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Skinnerian Morality

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When I was in college and took Psych 101 to fulfill a core requirement, we had an actual discussion about the morality of applying B.F. Skinner’s respondent conditioning techniques to human beings.  According to a letter that Rod Dreher got from a public school principal, that dilemma has been solved:

One of the worst things about public schools is that they are raising our children as if they do not have souls. In a public school, discipline and motivation to do the right thing are based purely on external stimuli–school-wide behavior programs and incentives for the good kids and discipline for the bad ones. These are simply controls that do not prepare anyone to do what he ought. This Skinner based approach is pervasive and inescapable. The poor and poorly behaved get the worst of it, for they are truly treated like soulless animals and governed purely by external stimuli.

This was easily foreseeable.  The “soulless” argument was the one I used with my atheist psych prof back in the stone age and I was roundly laughed at.  There were two differences between then and now; however.  For one I still did well in the class.  Despite our disagreement, the prof recognized that I understood Skinner’s thought and thus mastered the material, even if I had issues with it.  Secondly, my argument was cheered by a number of my classmates, something the reporting I read tells me they would be afraid to do in the current educational environment.

If one is atheist and there is no supernatural source for morality, I have a complete understanding of how morality can shift as it is doing right now.  What I cannot wrap my head around is efforts to hide behind some egalitarian ideal and calling it amorality.  It is not amorality, it is a substitute morality, and sadly it is not egalitarian.

It is simply logic, really.  The new egalitarian ideal carries with it norms and mores that make up a new morality.  If I think that homosexual practice is a sin and I am therefore close-minded and discriminatory, then I violate the new morality.  There is no such thing as amorality, it is a behavioral impossibility.

That also means that nothing is truly egalitarian.  If there is a morality, those that comply with it will be considered better than those that do not, hence there is nothing egalitarian about it.

Oppression, discrimination, all the things we currently seem to fear most are not a matter of morality at all really – they are  matter of the heart.  It is not a matter of the rules, it is a matter of how the rules are applied and enforced.  The new bathrooms rules will end up being as discriminatory as the old ones, they are just going to discriminate against a different group.

That’s why a supernatural source for morality makes so much sense.  Only something supernatural can change the human heart sufficiently to make the application of the rules humane and graceful.  Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, we in the church have failed at this so many times and in so many ways.  But at least our morality comes from a place that offers the hope of better.  The new morality offers no such hope.

Yes, I cling to the old morality, but more importantly I cling to the only hope.


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