Chapter 6: The Prophet

So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.
Like a procession you walk together towards your god-self.
You are the way and the wayfarers.
And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.
Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stone.
(Kahlil Gibran, 1923, p. 40-41)

In The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, the judges came forth and asked the Prophet to speak to them of Crime and Punishment. The quote above is part of his answer. When I read it for the first time, many years ago, it helped me articulate my belief in the impossibility of a “hell” like the one I had learned about in grade school.  I believed that in some way we’re all in this together, and if one of us is in “hell”, we all are.   I needed a way of looking at wrong-doing that doesn’t require eternal damnation.   

The Prophet didn’t, however, help me clarify for myself the problem of “evil” in the world or give me any idea of what could possibly be done about it.  Instead, over the years of studying Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior, my understanding of “evil” has changed.  For me, “evil” no longer poses a problem in the sense of requiring a “hell” for the punishment of evil-doers, but it certainly is a problem of human behavior that needs to be understood and controlled.

Evil has been a significant problem in my life for as long as I can remember.  By the time I was 7 or 8, I feared that I was evil and that I would go to hell.  When my mother was displeased with me she would say that I was spoiled rotten and that I was selfish and bad, and I believed her.  When my father was displeased with me he would hit (spank) angrily, and I became angry and resentful toward him.  In school I learned that disobedience, lying, stealing, fighting with siblings, looking at or touching oneself in a way that is not pure – all were sins, and I was guilty of all of them.  Worse yet, at church, I could never be sure that I made a good confession because I was often too embarrassed to confess everything.  When I was about 12, I joined some other neighborhood kids in showing each other our sexual body parts.  I didn’t confess it, so I suffered the resulting fear of damnation until I was in college.

I was about 50 years old when I started studying Skinner and found a way of thinking about evil that makes sense to me.  First I had to realize that, although I believe that the distinction between “good” and “evil” is a verbal distinction (and therefore inapplicable to mankind from a “God” perspective), I still retain a tendency to be reinforced by being seen as “good” (by myself or by others). “Good” in itself probably doesn’t skew my thinking — rather, my thinking is affected by seeing myself as “good” in comparison to others or “good” as opposed to “bad”.  It became very difficult for me to see “good and evil” as something that existed outside of human creation.  And this human creation didn’t seem very “good” to me. 

Verbal distinctions like “good vs. evil” have a powerful role in controlling behavior and in marginalizing groups in society. Identifying one aspect of society in a positive way requires that the rest of society is identified as the opposite. It becomes very difficult to determine if the verbal behavior (identifying the negative pole) is a response to descriptive features of a group or if the verbal behavior is a variable that is actually controlling the descriptive features. For example, to what extent is the designation “aggressive” a description of behavior and to what extent is the behavior designated “aggressive” a response to being so designated. In any case, verbal distinctions between “desirable” and “undesirable” behavior or characteristics lead to the marginalization of many humans: the evil ones, criminals, the insane, the unintelligent, etc. For many religious groups, the “evil” ones are further marginalized by creating for them a “hell” where they will be eternally punished.

In graduate school, I was in the Clinical Psychology program. Even though it was theoretically behavioral, it seemed to me very much like what I knew of humanitarian, client-centered, and Freudian approaches. There was emphasis on empathic understanding of an individual but also emphasis on analysis and diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Sometimes what we did seemed to me very evaluative and judgmental. Sometimes I wondered how the labels attached to individuals could possibly be helpful — including the label of “mentally ill” that comes with a DSM diagnosis (at least in so far as it can be covered by insurance.) I expected, though, that the staff and students in the Clinical department were more humanitarian and understanding than those from the other Psych departments (Applied Behavior Analysis, Experimental Behavior Analysis, Industrial-organizational Psych), which I figured were more dedicated to a scientific approach.

Therefore I was very surprised the first time I went out to a social event where students from all the Psych departments were represented. It seemed to me that the more knowledgeable about Skinner/science a student was, the more accepting and non-judgmental s/he was.  Students from the Experimental program talked about people who didn’t get into their program in terms of not having sufficient verbal repertoire in behavioral analysis rather than in terms of intelligence or personality. They talked about children who were having difficulties in school in terms of specific learning deficits, inadequate social skills, competing contingencies of reinforcement, etc.. I didn’t hear from them the judgmental descriptions of people that I was used to hearing. Their descriptions implied a remedy rather than a moral indictment. Such was my experience throughout graduate school. The students who were most skilled in behavior analysis rarely spoke in moralistic and judgmental terms. They had a verbal repertoire that didn’t require it.

Most of us in our culture don’t have such a verbal repertoire. Most of us have learned to speak out in terms that reflect our “fear of”, “disgust with”, “disapproval of”, etc. It’s understandable that we want to disassociate ourselves from what we fear, dislike, disapprove of, etc., but there is a price to pay. We end up being unable to accept many other people and also huge aspects of ourselves. Certainly we recognize the suffering in the world, but we can’t bear to think that we ourselves are part of the cause. It helps to be able to blame it on the “evil ones”. But what is “evil”? Isn’t it that which we fear, dislike, disapprove of, abhor, etc.? In other words, it’s a creation of verbal behavior. It’s a product of judgment — it’s that which we don’t want to accept, that which we think is terrible or shameful, that which we think should be punished. In the world of nature before mankind came to be (i.e., before verbal behavior), “evil” wouldn’t apply. Perhaps religions arose as a way to save humans from the tendency to judgment and control by punishment, but religion often became just another means of judgment and of punishing control.

It seems to me that Skinner’s approach to behavior, including verbal behavior, is more “Christian”, more humane than the traditional approach. By recognizing that our behavior is controlled by heredity and environment, radical behaviorism does not support the judgment and condemnation of others as morally evil (i.e.; evil in the eyes of God and the Universe, and deserving of eternal punishment). Rather, humans can inter-subjectively become aware of what behavior they prefer and why, of how behavior is controlled and how control can be more effective, of how the long term effects of control affect the individual and the environment. In that way, morality can become society’s evolving, inter-subjectively determined control of itself.

In my opinion, Skinner’s philosophy doesn’t rule out “being” that is beyond the scientific method, i.e., beyond what we can reach with out senses. What it rules out is talking about it in a consensually accurate way.  For me, “evil” falls in that category.  It’s part of the great mystery of being.  That doesn’t mean that talking about it is useless, but talking about evil does not seen to have led mankind to very effective solutions.  Skinner’s approach to the analysis of behavior — including verbal behavior —  offers an alternative approach.  The important questions become “to what is the behavior responding?” and “how is the behavior reinforced and maintained?” 

Although I believe that language regarding evil is verbal behavior, and as such cannot be true or false in the traditional sense, I do believe that such behavior is a response to important variables that are relevant to what we call good and evil.  There are situations, events, behaviors that are hurtful to humans and inhibit or prevent their growth and well-being.  From this perspective, every analysis of “evil” is important and “true” in the sense that it is a verbal response to some human’s experience of evil.  Calling it “evil”, however, doesn’t seem to help anything.  When a person is said to be “evil”, then that person will likely defend himself by becoming more “private” — in the sense that s/he will avoid or attack the world that is threatening, the world of the “evil”-sayers. 

So many behaviors that contribute to “evil” — such as wanting more than one’s share, jealousy, anger, controlling behavior, etc. — are human behaviors in which most or all of us participate.  Most of us learn, hopefully kindly and in kindergarten – to share, to clean up after ourselves, to respect others property, to take turns.  Most of us agree that these are good rules to follow if we all want to get along together.  Unfortunately, we human beings have not yet learned to extend such a kind and early education to all.  In that sense, “evil” is a problem in which we all share and for which we are all responsible. 

Also unfortunately, we still want to blame someone.  Many of us didn’t learn very well in kindergarten to take responsibility for ourselves and to give the other person his due.   Many of us haven’t learned skillful ways of requiring justice for ourselves as well as for others.  Many of us haven’t learned skillful ways to protect our own integrity without being deceitful and without letting ourselves be deceived by others.  Maybe the appropriate skillful behaviors are only now being discovered as our planet meets the challenge of a billion more “blindmen”. 

I sure don’t know the answer, but I see a possibility in Skinner’s approach to verbal behavior.  Who knows what we will find if we can open ourselves to the “truths” of all six billion (seven billion now)  blindmen on this elephant we call Earth.