Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 5; Nikki Haley, Russia

The central premise of what follows is that a sovereign state like Russia, or any other state, composed millions of people and myriad competing interests can, for the purpose of behavior modification, be treated like a small furry animal. This was broached in U.S. Expels More Russian Diplomats; try Rat Psychology Instead.

Russian readers may prefer a big furry bear. But a small furry animal allows us to apply the methods of B.F. Skinner, who set out his philosophy in one of the great humanist reads without an index of the 20th century, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. The strongest argument in favor comes from  turning Skinner on himself. Skinner  believed behavior is deterministic, that we are all biologic robots, that  free will is an illusion; that all behavior comes from the effect of environment on the organism.

Skinner (page 200, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) writes,

What is being abolished is the autonomous man–the inner man, the homunuculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity.

But since modern physics has severely dented the mechanistic universe, Skinner is wrong. Since readers are mainly interested in foreign policy, I won’t delve deeper. Beyond Freedom and Dignity is contemptuous of the mind that free will implies.  But his  learning method, operant conditioning, is widely used today in the design of educational tools and methods. If he was on the wrong side of the free will argument,  it doesn’t matter — the method works.

This suggests we don’t have to be too particular about what’s inside the head. It could be a brain, a robot, a crazy person, or a body politic. The only specification is that it exhibit behavior that is initially spontaneous, called the “operant”, which is to be reinforced or inhibited by training. In our case,  subversion via social media is to be inhibited.

To Skinner, as far as training goes, the basic method, operant conditioning, is the same if the subject is a small furry animal, a gold fish, or a human. From human, it’s a short hop to consider a nation-state as a kind of supra-organism. The concept was demonstrated several hundred million years ago by eusocial insects, such as ants and termites. Humans are eusocial.

If you take your time with Beyond Freedom of Dignity, the philosophic prose can be decoded into common sense insights. Page 120, second paragraph tells us how to housebreak a pet.  Negative reinforcement should immediately follow wetting of the carpet. It should be immediate, or it may condition something not intended. Quoting,

Behavior cannot really be affected by anything which follows it, but if a “consequence” is immediate, it may overlap the behavior.

Operant conditioning can also be used with music lessons, learning foreign languages, or improving the behavior of children. Skinner promoted it as a humane alternative to traditional punishment, such as corporal. Traditional punishment requires a competent intellect to associate the occasional severe punishment with the behavior to be discouraged. But nation states do not possess competent moral intellects. Operant conditioning can  be used with autistic children to reduce self-harming behaviors. It can even be used with robots! So why not Russia?

Skinner supplied schedules of reinforcement, detailed recipes for the intervals at which reinforcement should be applied. With negative reinforcement, it saves the subject from the discomfort of negative reinforcement in excess of need. With positive reinforcement, schedules save dog treats.

How do the Russia sanctions fit into the above? The sanctions are analogous  to what Skinner would call a punishment of an individual in a moral or religious paradigm. They appeal to us as an extension to the tradition of Western moral education of the individual, to which Skinner compared operant conditioning as the superior and more effective choice. But the recent sanctions cannot be made part of an operant conditioning approach.  And history provides no instances of nations that have received moral educations via punishments administered from abroad.

Next: the mechanisms for operant conditioning of Russia, or any other sovereign state.

 

 

 

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