Behaviorism: II. Philosophical Issues

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Behaviorism involves two basic views: (1) the proper subject matter of psychology is not consciousness but the behavior of persons and animals, and (2) the proper goal of psychology is the prediction and control of behavior through "stimulus control." There are many forms of behaviorism, and they evoke varied philosophical responses. Behaviorism arose out of frustration with older, introspective approaches to mind and consciousness that appeal to direct awareness of mental states and processes, and out also of the desire to turn psychology into a proper natural or physical science with an empirical methodology and subject matter.

Methodological and Metaphysical Behaviorism

Methodological behaviorism does not deny the existence of mind and consciousness. Rather, it holds merely that such things are causally ineffective and irrelevant in psychology. To be scientific, psychology must adopt an empirical, scientific methodology applied to the empirical, physical subject matter of observable human behavior.

Metaphysical behaviorism of the sort espoused by John B. Watson (1878–1958) and his followers makes a much stronger claim. It denies the existence of mind and consciousness and proposes that all mentalistic concepts be properly defined (or redefined) in terms of observable behavior. Watson maintained that behavior can be explained entirely in terms of stimulus and response, without the intervention of mental or conscious events and activities. For Watson, all behavior is environmentally derived and cannot be explained by appeals to heredity, instincts, the unconscious, human nature, or internal predispositions.

Some behaviorists recognize two different kinds of observable behavior: external behavior, which is sometimes characterized as overt, external, or molar (pertaining to the whole); and internal behavior, which is alternatively called covert, implicit, deep, or central behavior. If thinking is defined as "talking" or "speaking, " an account must be given of what transpires when people are thinking silently "to themselves." The wife of a philosopher once complained that she could never tell whether he was working or loafing. Many psychological processes and activities seem, at times, to involve no external behavior. Behaviorists may either deny the reality of private events or affirm that they involve internal behaviors or processes. Thus, thinking becomes "motion in the head, " as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) put it, or "sub-vocal speech, " as Watson suggested.

Behaviorism is usually associated with some form of metaphysical materialism, of which there are many varieties (Foss). When internal behavior is identified with neurophysiological activity, behaviorism becomes centralstate materialism, or neuromaterialsim, according to which the reality of mental states and processes is identical with that of physical states and processes in the brain and central nervous system. This theory identifies mental processes with electrical and chemical processes within the central nervous system ("motion in the head"). Modern brain-scanning devices give indirect sensory access to these neurophysiological motions and processes, though not to the mental processes that are supposedly embodied in them. Brain scans can picture structures and electrochemical changes within the brain, but an enormous and highly controversial conceptual leap, or explanation gap, exists when these are designated as thoughts, feelings, volitions, or emotions.

Taking both consciousness and neuroscience seriously need not involve mind–matter dualism, which affirms that matter but not mind has spatial properties. If, contrary to the Cartesian tradition, people's thoughts, feelings, and volitions are spatially extended, then they can be located within specific regions of the brain. Whether psychological events are identical with or merely correlated with brain events is at present unknown.

This discussion, however, concentrates on the behaviorism of John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and those philosophers of language who focus on observable acts, or on dispositions to behave in observable ways. It raises questions about whether behaviorism is or is not incompatible with presuppositions that are commonplace in ethical theory and bioethics.

Logical or Linguistic Behaviorism

Many philosophers are attracted to behaviorism's original emphasis on observable external behavior, either for metaphysical or methodological reasons. Some want to escape from Cartesian mind–body dualism—from "the ghost in the machine, " as Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) put it—though this may be done without resorting to behaviorism. Members of the positivistic Vienna Circle, an influential group of scientifically oriented philosophers who flourished in Vienna from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, wanted to avoid introspective methodology, and so do those influenced by them. They are attracted to the behavioristic methodology of theoretically redefining mentalistic language in terms of external, overt, publicly observable behavior because of its compatibility with the empiricist, or verification criterion, of meaning: that meaning consists exclusively in sensory reference.

Logical, or linguistic, positivism attempts to analyze or redefine the meanings of concepts and beliefs in terms of sensory reference and verifiability. Many recent and contemporary philosophers with a bent toward this form of positivism have tried to formulate in observable behavioral terms the meanings of psychological concepts such as thought, understanding, intelligence, doubt, imagination, and memory, as well as the classes and manifold subclasses of feelings, sensations, pleasures, pains, emotions, desires, and purposes.

Gilbert Ryle, a prominent British linguistic philosopher, was convinced that ordinary language is a behavioristic language, and that ordinary meanings of psychological terms are behavioral meanings. Without denying the existence of inner mental events, he believed that the ordinary meanings of mental concepts can be captured by reference to observable behaviors (or the dispositions to manifest them), without appeal to private or privileged access. Most philosophers and psychologists since Ryle, however, have believed that psychological concepts in ordinary language and "folk psychology" cannot be analyzed purely behaviorally without an important loss of significance. Many see this as a reason for abandoning familiar psychological terminology for a technically or theoretically constructed psychological vocabulary. Others have found self-awareness to be too evident and significant to be abandoned, believing that a purely behavioral outlook only fosters trivialities and ignores the obvious.

Although Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), a highly influential linguistic philosopher, did not deny the existence of consciousness and its contents, features of his philosophy of mind can be interpreted to support a behavioristic outlook. He argued convincingly against private languages and purely private experience, contending that human infants originally learn to use psychological concepts by reference to behavioral criteria in a social setting, and that these criteria are themselves integral aspects of the meaning of such concepts. Few philosophers today would deny this intimate connection between mental concepts and behavior. Nevertheless, "How do we learn mentalistic concepts?" and "To what do mentalistic concepts refer?" seem to be very different questions.

Some of Wittgenstein's interpreters subsequently dropped his conviction that psychological concepts point to something internal and mental, adopting only the view that the meanings or referents of psychological concepts consist entirely in behavioral criteria. Thus, the meaning of pain consists solely in pain behaviors such as screaming, crying, or moaning, and internal states do not need external criteria, for there are no internal states. Psychological concepts are identical in meaning with their external criteria, just as good Watsonian behaviorists contended.

Objections to Behaviorism

Behaviorism has been criticized from many philosophical and psychological perspectives, and developments in psychology often have a significant bearing on philosophical issues raised by behaviorism.

PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL DIFFICULTIES. The technical language that behaviorism aspired to generate was certainly not ordinary everyday language, for it never lost sight of consciousness, its complexity, and its manifold contents, purposes, and values. Since the middle of the twentieth century, more and more philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and psychotherapists have acknowledged the centrality of consciousness for their own activities. Consciousness is now seen as being complex, ranging from minimal awareness devoid of conceptual representation, through symbolic awareness, to self-awareness, while a great deal of nonconscious data-processing occurs (Gazzaniga et al.).

Consciousness and immediate self-awareness are indispensable for people to understand their uniqueness and their personal, ethical, professional, and therapeutic relations with each another. Initially, behaviorists aspired to explain what people do on a simple Pavlovian stimulus–response model; but the terms stimulus, response, and behavior have been used quite loosely. Muscles, glands, and organs (and who knows what else) react to external (and, they confessed later, to internal) stimuli; and no conscious processing or activities intervene. This view, however, proved to be too simple, too ambiguous, and too devoid of comprehensiveness, to be true—which does not deny that valuable lessons can be learned from the study of behavior.

Gestalt psychologists recognized that empirical stimuli or data are processed internally and holistically, and that no simple stimulus–response theory could explain how humans perceive continuous motion from discontinuous and still motion-picture frames. Noam Chomsky argued effectively that psychological conditioning and associationist learning theory, according to which learning occurs solely through repeated exposures that form connecting links, are too weak to account for the genetically prestructured dispositions of human infants to learn human languages—and for the creative and rule-governed ways in which languages are employed. Abraham Maslow (1971) reported that having a child of his own made behavioristic views of conditioned associationist learning look so foolish that he could not stomach them anymore. To Maslow, the presence of conscious, creative processing of information in his own children was too obvious to be denied. Cognitive psychologists emphasized the indispensability of conscious cognitive or conceptual maps in understanding how people understand, anticipate the future, plan ahead, and act accordingly. According to evolutionary psychology, the evolutionary process has prepared and predisposed people to act, feel, think, and choose in certain ways; and conscious comprehension, insight, information processing, and problem solving have immense significance for purposive and voluntary activity, adaptation, and survival.

The teleological (consciously purposive) and the intentional (consciously focused on an object) features of much psychological discourse cannot be accounted for by a purely descriptive language that completely eliminates teleology, intentionality, and all "final causes." Purposive acts, like trying to persuade psychologists that behavior is the only proper subject matter of psychology, cannot be redescribed as nonpurposive behaviors without losing essential meaning. Denying the existence of consciousness, purpose, or intentionality is refuted by that very act, which is a conscious, purposive, and intentional event.

Behaviorists are asked why they adopt and espouse behaviorism, why they want psychology to be strictly sensory and empirical, and why they want to control the behavior of others. They repudiate conscious rationality, and with it the possibility of justifying any beliefs on rational or scientific grounds. To behavioralists, all that people are and do is a product of stimulus control, which means that behaviorists are behaviorists only because they have been conditioned to be, not because the preponderance of evidence supports the theory.

Stipulating that psychological processes and events are identical with behavioral processes and events is self-contradictory, some critics argue, for two different things cannot be metaphysically identical. Responding that the psychological and the behavioral are only one thing, not two, begs the question. Critics also suspect that the identity of the mental and the behavioral (or the mental and the neurophysiological in central-state materialism) is established by decree, not by observation or scientific method. Watsonian behaviorists solve the problem of other minds by stating that no problem exists because there are no minds at all, while for Skinner's behaviorism, minds do not matter.

First-person self-knowledge based on direct introspective experience has been a great obstacle to the acceptance of behaviorism. To be sure, introspection is not always reliable and is often confused; but direct self-awareness is often quite clear and trustworthy. Individuals are not always mistaken about what they think, how they feel, or what they select. Critics of behaviorism contend that individuals know many things about themselves before, not after, they receive overt expression. For example, authors solve many conceptual problems before they express their ideas in writing. There can be thought without speech (silent thought) and speech without thought (e.g., a parrot's speech). Most people can tell whether they are feeling well or ill before looking into the mirror in the morning or bouncing their countenances off the countenances of others. Further, one can deceive others about one's mental states and processes by playing public roles that do not match one's private self-awareness. A person might be in great pain and yet sit passively and unresponsively in a dentist's chair. Short- and long-range plans are made without a purpose being overtly expressed, and a person can change his or her mind about many things with no one ever knowing.

Nonbehaviorists are convinced that people frequently know many things about their psychological states and processes that are not identical with, and find no expression in, overt behavior. Further, attempts to establish the identity or correlation of mentalistic concepts with behaviors must rely initially upon the self-reports of individual experimental subjects, as well as upon ordinary language with its imbedded folk psychology. When the brain regions and events are examined through brain scanners, they are not labeled as "thinking, " "remembering, " "hearing, " or "seeing a rainbow." Once the initial connections are made, an immense amount of information can be derived about the intimate associations of consciousness functions with brain regions and electrochemical activities through neuroimaging, electroencephalograms, brain stimulation, and studies of genetics, or brain disorders and injuries, as well as by experimenting on individual subjects, both animal and human (Gazzaniga et al.).

Behaviorism, Ethical Theory, and Bioethics

Other objections to behaviorism arise from its incompatibility with concepts and beliefs that are presupposed in most ethical theories, people's common moral life, and the practice of bioethics. This suggests a choice: either to give up behaviorism or abandon much that ethics takes with utmost seriousness, such as consciousness, pleasure and pain, agency or autonomy, freedom, and human dignity, just as Skinner advocated.

CONSCIOUSNESS. Ethics asks questions about right and wrong, and about good and evil. The notions of intrinsic goodness (that which is desirable or valuable in itself or for its own sake) and intrinsic evil (that which is undesirable and to be avoided for its own sake) are of central importance to ethical theory. In teleological theories of right and wrong, right acts result in intrinsic goodness, while wrong acts fail to do so or produce intrinsic evil. Doing good and avoiding or preventing evil are momentous moral duties even in deontological theories (except for Immanuel Kant's). Doing one's duty usually, if not always, involves understanding and acting in accord with moral ideals and rules—none of which even exist, according to metaphysical behaviorism. Ethicists may disagree about answers to questions like "What acts are right or wrong?" or "What things are good or evil?" There is, however, agreement that no moral obligations and no intrinsic good or evil would exist in a world without consciousness. Moral right and wrong and intrinsic good and evil exist only in and for conscious active beings.

Almost all the philosophers who have considered the question agree that ethics would have no point in a world devoid of conscious beings. Yet Watsonian metaphysical behaviorism gives us just such a world—one in which all behavior is caused by external or environmental stimuli and no behavior is caused by inner conscious mental states and processes. Skinner's radical behaviorism may allow that some activities are spontaneous rather than environmentally caused, but these behaviors are repeated only if their consequences are positively reinforcing. (He doesn't use the terms pleasurable or enjoyable. ) When Skinner admits the existence of inner mental states and processes, he denies their causal efficacy in explaining behavior and providing reasons for action, as well as their relevance to the science of psychology. They are always the effects of stimuli, never the causes of behavior; they exist only epiphenomenally, that is, as ineffective appearances. Scientific psychology can disregard them, for scientifically knowing, controlling, and predicting behavior do not require them.

Some behaviorists retain the notion of consciousness and redefine it in purely behavioral terms—as overt wakeful behavior, for example, as opposed to sleep behavior. Most ethicists, however, are convinced that ethics is concerned with wakefulness itself, as directly experienced by conscious subjects, not merely with wakeful behavior and muscle jerks as experienced by external observers.

Medical professionals are concerned primarily with wakeful consciousness itself, not solely with its public or overt expressions. They often prescribe analgesics or other pain management strategies for suffering patients. During invasive medical procedures, general anesthesia is administered, not to circumvent external pain behaviors, but to prevent conscious pain. After a lapse of consciousness, a patient's return to awareness is eagerly awaited. Lost consciousness is the tragedy of comatose patients, while death involves the irreversible loss of embodied consciousness and its necessary physiological conditions. The seriousness of these medical interests seems to be quite incompatible with a concern only for overt behavior.

PLEASURES AND PAINS. Philosophical ethicists are keenly interested in consciously experienced pleasures and pains, and medical professionals give considerable attention to conscious pains, if not also to pleasures. Most ethicists believe that pointless pains (those that are not necessary for the achievement of goals knowingly and freely accepted) are to be avoided if possible; and most recognize that happiness, conceived of as a surplus of conscious pleasures over pains for extended periods of time, is one of the great goods of life (if not the only good, as hedonists maintain). Medical professionals accept the duties of relieving pain and not inflicting unnecessary conscious pain as serious professional obligations. Patients want relief from real pains, not merely the suppression or elimination of pain behaviors. Pleasures usually means "conscious inner qualities of feeling that persons or other sentient beings normally wish to cultivate and sustain for their own sake, " and pains means "conscious inner qualities of feeling that persons or other sentient beings normally wish to avoid and eliminate for their own sake" (Edwards, pp. 74, 92–96).

Although pain behaviors are indispensable for describing or communicating inner sufferings to others, most ethicists and bioethicists do not believe that overt pain behaviors, completely divorced from conscious suffering, are intrinsically bad, or that they are duty bound to relieve and not induce pain behaviors as such. Reflex responses to pain stimuli may be evoked from irreversibly comatose patients with only brain-stem, but no upper-brain, functioning, yet no one believes that these patients are thereby subjected to intrinsic evil, or that moral duties are being violated or shirked. No one, not even behaviorists, really believes that happiness consists merely of overt expressions of pleasure. Neither pain behavior nor pleasure behavior is of significance to ethics unless they indicate inner conscious pains or pleasures themselves.

Skinner maintains that only positive and negative reinforcers, not conscious pleasures and pains, are relevant to a correct theory of good and evil. Good things are nothing but external positive reinforcers, and bad things are nothing more than external negative reinforcers. Secondarily, those stimuli, responses, or consequences that promote cultural survival may be good things, and those that threaten cultural survival may be evil things. The words good and bad may also be used to reinforce other behaviors, positively or negatively. Positive reinforcers are stimuli that strengthen the behaviors that produce them, and negative reinforcers are stimuli that reduce or terminate the behaviors that produce them. Just why some stimuli reinforce positively and others negatively is obscure for behaviorists. They cannot maintain that consciously experienced pleasures or pains are the mechanisms that induce or inhibit behaviors. According to Skinner, identifying values with reinforcers results in a purely descriptive, empirical, and scientific ethics that overcomes the "is-ought" gap that plagued traditional ethical theory.

A few philosophers accept Skinner's behaviorist ethics (Hocutt), but most are unconvinced. Most hold that G. E. Moore's "open question" ("Granted that x possesses some descriptive property, but is x good?") is not a senseless or self-answering question, not even when the x is a positive reinforcer. Skinner's position might avoid this objection, however, if construed as an answer to Moore's second question of ethics, "What things are good?" rather than to his first question, "What is the meaning of 'good'?"

Skinner's theory contains no purely empirical or descriptive method for resolving value conflicts. Suffering patients may beg stoic physicians for pain medication, who might refuse to give it because they believe that patients should be allowed, or even required, to suffer for their own good in order to strengthen their characters and powers of resolution. This value conflict is not eliminated by the behaviorist's explanation that these patients find pain-relieving behavior to be positively reinforcing, while the stoic physicians find it to be negatively reinforcing. Whether any other theory of the good can resolve value conflicts is another matter, but other theories generally do not claim to offer purely descriptive solutions to internal normative value problems. A behaviorist's recommendation to give pain medication because doing so has adaptation and survival value would be a prescriptive, not a descriptive, resolution.

Skinner often prescribes norms. He cannot resolve value disagreements about "good" and "ought" merely by describing what is positively reinforcing to individuals or to their communities of value, which are groups of individuals who find similar things to be reinforcing. The behaviorist's contention that psychology should be a strictly descriptive behavioral science does not describe the beliefs and practices of most professional psychologists and psychotherapists. It is a value prescription that, if analyzed in Skinner's own terms, means merely that he and the few psychologists who agree with him find it positively reinforcing to practice psychology behavioristically. Most psychologists and philosophers have not been so conditioned, and they cannot accept the narrow strictures that behaviorism places on psychological inquiry and practice. Skinner's program, which purports to eliminate purposes and prescriptive norms, can be advanced only purposively and as a prescriptive norm.

AGENCY, FREEDOM, AND DIGNITY. Most philosophical ethicists are rationally persuaded that moral obligation and responsibility presuppose internal, autonomous, rational agency, self-control, and choice, and that the denial of the existence or efficacy of informed conscious choice in bringing about moral action is fundamentally incompatible with morality. Ethicists may disagree about whether autonomous moral choice is compatible with rigid metaphysical determinism. Some maintain that autonomous moral choice must be creative and spontaneous, while others hold that conscious choice is sufficient for moral autonomy, even if it is strictly caused by a desire to do right (or wrong). However, ethicists seldom doubt that consciousness, agency, and self-control are essential for of morality.

Informed voluntary consent is a cardinal ethical principle in modern bioethics. This principle affirms that no diagnostic, therapeutic, or experimental medical procedures should be performed on patients unless they have consciously, knowingly, and voluntarily consented to them. The principle affirms that the rational agency or autonomy of patients—the capacity of conscious patients to make informed choices for themselves—is of paramount importance in the medical setting. When behaviorism affirms that all behaviors result from external or environmental stimuli, it denies the reality, or at least the efficacy, of inner mental processes and activities, including inner understanding and decisions.

Behaviorism affirms that people are controlled entirely by their environment, which includes other clever people trained to know how to condition them. People never control themselves or their circumstances through their conscious knowledge or efforts. Although stimulus controls can be self-administered, the "prediction and control of behavior" at which behaviorism aims is primarily meant for other people. But who controls the controllers? Where do they get, and how do they justify, the norms they impose on others by psychological manipulation?

Skinner sometimes writes as if inner conscious ideas, ideals, purposes, feelings, and choices simply do not exist (Blanshard and Skinner). At other times he makes an epiphenomenal (causally ineffective) place for inner activities like self-control, choice, agency, or autonomy. He recognizes that freedom of action is important because it allows individuals to avoid aversive or negatively reinforcing stimuli, but he can make no place for conscious moral agency.

In Skinner's view, human dignity consists of behaviors that cultivate the positive reinforcement of praise or credit from others for behaving well, or as others want them to behave. By contrast, most ethicists agree that human dignity involves conscious self-awareness, self-control, and rational persuasion. They abhor manipulative techniques that bypass these qualities, and they approve of educative and persuasive techniques that develop and appeal to them.

Escaping aversive stimuli and cultivating social credit have their proper place, but most moral philosophers would balk at Skinner's behavioral reduction of freedom and dignity to solicitous activity. Behavioral freedom means little without inner personal autonomy, and human dignity, however difficult to define, is something that persons constantly have as conscious persons; and it makes all people equals. Dignity is not just something that people possess during those rare moments when others credit them for behaving as they see fit.

Thus, behaviorism is incompatible with the ideal of informed voluntary consent as it functions in applied bioethics, as well as with many fundamental principles of ethics. In sum, it seems that one must give up either behaviorism or ethics and bioethics.

rem b. edwards (1995)

revised by author

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Behavior Modification Therapies; Coercion; Freedom and Free Will; Human Nature; Informed Consent; Mental Health Therapies; Mental Illness; Neuroethics; Patients' Rights: Mental Patients' Rights; Psychiatry, Abuses of; Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Therapies; and other Behaviorism subentries


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Behaviorism: II. Philosophical Issues

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