The Good Life

No discussion of values is complete without some attention to the question of what is ultimate good. Toward what ultimate end are group practices and verbal behavior about good and bad directed? Many philosophers, economists, and other social scientists have wondered whether human society could ever attain some ideal state and what that ultimate good life would be like. Could we be working toward some goal, some social arrangement which, if not ideal, might at least be the best possible? Plato proposed monarchy with a philosopher-king. The economist Jeremy Bentham proposed an economic arrangement of “the greatest good for the greatest number"

Discussions that presuppose such an end-state are often called utopian, after the imaginary country Utopia (the Greek word for “nowhere”) that Thomas More wrote about. Would behavior analysts propose some new utopia? Chapter 14 will give a fuller answer to this question, but a brief answer can be given here.

Behavior analysts can no more specify where society is headed than evolutionary biologists can predict where evolution might ultimately lead. Although Skinner's (1948/1976) novel Walden Two has often been called utopian, Skinner always disavowed any such label, because for him the imaginary community described in that book represented a method rather than a goal.

Although behavior analysts cannot specify some ideal end-state, they can offer methods for change and for deciding whether changes are sending society in the right direction. For instance, democracy has proven to be a good practice because it has increased many people's satisfaction over what went before and in comparison with existing dictatorships. Democracy as we know it, however, may not be the final word in governmental systems. Shockingly low percentages of people vote in American elections. Too many people are uneducated, unemployed, homeless. Can we make changes to increase participation? Can we move away from coercive and exploitive arrangements to more equitable ones? As we seek ways to eliminate the flaws in our system of government, behavior analysts can suggest deliberate changes of reinforcement relations, to be made on an experimental basis and to be assessed for their ability to increase societal satisfaction. We will take up these ideas of social experimentation and assessment in chapter 14.

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