Check Your Humanity at the Gate of Walden Two

Walden Two
by B.F. Skinner
Hackett Publishing, 2005 (1st ed. 1948)
320 pages, paperback, $10.95

Inspired by a long tradition of utopian narratives, in Walden Two sociologist B. F. Skinner used the tale of a model community to explore how his dream of a science of “behavioral engineering” might be applied to form a more peaceful and harmonious society. As in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, which I also review in this issue, the scientific element in Walden Two is science fiction. Such a science does not actually exist in the form in which it is depicted, at least not when the book was written. Nevertheless, within his story Skinner maintains more of a pretense of the actual existence of a behavioralist community, going so far as to have his characters discuss how “Walden Two” is not a “utopia” because unlike the imaginary republics of More, Plato, and Bacon, it actually exists. This is not only, as I will show, a bad book, but is a badly-written book. Sometimes this aspect makes it more entertaining than the author intended.

“A very interesting experiment, there’s no doubt about that,” said Castle. “Utopia come to life, apparently.”
“Utopia, indeed,” said Frazier. “And do you know what single fact I find most incredible?” He looked eagerly from one of us to the other, particularly at Rodge, and I began to wonder whether he was not satisfied with two converts out of six.
“The fact that it’s been a success, I should imagine,” I said.
“What’s incredible about that? How could it possibly have failed? No, I’m referring to a detail which distinguishes Walden Two from all the imaginary Utopias ever dreamed of. And a very simple thing, too.” He continued to look at us, but we were completely at sea.
“Why the fact that it exists right here and now!” he announced at last. “In the very midst of modern civilization!” He watched for the effect upon us, but it could not have been very marked. (179)

Since Walden Two is itself a fantasy, this passage may not have its desired effect upon the reader, either.

Skinner’s first-person narrator is a college professor named Burris, who hears from two of his students that T. E. Frazier, a former classmate of Burris, has founded an ideal community. With the students, their girlfriends, and another colleague, the incredible Professor Augustine Castle, Burris sets out to pay Frazier a visit and witness his project.

As the reader might expect from a character with a name like Augustine Castle, Burris’s foil represents the worst of reactionary traditionalism. In Burris’s words: “His position precessed slightly with the years and could variously be called intuitionalism, rationalism, or—I suspected—Thomism” (9). He is fat and out of shape, and would probably be even more like G. K. Chesterton if the author had been aware that there was such a person as Chesterton. He and Burris have become buddies through their affinity for arguing with one another, although Burris privately admits to a feeling of condescension toward Castle as a “Philosopher.” (Burris is a social scientist.) Here Skinner himself provides the comic element, by setting up a straw man and proceeding to be knocked down by it. Without really knowing why, Castle conceives from his first arrival at Walden Two, a conviction that the advances in social harmony and prosperity which exist around them can only be due to a systematic withering of human freedom. He is perfectly right, and having invented this antagonist, presumably for purposes of realism, Skinner tries and fails throughout the book to prove him wrong or answer his criticisms. Castle, the head-in-the-clouds “Philosopher,” the closet Thomist, is by far the most democratic character in the book (the project’s inhabitants, proletarian last men, vote the party line; another victory for social conditioning). Castle is even successful, toward the end, of exposing Frazier as a dictator with an ego the size of Stalin’s—albeit with more benign intentions and less power.

The organization of Walden Two is reminiscent of real American utopian communities, such as New Harmony and Brook Farm, and Fourierist fantasies. Skinner is correct in the unremarkable insight that planned communities of this nature generally fail to successfully establish themselves; or, if they succeed, eventually fall apart due to problems among the inhabitants. Walden Two avoids the human problem through what Skinner believed would be the ultimate answer to the distressing conflict between man and his fellow man. And as one who openly believes in tampering with human nature, Skinner is not an agrarian or traditionalist; he embraces science of all kinds for the betterment of human life. Indeed, Frazier claims Walden Two is the first establishment of a truly scientific community.

The economic and technological innovations of Walden Two are, again, mildly intriguing but unremarkable. Frazier replaces money with a system of labor credits for work, in which the least desirable jobs earn the highest number of credits. Each able-bodied inhabitant of Walden Two must contribute four labor credits a day, which for most people amounts to about four hours of work. Yes, Walden Two has achieved the four-hour workday! In return for their labor, each resident may enjoy the benefits of living in Walden Two—the pleasant environment, good and healthy food, education and childcare, and many opportunities to pursue a wide range of interests and entertainments.

If I thought Skinner was a clever writer I would attempt an argument in which the progressively revealed faults, inhumanity, and lowness of Frazier’s personality undermine his plausible arguments, so that the secret message of Walden Two is that such a place cannot, and should not, exist. It is clear that Skinner does not intend to do this. He is simply too artless a writer to conceal the inconsistencies and shortcomings of his idea. Part of the reason he fails so spectacularly in this regard is that he is too ambitious. He attempts a Socratic dialogue, rather than a simple catalogue of features. Even the great Francis Bacon did not attempt to equal Plato’s Republic. Skinner does, and fails. His all-too-human Frazier is so unlike the godlike Socrates that the arguments of the cartoonish Castle, and even the narrator Burris’s frequently-mentioned private misgivings and unease, are more substantial than Frazier’s explanations. When Frazier is confronted with any question the like of which has perplexed philosophers and politicians for centuries, he casually replies that they have gotten around that problem, or remedied it, through scientific management and social conditioning. With a wave of this magic wand, he solves the problems of: pond scum, lawnmowing, inclement weather, vanity, envy, spilt tea, unfashionable clothing, neckties, crowds, the lunch rush, dishwashing, higher education, unemployment, crime, alcohol, tobacco, housewifery, elder care, food storage, agricultural odors, wool dyeing, scheduling, advertising, the arts, dirty diapers, self-control, child-rearing, education, shelf space, discouragement, genius, adolescence, delayed marriage, overpopulation, adultery, jealousy, gossip, friendship, management, democracy, laws, boredom, deck-chair arrangement, diet, oral hygiene, political parties, and nuclear war.

Skinner gives religion short shrift. It is a vestigial human response to want and uncertainty. Remove the need, he believes, and the religious impulse recedes:

Our conception of man is not taken from theology but from a scientific examination of man himself. And we recognize no revealed truths about good or evil or the laws or codes of a successful society. . . . The simple fact is, the religious practices which our members brought to Walden Two have fallen away little by little, like drinking and smoking.

As in The New Atlantis, Walden Two is kept stable by a general felicity and lack of hardship. Walden Two differs in that its families are, like religion, a vestigial institution eventually on its way out–to be replaced by the pair bond and “experimental breeding.” As Frazier says,

The family is an ancient form of community, and the customs and habits which have been set up to perpetuate it are out of place in a society which isn’t based on blood ties. Walden Two replaces the family, not only as an economic unit, but to some extent as a social and psychological unit as well. What survives is an experimental question. (128)

Walden Two provides universal childcare and education from birth to adulthood. Children know and have contact with their parents, but live collectively and are managed and educated by other males and females and in general are regarded as the children of the entire community. The family bond is not altogether destroyed, but it is functionally replaced by the collective.

Frazier explains why children raised at Walden Two are not tempted by the attractions of the outside world:

“Of course our children know about the outside world! We simply make sure they know the whole truth. Nothing more is needed. We take them to the city from time to time, and they see the movie palaces, the churches, the museums, the fine residences. But they also see the other side of the tracks—the city hospital, the missions, the home for indigents, the saloons, the jails. We can usually find someone in the slums who will let us pass through her filthy flat in return for the price of a drink. That in itself would be enough.
“Once in a while we give a group of children a sort of detective assignment. The game is to establish a connection in the shortest possible time between any bit of luxury and some piece of poverty or depravity. The children may start with a fine residence, for example. By going in the service drive they may be able to speak to a black laundress hanging out clothes. They induce her to let them drive her home. That’s enough. Or they pick out some shabby figure leaving a cathedral and follow him to the less exalted surroundings in which he spends most of his day. (192)

“Why don’t you indoctrinate, though?” responds Burris, missing the point that indoctrination is precisely what Frazier is describing. He is in fact teaching the children to scoff at all that is outside their society; to be suspicious of all that is great and exalted and beautiful; to look for the seamy side of anything good.

In a sense, Professor Castle views Walden Two with this same sort of suspicion: finding it too good to be true in many respects, he proves in the end—as he had suspected from the beginning–that human freedom does not really exist in Walden Two. What is stolen from those conditioned to live harmoniously, is the ability for moral choice which defines humanity: the choice between good and evil, love and selfishness, virtue and vice, God and the Devil. The behavior of Walden Two’s residents may be on the whole better than the world, but they have lost their capacity of independent virtue. They have become programmed automatons. The master of Salomon’s House in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis claimed that his scientists could create robots in behavior and appearance indistinguishable from man or animal kind. B.F. Skinner has done the same. The denizens of Walden Two have been deprived of their humanity.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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