Ethical Implications

From the first, the Darwinian, reductionistic, and positivis-tic character of behaviorism targeted it for criticism from expected (humanistic) quarters. Yet, unlike the value-neutral orientation of much of modern science, behaviorists have tended to defend their perspective on ethical grounds. Both Watson and Skinner were explicit in this regard. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), though dismissive of traditional moral theories and their supporting "folk" psychologies, contended nonetheless that a behaviorally engineered society would achieve the most precious of the ends envisaged by ethical theorists. His work inspired the formation of several small communities organized around principles of operant conditioning, with desired behavior brought about without the moral tags of "praise" and "blame." His work also provided the theoretical and technical foundations for various "behavior therapies" applied to disturbances ranging from bed-wetting to catatonic withdrawal. Considered ethically, these methods would seem to be neither more nor less coercive than those arising within other theoretical contexts and employed for the benefit of consenting patients.

In viewing human nature as part of nature at large, and as impelled by the same evolutionary pressures faced by the balance of the animal kingdom, behavioral psychology is neither more nor less humanistic than, say, psychoanalytic theory or, for that matter, the contemporary neurocognitive psychologies that have all but replaced behaviorism. Skinner rejected moral theories grounded in deontological or transcendental arguments, but accepted the proposition that complex societies require the imposition of constraints, and that coercive principles and practices must be justified in ways conducive to a flourishing and productive life within such societies.

It was clear by the end of the twentieth century that the central precepts and methodology of behaviorism would be steadily overtaken and replaced by what is generally referred to as cognitive neuroscience. Though the term is new, the perspective is not, for it has been the guiding perspective within physiological psychology at least since early in the nineteenth century. Rejected is the claim that the chief sources of behavioral control are external to the organism. Rather, what is assumed is the evolution of the nervous system as "pre-wired" (though not necessarily "hard-wired"); that is, it is able to perceive the environment selectively, to code or represent it in quasi-computational ways, and to do so by way of distinguishable "modular" processes in the brain.

If cognitive neuroscience has overtaken behaviorism within the theoretical and experimental domains, the complexities of mental and social life have rendered it suspect in the wider realms of thought and action. Life, as depicted by Watson and Skinner and otherwise implicit in the very language of behavioral psychology, matches up poorly with the life actually lived by most human beings and many other species. In ignoring or depreciating the richly social, self-moving, and self-conscious dimensions of life—and thus the irreducibly moral terms that rational beings must invoke to live together in a principled way—the architects and defenders of radical versions of behavioral psychology have more or less resigned from the domain of ethical discourse.


SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Behavior Modification Therapies; Coercion; Freedom and Free Will; 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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