Certain definitions of good and value. (i) What is good for the species is whatever promotes the survival of its members until offspring have been born and, possibly, cared for. Good features are said to have survival value. Among them are susceptibilities to reinforcement by many of the things we say taste good, feel good, and so on. (ii) The behavior of person is good if it is effective under prevailing contingencies of reinforcement. We value such behaviour and, indeed, reinforce it by saying “Good!” Behavior towards others is good if it is good for the others in these senses. (iii) What is good for the culture is whatever promotes its ultimate survival, such as holding a group together or transmitting its practices. These are not, of course, traditional definitions; they do not recognize a world of value distinct from a world of fact and, for other reasons to be noted shortly, they are challenged.

… Many issues which arise in morals and ethics can be resolved by specifiying the level of selection. What is good for the individual or culture may have bad consequences for the species, as when sexual reinforcement leads to overpopulation or the reinforcing amenities of civilization to the exhaustion of resources; what is good for the species or culture may be bad for the individual, as when practices designed to control procreation or preserve resources restrict individual freedom; and so on. There is nothing inconsistent or contradictory about these uses of “good” or “bad”, or about other value judgements, so long as the level of selection is specified.

… species, people and cultures all perish when they cannot cope with rapid change, and our species now appears to be threatened. Must we wait for selection to solve the problems of overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, pollution of the environment, and a nuclear holocaust, or can we take explicit steps to make our future more secure? In the latter case, must we not in some sense transcend selection?

We could be said to intervene in the process of selection when as geneticists we change the characteristics of a species or create new species, or when as governors, employers, or teachers we change the behavior of persons, or when we design new cultural practices; but in none of these ways do we escape from selection by consequences. In the first place, we can work only through variation and selection. At level i we can change genes and chromosomes or contingencies of survival, as in selected breeding. At level ii we can introduce new form of behavior — for example, by showing or telling people what to do with respect to relevant contingencies — or construct and maintain new selective contingencies. At level iii we can introduce new cultural practices or, rarely, arrange special contingencies of survival — for example, to preserve a traditional practice. But having done these things, we must wait for selection to occur… In the second place, we must consider the possibility that our behavior in intervening is itself a product of selection…


from this paper by Skinner.

Also his opinions on why we are not acting to save the world and what is wrong with daily life in the Western world. And also a commentary on the former paper after twenty years.

Advertisements