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Walden Two by B. F. Skinner versus Joseph Wood Krutch's Ignoble Utopia

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

Can We Fully Manipulate Human Behavior Towards the Creation of a Utopian Society?

Our ability to control men using a "scientific approach" will always be limited to our ability to influence his (man's) behavior and limit his freedom to choose. Walden Two is B. F. Skinner's attempt to validate the responsibility of those that believe they can influence "right behavior" in society before someone of opposing values does. Joseph Wood Krutch provides the argument against the concept of Walden Two in his paper the Ignoble Utopia by arguing that significant efforts to manipulate the behavioral practices of individuals within a society ultimately ends individual freewill.

Note: For the remainder of this discussion Walden Two will be noted as “WT” for brevity reasons.

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts.

“WT” (Frazier) stands on the principle that society's success in developing its members to use "good behavior" or make "right choices" is based on accident or the desires of the majority, and not the individual. This is "the strong will survive theory “or” success by selection" for those that meet and succeed against the challenges of society (57). The “WT” project is an experiment to show that we can, as proposed, shape right behavior and right thinking in an effort to make every man or woman a successful survivor in society.

According to this “WT”, behavioral training or development must begin at the earliest age possible. Society, as it is stated by Frazier,

"attacks early . . . when the individual is helpless."

"It enslaves him almost before he has tasted freedom” (55).

Therefore, “WT” must attack early with training beginning as early as age three; because as Frazier puts it, children have developed their social values by age six (57). This belief and practice is not unlike that of Hitler's Aryan Supremacy concepts and early Spartan society's practices. By taking the traits and principles on morals and ethics prescribed by great thinkers and great works, we can derive methods for shaping behavior (56). He cites Jesus' philosophy of "Love thy enemy" as an example of "right thinking" to confront adversity (56). Through these determined techniques, we can teach self-control and control of emotions.

“WT” uses a system of progressive stress adaptation, "building up a tolerance to annoying situations (56)." The participants learn to accept each situation as a challenge that can be met with the tools they were trained to use (58). A major objective of the program is for these children to "escape from the petty emotions that eat the heart out of the unprepared (60)." As Frazier stated, "they must get happiness and freedom and strength” (50).

This would improve freedom by improving the quality of the decision process by avoiding making wrong choices that may eventually lead to less freedom. As to arguments against his efforts to plan society, Frazier responds, if we don't plan society, someone else will . . . should we leave it to the charlatans, priests, and cheats ". . . when a science of behavior has been achieved, there's no alternative to a planned society."


We can't leave mankind to an accident or biased control. But, "by using the principle of positive reinforcement -- carefully avoiding force or the threat of force -- we can preserve a personal sense of freedom (cont.) It's not planning which infringes upon freedom, but planning which uses force” (68).

In Ignoble Utopia, Krutch argues against the possibility of a “WT”. He sees the “WT” project as "conditional reflex," not capable of wrong response (69). He over-simplifies Skinner's “WT” by stating that the participants become "unthinking" and nearly automatic, and never finding it possible to think at all. Krutch further argues against this process by comparing these efforts to communism and Nazi Germany. This would automatically bring negative connotations for most readers, since we usually connect these with wrong thinking or evil. This project assumes that man is a product of society and that "the scientific ability to control men's thoughts with precision" has fully matured (71). Classic utopias could not be realized because man's behavior is not exclusively controlled by reason (69). More importantly, few people desire to be motivated exclusively by rational thinking. And yet, many would agree that "a little more reason in the conduct of private and public affairs would not be amiss" (69). Krutch does summarize the problem once we've accepted the possibility of a scientific approach to control or influencing men by asking;

"Should we try to influence behavior?" Who should have the power to decide what is "right behavior and right thinking"? Who should decide how it is administered? Who has the ultimate responsibility?


“WT” and its' implications pose the questions;

  • Do we actually have or exercise "free will" or is our behavior determined?
  • Is it still free will if our behavior and thinking are manipulated towards someone's idea of right thinking?
  • If we can determine the techniques that will result in Skinner's "right thinking and right behavior" does this prove that we do not have free will?
  • Are the choices we think we make freely, actually pre-destined to happen, based on circumstances (30)?

These issues are addressed within chapter one of Burr and Goldinger's book, Philosophy and Contemporary Issues.

“WT” is an example of soft determinism. This is evident since the program tries to establish causes for predetermined behavior. Yet, it still accepts the belief in freedom through the psychological state of mind in that we still have the ability to make choices. However, our choices will always be "right thinking" choices based on causes determined by the values and principles instilled in us at the earliest possible point in our development. The goal of a determinist is the same as Frazier's in the scenario, to be able to identify the laws that influence behavior, so that he can help to "produce happier and better people” (31).

Libertarianism argues against determinism, and as such, against causation. Krutch takes this libertarian view that behavior is basically undetermined and principles of human behavior are not fixed sufficiently to allow us to always predict human behavior. This is not the literal text book definition of a liberalist; however, Krutch's views are generally liberal. In spite of his comment what he might call programmed behavior, he still allows for the possibility of behavioral techniques in this same paper. This liberalistic viewpoint further argues that "if all actions are the result of cause, then no actions are ones for which anyone can be held morally responsible" (32). Skinner, on the other hand, still maintains that accountability still exists regarding the question as to who is morally responsible for the decision of what is "right thinking and right behavior."

I agree with Krutch on his initial position infers that a classic utopia will not exist, because man is "not exclusively a reasoning creature" (69); man is just as often reactive in nature, as proven by the number of bad or poor choices we all make throughout our lives at one time or another. It is unlikely a society could be produced that is forever oblivious to the influences of all other societies. Rational thinking is relative to values, morals, and ethics developed through society and upbringing. Eventually the products of “WT” will go out into the world and have to function in and around the non-Walden world. The results, if they could be captured, would validate or disprove the amount of control that was accomplished, or, all that was accomplished was the building of a basis for further individual development as Liberalism proposes. The idea of developing "right behavior and right thinking" will always be limited in success, and for the participants, only provide them a basis to build their own personal decision criteria determination. As long as there are those that are not a product of the controlled society, the ability to change or alter the thinking pattern of the controlled society member is possible and probable through the interaction of various societies. For a planned society to perpetuate itself, unchanged and unaltered by the environment, as well as other outside societies, it would have to exist outside and be permanently oblivious to the rest of the world.

In a crude or limited way, each of us is already an example of someone's teachings of the "right behavior and right thinking." Our parents, relatives, teachers and society we were raised in tried to instill "right thinking and right behavior" as they saw it. Each of us, through our interaction with people outside our original behavioral influences, tempers, changes, alters, and evolves in our behavior patterns. I propose that we already have these smaller, nuclear societies within the larger, extended societies that try to create a form of “WT”. These societies attempt to instill within its members basic rules to influence the right behavior and thinking as automatic as implied by “WT”.

Think of all the youth organizations that openly try to develop the behavioral processes: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownies, various religious or church based youth programs, paramilitary youth training programs such as: Junior Reserve Officer Training Course -- JROTC, Civil Air Patrol, are just some of the more obvious programs with goals of developing their idea of "right thinking." They may not all use exactly the same techniques as “WT”. However, the objectives are the same; to influence how these individuals deal with problems, society, and their future. There are numerous portions of society exclusively established to help us try and develop our behavioral and decision making processes. And yet, these Walden Societies do not guarantee that these individuals will always act out as originally taught. They will evolve to varying degrees based on outside experiences and influences. The argument can be made that Basic Military Training (a.k.a. Boot Camp) and Military Officer Training Programs (i.e. West Point, Air Force Military Academy, Naval Academy, and Army Officer Candidate School, along with other academies) are Walden Societies. Again, each of these tries and develops "right thinking and right behavior." None, however, can guarantee that the behavior will continue unchanged and none of these can insure that all members will develop the same level of "right behavior and thinking." Even in “WT”, Frazier noted that some individuals may require retraining and in dealing with problems.

Walden Two (Hackett Classics)
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Philosophy and Contemporary Issues
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Final Word

Even if we assume that we can derive some techniques to influence behavior, we cannot guarantee that these alone will allow us to determine the outcome of an event. The forces and causes that influence man's actions are more than we can readily grasp. Some things are determined in advance. But, as to the decision and choices we think we make, there are innumerable influences and not necessarily only one right thought or right behavior. Even Krutch acknowledges the scientific ability to control individuals; thus his argument against the idea of a planned society changes and becomes more concerned with who limits what is right and wrong, and who changes those limits as social norms change (77). What was wrong behavior centuries ago is not necessarily wrong today. The ability to control or limit man physically has always existed. The ability to control or limit man's mind arguably has not and probably will not without the use of electrical, chemical influences. We can influence man's thoughts for a limited time, but not permanently. Walden Two provides us a scenario to evaluate and test what we mean by determined behavior and free will.



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  1. John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 7th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1972.

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