Walden Two

by: B.F. Skinner

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

Walden Two is heavy on ideas and short on action, characters, and plot. How does Skinner maintain the reader's interest?

First, anyone who is reading Walden Two should be interested in the ideas it discusses. The novel would not, and does not, maintain the interest of the large number of readers who are not at heart interested in issues of societal planning, psychology, etc. But for those readers who are interested in such issues, Walden Two contains enough radical and sometimes outrageous ideas about society to keep things interesting. Second, there is a growing tension over the course of the novel between Burris and Frazier that serves to maintain the reader's interest. In several key chapters, such as the one in which Frazier first invites Burris to his personal quarters, the relationship between them is made increasingly complicated. We keep reading, in part, because we want to know whether Burris's personal distaste for Frazier or his admiration for his accomplishments will win out.

Walden Two walks the line between fiction and non-fiction. Why do you think Skinner wrote it as a novel rather than as an extended essay? What effect do the "novelistic" parts of the book--plot, character development, and so on--have on its effectiveness as an essay?

Skinner would later write Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a book of non-fiction that restated, in more complete and more abstract terms, the principles expressed by Frazier in Walden Two. Why then did he need to write Walden Two? One reason is that the book was written relatively early in Skinner's career; many of his ideas may not have been completely fleshed-out at that point, and the form of the novel gave him a chance to explore a wide range of opinions without committing himself to them. Another (perhaps trivial) reason is that he may have wanted to fulfill his early dream of being a writer of fiction.

Probably the most important consequence of the novelistic form of Walden Two is that it allows Skinner to provide a concrete description of a "real" community living by the principles he believed in. The fictional form gives him the freedom to present Walden Two as a completed community, not one that is merely imagined. On the other hand, the novel form limits the completeness and precision of his discussion.

Frazier argues that morality, freedom and democracy are outdated concepts; the only way to fix the problems of humanity is to control human behavior using positive reinforcement. What arguments does Castle present against this view? Do you find them convincing?

Castle is unfortunately not the most level-headed of opponents, but he does have a set of clear arguments against Frazier's position. First, Castle is not willing to go along with Frazier's empirical approach to morality. The difference between right and wrong, in Castle's view, should be independent of one's goals and contexts. Thus, a society like Walden Two in which codes of conduct are formulated solely on the basis of their ability to contribute to happiness and productivity is inherently amoral, and therefore unsatisfactory. This same argument applies to Frazier's dismissal of freedom and democracy; any system that is based on the systematic control of one human being by another, Castle would say, devalues humanity itself.

These arguments may be convincing, but they don't point to flaws in Frazier's argument. Rather, they point to differences in basic assumptions about the nature of humanity and the value of human life. According to Frazier, the ultimate good is happiness, health, satisfying social connections, and so on; according to Castle, it is the freedom to make one's own definition of the ultimate good. This difference includes elements of the dichotomies between a bevy of "isms": communalism vs. individualism, empiricism vs. idealism, and communism vs, capitalism.

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