Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Freedom, dignity and drones

I've been reading BF Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which argues for a "technology of behaviour" or "cultural engineering". That sounds like the sort of thing that might feature in a sci-fi dystopia - which is chiefly why I've been reading it.

In some ways, Skinner's book reads as a chillingly impersonal manifesto for more control by the state or scientific elite over how we're brought up, arguing that much of our behaviour is simply a response to the conditions around us. In the nature/nurture debate, such a hot topic at the time, it's firmly on the side of the nurture.

Yet it's less about what should actually be done than it is how we think about improving behaviour. If we can only get beyond outdated ideas such as "free will" and autonomy, Skinner argues, we might finally progress.

I've found it by turns fascinating and frustrating, and it's often hard to tell when Skinner's examples are the results of scientifically rigorous experiment or just things he thinks to be true. But every so often there's a passage that stands out, such as this on the conflict between dignity and freedom.
"From time to time, advances in physical and biological technology have seemed to threaten worth or dignity when Medical science has reduced the need to suffer in silence and the chance to be admired for doing so. Fireproof buildings leave no room for brave firemen, or safe ships for brave sailors, or safe airplanes for brave pilots. The modern dairy barn has no place for a Hercules. When exhausting and dangerous work is no longer required, those who are hard-working and brave seem merely foolish.

The literature of dignity conflicts here with the literature of freedom, which favors a reduction in aversive features of daily life, as by making behavior less arduous, dangerous, or painful, but a concern for personal worth sometimes triumphs over freedom from aversive stimulation - for example, when, quite apart from medicinal issues, painless childbirth is not as readily accepted as painless dentistry. A military expert, J.F.C. Fuller, has written: 'The highest military rewards are given for bravery and not for intelligence, and the introduction of any novel weapon which detracts from individual prowess is met with opposition'."
BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), p. 56.
(Fuller is apparently from "an article on 'Tactics', Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edn.")
I find myself instinctively wanting to counter this thesis. Yet surely that last point is at the heart of discussions about the morality of using the atomic bomb at the end of World World Two (see my post on Codename Downfall - The Secret Plan to Invade Japan). It might also help explain why the use of remote drones seems so particularly wrong. The argument is often used against them that they kill civilian women and children as much as they do enemy combatants, but that can also be true of using soldiers. Is the problem more that drones, by reducing risk to our soldiers, make it too distastefully easy?

I'm not convinced but I find myself puzzling over that when I should be building my dystopia. As so often, I post it here to clear it out of my head.

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