all can eventually be answered with the authority of science — and this imperialism has gone largely unquestioned.

Psychologists and behavioral psychiatrists seem like a diverse crew.  At one end we have “touchy-feelies” who say things like “any of us who were raised in the traditional patriarchal system have trouble relating because we’ve been ‘mystified’ to some degree by an upbringing that compels obedience and rules by fear, a raising that can be survived only by a denial of the authentic self (John Bradshaw).”  At the other we have the behaviorists, who say things like “In the scientific view. . . a person’s behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed (B. F. Skinner).”

Skinner and Bradshaw seem to agree on little.  Skinner had no time for “authentic selves” or “feelings”; Bradshaw undoubtedly feels little kinship with Skinnerian “rat psychology.”  It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that psychological pundits from Bradshaw to Skinner agree on several important things.  Almost all have a perspective that is entirely individual.  All reject what John Bradshaw calls “fear,” Fred Skinner called “aversive control” and the rest of us call punishment.  Nearly all psychologists believe that behavior is completely determined by heredity and environment.  A substantial majority agree with Skinner that determinism rules out the concept of personal responsibility.  This opposition between determinism and responsibility is now widely accepted, not just by behaviorists but by every category of mental-health professional, by journalists, by much of the public — and by many in the legal profession.

Behaviorism is the most self-consciously “scientific” of the many strands that make up psychology.  Although recently somewhat overshadowed by other movements such as cognitive psychology, the influence of behaviorism during most of the short history of psychology has been overwhelming.  Consequently, when behaviorists have produced “hard” evidence in favor of beliefs already shared by other psychologists, the combined effect has always been decisive.  I will describe just such a confluence in this article.

About moral positions, argument is possible.  But about scientific “facts” there can be no argument.  Skinner, and the behaviorist movement of which he was the head, delegitimized both individual responsibility and punishment.  Responsibility was dismissed by philosophical argument.  Punishment was ruled out not by moral opposition but by supposedly scientific laboratory fact.  Less “scientific” psychologists and psychiatrists have also agreed that punishment is bad, but the reasons for their consensus are more complex and to do with the social function of psychotherapy.  Nevertheless, for the majority of psychologists and psychiatrists, the “facts” established by the behaviorists have always constituted an unanswerable argument — especially if they support preexisting beliefs.  This “scientific” consensus has had a devastating effect on  the moral basis of American society.                I will argue just two things in this article: first, that there is no opposition between behavioral determinism and the notion of individual responsibility.  And second, that the supposedly scientific basis for blanket opposition to punishment as a legitimate social instrument –in the family, school and workplace, and the judicial system –is nonexistent.  My focus is Skinnerian behaviorism, because it is the area of psychology that has been most concerned with large social issues.  But the key ideas have been carried forward by a much larger number of psychologists and psychiatrists who have never thought of themselves as behaviorists.

  1. F. Skinner’s 1971 best-seller Beyond Freedom and Dignity contains his most concerted, and successful, attack on traditional methods of social control. Most psychotherapists, behaviorist and nonbehaviorist alike, have come to agree with the substance of Skinner’s message: that punishment is bad and that that the idea of individual responsibility is a myth.  Skinner’s argument is simply wrong.  It will be a task for future sociologists to understand why such a bad argument received such ready assent.

Skinner contrasts the “prescientific” view that “a person’s behavior is at least to some extent his own achievement” with the “scientific” view that behavior is completely determined by heredity and environment.  The conventional view, says Skinner, is that “[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.”  What’s wrong with these apparently reasonable claims?


Is man free?  Well, as the professor used to say, it depends on what you mean by “freedom.”  The bottom line is that you’re free if you feel free.  Skinner’s definition is simpler: to him, freedom is simply the absence of punishment (“aversive contingencies”).  But we are all “punished” by gravity if we don’t obey its rules.  The punishment can sometimes be quite severe, as beginning cyclists and skaters can attest.  Yet we don’t feel unfree when we learn to skate or cycle.  Punishment doesn’t always abolish freedom — and freedom is not just absence of punishment.

Skinner has another definition for freedom: absence of causation (“autonomous man”).  This is an odd notion indeed.  How can one ever prove absence of causation.  In science, a conjecture like this is called “proving the null hypothesis” and everyone accepts its impossibility.  We might prove the converse, however, that people feel unfree when their behavior is determined, that is to say, when it can be predicted.   For example, suppose a rich and generous aunt offers her young niece a choice between a small sum of money and a large sum.  In the absence of any contrary factors, the niece will doubtless pick the larger over the smaller (classical economics rests on the assumption that this will always be the free choice).  Can we predict the niece’s behavior?  Certainly.  Is her behavior determined?  Yes, by all the usual criteria.  Is she unfree?  She certainly doesn’t feel unfree.  People generally feel free when they follow their preferences, no matter how predictable those preferences may be.  Behavior can be predicted in other contexts as well.  Mathematicians predictably follow the laws of arithmetic, architects the laws of geometry and baseball players the laws of physics.  The behavior of all is determined; yet all feel free.  Ergo, predictability — determinism — doesn’t equal absence of freedom as Skinner proposes.

So, even if we could predict all human behavior with the precision of these examples, this wonderful new science would have no bearing at all on the idea of freedom.


There’s another strand in Skinner’s assault on traditional practices, his attack on punishment.  He rejects punishment not because it’s morally wrong, but because it doesn’t work.  (W. H. Auden had no such doubts about punishment when he remarked “Give me a no-nonsense, down-to-earth behaviorist, a few drugs, and simple electrical appliances, and in six months I will have him reciting the Athanasian creed in public.”)  Since everyone knows that some punishments work, sometimes, you’ll naturally be curious to know how Skinner defended this position.  His argument boils down to three points: punishment is ineffective because when you stop punishing, the punished behavior returns; punishment provokes “counterattack”; positive reinforcement is better.  Let’s look at each of these.

Punishment is ineffective.  Well, no, it isn’t.  Common sense aside, laboratory studies with pigeons and rats (the data base for Skinner’s argument) show that punishment (usually a brief electric shock) works very well to suppress behavior, so long as it is of the right magnitude and follows promptly on the behavior that is to be suppressed.  If the rat gets a moderate shock when he presses the bar, he stops pressing more or less at once.  If the shock is too great, the rat stops doing anything; if it’s too weak, he may still press the bar once in a while; if it’s just right, he quits pressing, but otherwise behaves normally.  Does the punished behavior return when the punishment is withdrawn?  It depends on the training procedure.  A rat well-trained on an avoidance procedure called shock postponement, in which he gets no shock so long as he presses the lever every now and then, may keep pressing indefinitely even after the shock generator is disconnected.  In this case, punishment has very persistent effects indeed.

Punishment provokes counterattack.  Sure; if a food-producing lever also produces shock, the rat will try to get the food without getting the shock.  A famous picture in introductory psychology texts is called “breakfast in bed.”  It shows a rat in a shock-food experiment that learned to press the lever while lying on its back, insulated by its fur from the metal floor grid.  Skinner was right that rats, and people, try to beat a punishment schedule.

Positive reinforcement is more effective.  Not true.  The effects of positive reinforcement also dissipate when the reinforcement is withdrawn, and there is no positive-reinforcement procedure that produces such persistent behavior as a shock-postponement schedule.  Positive reinforcement also provokes “counterattack.”  Every student who cheats, every gambler who rigs the odds, every robber and thief, shows the “counterattack” provoked by positive reinforcement schedules.

There are other arguments on both sides, but the net conclusion must be that the scientific evidence is pretty neutral in deciding between reward and punishment.  They both have their advantages and disadvantages: punishment is better for suppressing behavior, positive reinforcement better for generating behavior; avoidance (punishment) schedules tend to produce more persistent behavior than reward schedules, and so on.  If we wish to favor reward over punishment, we must make a moral, not a scientific, case.


All this might be academic, but for its impact on legal thinking.  The opposition between determinism and responsibility, and the doubts cast on punishment, do seem to raise issues of justice.  If “the Devil (or, at least, “my environment”) made me do it!” surely the rigors of just punishment (of dubious effectiveness in any case, according to psychologists) should be spared?  In the era of Lorena Bobbit, the Reginald Denny attackers and the Menendez brothers, this argument evidently strikes a receptive chord in the hearts of American juries.

Too bad, because the argument is false.  I’ve already argued that behavior can be both determined (in the sense of predictable) and free.  I’ll argue now that the legal concept of personal responsibility is founded on this kind of predictability.  Personal responsibility demands that behavior be predictable, not the opposite, as Skinner contended.

What is the purpose of judicial punishment?  Legal scholars normally identify two purposes, retribution and deterrence.  Retribution is a moral concept, which need not concern us here.  But deterrence is a practical matter.  Arguments about deterrence are clouded by ideology and the impossibility of deciding the issue by the methods of science.  Nevertheless, there is an approach to deterrence that is straightforward and acceptable to most people which much simplifies a jury’s task.  The idea is that the purpose of legal punishment is to minimize the total amount of suffering in society, the suffering caused by crime as well as the suffering caused by punishment.  The concept is simple: if thievery is punished by amputation, the level of thievery will be low, but the suffering of thieves will be very high, higher perhaps than warranted by the reduction in theft.  On the other hand, if murderers go free, the level of murder will be high and the ease of the killers will not be balanced by the suffering of the rest.  We may argue about how to measure suffering and how to assess the effect of a given level of legal punishment for a given crime, but the principle, which I call the social view of punishment, seems reasonable enough.  It is consistent with the fundamental principle that government exists for the welfare of society as a whole, not for the good of any particular individual.  Once they understand the argument, most people seem to agree that the social view of punishment is acceptable, although not, perhaps, the whole story.  What people do not seem to realize is that this perfectly reasonable view is not opposed to determinism: it requires determinism.

From an objective point of view — the only legitimate point of view for science — “holding a man responsible” for his actions means nothing more than making him subject to punishment if he breaks the law.  The social view of punishment assumes that people are sensitive to reward and punishment, that behavior be predictably subject to causal influences.  If criminal behavior is predictably deterred by punishment, the justly punished criminal is less likely to disobey the law again, and serves as an example to other potential lawbreakers.  This is the only objective justification for punishment.  But if behavior were unpredictable and unaffected by “reinforcement contingencies” — if it were uncaused, in Skinner’s caricature of “freedom” — there would be absolutely no point to punishment or any other form of behavioral control, because it would have no predictable effect.  In short, legal responsibility requires behavioral determinism, not the reverse.

It is interesting to reflect that the objective case for personal responsibility rests entirely on the beneficial collective effects (on the sum total of human suffering) of just punishment.  It does not rest on philosophical notions of individual autonomy, or personal intent, or anything else at the level of the individual — other than normal susceptibility to reward and punishment.  The idea that the law is somehow concerned with the mental state of the accused, rather than with the consequences of judicial action, has taken root because Skinner, like most other psychologists, focused so exclusively on the individual.

If a person’s “behavior is at least to some extent his own achievement” then, says Skinner, he can be blamed for failure and praised for success.  Since personal responsibility is a myth (he concludes) praise and blame are irrelevant.  But if personal responsibility is defined as I have defined it, praise and blame need not –should not — be abandoned.  In the social view, the use of praise and blame has nothing to do with the ontology of personal responsibility, the epistemology of intention or whatnot.  It has everything to do with reward and punishment (in other contexts, Skinner admits as much, at least with respect to praise).  We praise good behavior because we wish to see more of it; we blame the criminal because we wish less crime.  Praise and blame are perhaps the strongest incentives available to society.  By giving them up, Skinner gave up our best tools for social order.

It is extraordinary that Skinner seems to have missed the connection between determinism and the sanctions imposed by the legal system.  He spent his life studying how the behavior of animals is determined by the conditions of reward and punishment.  He and his students discovered dozens of subtle and previously unsuspected regularities in the actions of reward and punishment.  Yet he failed to see that the system of rewards and punishments imposed by society works in much the same way as his reinforcement schedules.

Remarkably, law and science seem to agree on the social view of punishment.  Only when punishment is likely to be completely ineffective as a deterrent does the law limit its use.  If the criminal is insane, or if injury was the unintended result of actions whose harmful outcome was unforeseeable, no guilt is attached to the perpetrator and no punishment is given — presumably because punishment can play no role in preventing the recurrence of such acts.  There is surprising congruence between the legal concept of responsibility and the function of punishment as a deterrent.   “Guilt” is established not so much by the act, as by the potential of punishment to deter the act.


These arguments greatly simplify a jury’s task.  Jurors have no need to puzzle through philosophical questions about “intent” or knowledge of right and wrong.  Nor do they need to ask whether criminal behavior was determined by the defendant’s past history.  (The scientific answer will almost always be, “yes,” because almost all behavior is determined.)  History is not the point.  The point is: Did the defendant know that his actions would have an illegal outcome?  And, if the accused had known, in advance of the act, that sure punishment would follow, would he still have acted as he did?  If the criminal would have been deterred by the prospect of punishment then, says the social view, he should be punished.  Did the Menendez brothers know that their actions would result in the death of their parents?  Presumably, yes.  If they had known that these acts would result in severe punishment (life in prison, death), would have they have acted nevertheless?  Probably not.  Verdict: guilty.  On the other hand, if the jury has reason to believe that the defendants’ past history was so horrific that they would have murdered even in the face of certain punishment, then some other verdict (which might still involve removing these damaged men from society) would be appropriate.


The social view of punishment is as far as psychology can go towards prescribing social policy.  Given a certain set of values, psychology may help us decide what system of rewards and punishments will be helpful in promoting them.  But the social view of reward and punishment does not by itself prescribe social policy.  Our value system, our morality, plays a legitimate role in measuring “suffering,” in evaluating known outcomes and in judging the rightness of wrongness of particular rewards and punishments.  We’re less moved by the plight of the disappointed thief who breaks open an empty safe, than by the suffering of a mugging victim, for example.  Psychology can tell us a little (only a little, since we don’t do such experiments on human beings) about the individual effects of corporal punishment vs. the effects of a jail term; it cannot tell us whether corporal punishment is cruel or not.  Social science can tell us that more people will be killed by guns if guns are freely available than if they are not.  It cannot tell us whether the freedom to bear arms is an inalienable right.  Psychology can tell us something about the extent of homosexuality in different cultures; it cannot tell us whether homosexuality is good, bad or a matter of indifference.  Psychology can also tell us that social opprobrium — Hester Prynne’s “A”, blame, or the big red “D” some have proposed for drunk drivers — is often an effective deterrent.  It cannot tell us whether such punishments are “right” or not.  Scientific psychology, like all science, is amoral: it tells us what is, or what might be — not what should be.  Psychologists who offer more, promoters of “authentic selves” or punishment-free societies, are peddling not science but faith.