I am reading the novel A Clockwork Orange. The priest is very angry at the behavior-altering technique being used on criminals to make them "good" and feels as though it is not right to take away free will, even from a murderer. He also argues that the person hasn't actually changed, and that perhaps their soul is still guilty.

Is conditioning someone's behavior to affect the choices they make tantamount to taking away someone's free will? It seems like the idea of doing this is morally wrong, but I can't put my finger on just why. What does philosophy have to say about this and other similar conditioning techniques, such as those suggested by psychologist B. F. Skinner?

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    Personally, I feel exploiting Skinner's discovery can be a tool for good or for evil. (But I don't have a philosophical answer for that.) – Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 0:57
  • I do this all the time with my daughter. I manipulate her to make her shower or do stuff that she needs to keep a functioning life (eating, dressing..). Otherwise it's just a fight against her will to systematically oppose us, too tiring. – v.oddou Nov 19 '15 at 1:43

Skinner, of course, believed that free will is an illusion, so there's nothing to take away. (Hence this conditioning is not immoral.) His book Walden 2 describes a society in which social engineering techniques (like you describe) are used to create a utopia.

Your question is timely because a popular ethics book called Nudge has recently promoted some of these ideas. Nudge argues that there are some (relatively benign) ways we can change our environments to "nudge" people towards making the right decision.

The SEP's entry on autonomy might be a good place to start. It sounds like you may be new to the wonderful world of differing ethical opinions, but suffice it to say there are several competing schools of thought with diametrically opposed views on the matter.

If you are interested in reasons why losing autonomy might be a morally relevant action, you might consider whether rational (autonomous) thought is important for ethical reasoning, whether losing autonomy will make it harder for you or those around you to satisfy your preferences, or whether making autonomous decisions is important for being a "good person".

Some classics in the area would be Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (see e.g. The Categorical Imperative - Freedom and Autonomy) and Mill's On Liberty.

Contemporary thinkers tend to be distrustful of the idea of "freedom" in general. (Frankly, I am surprised this question hasn't been answered with a flood of posters questioning whether one can ever make a "free" decision to begin with.) I heartily recommend The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions which is an introductory-level book to some important philosophical ideas, including questions of freedom.

To declare my conflict of interest: I tend to be on the Skinner side of things. If you want to be free come what may, more power to you. But if you'd like to be coddled and nannied, then I see no reason why we should worry about trivial things like "autonomy." So I probably am not doing Kant et al. justice.

  • lol, nudge = inception doesn't it ? and by the way, there is no need for hypnosis mystified psycho trick, we are already conditioned by education. pushing it to utopia is merely a next level. – v.oddou Nov 19 '15 at 1:45

IMHO, a more nuanced answer is going to have to account for the manipulation of children "for their own good." Children are physically forced to do many things, and psychologically conditioned to accept many things. It is unclear to me that "rights" have any bearing here.


Morality implies a choice. There can't be a "good" if it's forced. It is, by the nature of being forced, immoral.

Interestingly enough, however, you are making an error. A Clockwork Orange is actually an indictment of S-R Behaviourism, or Methodological Behaviourism which was popular at the start of the 20th century but became increasingly unpopular as science progressed and showed many of its assumptions to be false, Skinnerian (and post-Skinnnerian; for example Relational Frame Theory) behaviourism is largely called Radical Behaviourism, or operant behaviourism. This allows for the existence of mental entities, and although Skinner opposed "free will", what he actually opposed was the belief that actions have no origin, that they merely happen with a force of will.

Ultimately there is no conflict between using behaviorist techniques and most theories of ethics. As long as one does not actually force someone to do something - by physically manipulating them - them that person as a choice, and as such can make a moral decision.

  • your first phrase is a fallacy. in mathematics implication is not equivalence. so you cannot revert it that easily. – v.oddou Nov 19 '15 at 1:48

It's a violation of individual rights. Though in the book Alex consented as far as I can remember.


The question is perhaps ill-defined. Human "freedom" entails our human ability to observe, record, and reiterate physical-causal laws from which we, as "the observers," become independent.

To observe and experimentally control "laws" of psycho-behavioral causation can be seen at the scientific and social levels as "freedom" from those very laws. We assume the higher freedom of "forming" and "altering" human behaviors previously constrained by nature, instinct, or unexamined habit. This conforms to the philosophical maxim: "know thyself."

Obviously, this is also a description of "inculturation," and we do it all the time in advertising, education, ideology, albeit less consciously. As "science" such knowledge of behavioral function should be, in theory, public, observable, and accessible to all. As "technology" the moral question becomes whether or not such techniques are used coercively and transparently, and whether or not subjects are treated, in Kant terms, as "means" or as "ends."

I do not see that behavioral technologies are necessarily inimical to Kant's "Kingdom of Ends." They produce new powers and possibilities for collective freedom, as well as new powers and possibilities for the suppression of individual freedom or expansion of class domination. The moral question lies elsewhere.

It lies in the treatment of individuals as means or as ends, and in the relations of technology to class domination. This is not to mention that any crude appeal to freedom as "authenticity" or "natural right" may already be moot in mass societies of nervous systems integrated through the behavioral "reality" of television.

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