Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I gave this Behavioral Ethics speech at our Mom's funeral reception.

I have not spoken with our mother (Cornelia Altier) recently about her spiritual beliefs, but she used to go to St. Benedict’s in New Jersey under the guidance of Father Anderson, which had been a progressive church where the folk group sang and played acoustic guitars and altar girls participated in the Mass well back into the Seventies. She told me in our younger days that she only believed in heaven. She said God is a loving God who would never condemn anyone to an eternity of pain and suffering.

Lately I’ve been researching and writing a lot about the ethics of behavior modification. My philosophy is rooted in Cornelia’s faith. This talk is a scientific message about love for everyone as influenced by her.

You can say behaviorists believe in a secular version of heaven on earth. They have shown with human experiments that rewarding behavior makes it more likely to reoccur. When we tell someone sincerely we appreciate their smile, they are going to smile for us again and again. When we praise the Good Samaritan for helping the stranger lying wounded in the dirt, we persuade him to do it again, but be careful to reward only pro-social behavior.

Behaviorists claim that our genes, our past experience, and our current situation cause us to behave the way we do. Some people believe we have a freedom of will to choose our own actions independently. Others believe that what we do is determined by the people and places that surround us. There is no proof which philosophy is correct, but a belief in determinism can bring us peace, because when people do things we don’t want them to do, whoever they are and wherever they’re from, we have no reason to find fault with them.

In the Eighties I had a Mexican friend named Paco who used to come to New York once a year to buy musical equipment. Our parents let him stay with us in our home on Shadow Lake. After living in Lakewood for twenty-four years I have come to know a community of substance-free Pentecostal Latinos. My friends are busy today and can’t make it here, so I would like to do the next best thing and tell you something about them, hoping that others can befriend them as well. This is possible because Mom always drew good people together in the gatherings she arranged. Today is no different.

In 1986, while visiting Paco, I saw homelessness in Mexico City, which had more people than New York City. Driving the highway to the outskirts of the capital for miles and miles as far as you could see were nothing but makeshift dilapidated shacks crowded together. Off Cedar Bridge Ave. in Lakewood, N.J. you can see a homeless community living among the pines. Picture Tent City of Lakewood, but instead of a hundred fifty North Americans, there were a million Mexicanos.

They come here to work and send money to their families. Some can’t get unemployment benefits, food stamps, welfare payments, disability insurance, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, private health insurance, decent jobs, or drivers’ licenses. But they have each other. They might live in big groups together. If someone can’t get a job, they let him sleep free on the floor until he can pay rent. Yet there is no such thing as an illegal human being. We are all just equal individuals who happen to possess birth certificates from different places.

So this philosophy of reward without punishment is what I learned from Mom. When you receive it, and you watch all the suffering on the news, you can calmly sit back and hope that with the science of human behavior, we can apply experimental ways to fix society. We know that punishment brings about escape and retaliation. But rewarding people for what they do well brings peace, love, and understanding. Over the long haul, abundant reinforcement of the responses we desire can replace any appeal for punishment.

So Mom, you got me started on this. We love you. We’re happy you died in peace. We’ll see you in the big blue yonder!

P. S. After the reception I brought the left-over Chicken Marsala to the people at Tent City. Donations in lieu of flowers went to The (AIDS) Center in Asbury Park, N.J.

P.S.S. Cornelia was a great fan of Corey Booker. She couldn't leave the house much as an elder, but she loved to listen to the enthusiasm and intelligence in his speeches.

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I am an advocate for people with disabilities certified to teach special education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am not a Licensed Psychologist or a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. When in doubt, seek the advice of an MD, a PhD, or a BCBA. My ability to analyze the ethics of ABA stems from the fact that I am disabled and ABA interventions are often done to people like me, which I voluntarily accept, but only when I alone am the person granting consent, and not a parent, sibling, guardian, or institution.