Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics by Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio attempts to answer the question: how can moral values really exist, and what are they?
Molyneux knows that “the odds that some guy out there on the Internet… has somehow solved the philosophical problem of the ages are not particularly high.” Still, he says, “I believe that I have emerged victorious, [and] if I have failed, I have at least failed spectacularly, which itself can be both edifying and entertaining!”
I can think of another option. Perhaps Molyneux has made a noble effort but is tripped up by a few solid counterarguments. This is the case with many who have tried before him to solve the problem: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Bentham, Mill, Mackie, Hare, Singer, Blackburn, etc.
Instead, Molyneux has failed more spectacularly than I thought possible, and it is neither edifying nor entertaining. It is only confused. Badly confused.
Molyneux writes with the style of rational discourse, but follows none of its rules. There are more non-sequiturs and logical fallacies committed here than in some books I’ve read defending Creationism.
So after reading the book, I still have no idea what a Universally Preferable Behavior (UPB) is. At the top of page 32,1 UPB sound vaguely Kantian. At the bottom of page 32,2 it sounds like Preference Utilitarianism.
At the beginning of the book, it sounds like Molyneux wants to build a meta-ethical theory of what moral facts might exist.3 But Molyneux never clearly explains what a UPB is or how it might actually exist, and most of the book is devoted to normative ethics (Is lying wrong? Is theft wrong?) without reference to a meta-ethical theory but always with reference to (invalid) reductio ad absurdum arguments and an appeal to whether his conclusion feels right. Whatever meta-ethical theory Molyneux had in mind when he conceived the book is not used when answering moral questions.
And it’s not hard to see why, since feeling is Molyneux’s chief test of his own ethical theory.4 If Molyneux had written this book in 1800, he would have built a moral theory that justified sexism, racism, nationalism, and homophobia. Had he written it 200 years from now, he also would have come to very different conclusions.
Or perhaps UPB theory merely states that moral conclusions should be backed up by reason and evidence. But of course, almost every ethical theory says that. We all appeal to reason and evidence when we say that lying is right, or that lying is wrong, or that abortion is right, or that abortion is wrong.
You can find an invalid argument on almost every page, but the best disagreement is that which refutes the central point, so I will here refute the “5 proofs” of UPB.
If I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who
speak falsely… Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.5
Of course, it is difficult to critique this because no clear definition of “universally preferable behavior” is given in the book, and because none of these statements follow from what was said before.
If I argue against UPB, I have not shown a preference for truth over falsehood, only a preference against UPB (for example, I might still prefer to lie to the Nazis about some Jews I am hiding.) Even if I did have a preference for truth over falsehood, it would not be a universal preference, because many other people do not share my preference for truth over falsehood. Also, Molyneux seems to be saying that objective moral values exist because we have the opinion that moral values exist, which is not the same as demonstrating that moral values really exist.
1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
2. Man is a living organism.
3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
4. Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and
practice of universally preferred behaviour.
5. Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid.6
You may notice this is actually the same as Proof 1, and carries all the same problems. Notice also that “practice of universally preferred behavior” in premise 3 has become “acceptance and practice of universally preferred behavior” in premise 4.
1. For a scientific theory to be valid, it must be supported by empirical observation.
2. If the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is valid, then mankind should believe in
universally preferable behaviour.
3. All men believe in universally preferable behaviour.
4. Therefore empirical evidence exists to support the validity of universally preferable behaviour – and the existence of such evidence opposes the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is not valid.7
Premise 2 is question-begging. Molyneux assumes that “mankind should…” as part of his argument that should is a valid concept. Likewise, if I start my argument assuming that Nazism is moral, I can easily “prove” that Nazism is moral.
Premise 3 is clearly false.
Premise 4 is a confused way of saying, “Evidence exists that UPB exists, so it exists.” That statement by itself is fine (except that he has not shown us such evidence), but notice how none of these statements follow from any of the others! It is like reading a book that says:
1. For Tyler Cowen to be right about the economy, he must have evidence.
2. If theism is true, it is immoral to be unaware that gods exist.
3. Every culture has believed in gods.
4. Therefore, all milk is nervous.
After nearly every sentence in this book, I had to stop and ask “Wait, what?”
1. Choices are almost infinite.
2. Most human beings make very similar choices.
3. Therefore not all choices can be equal.
4. Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid.8
Those who have studied logic are already shaking their heads in disbelief. But imagine: there are 120 pages of this!
Premise 1 is clearly false. Premise 3 is ambiguous and does not follow from premises 1 and 2. By “equal,” does Molyneux mean “popular?” Finally, premise 4 doesn’t follow from the other three. Even if all choices were not morally equal (which has not been established by this argument), it wouldn’t mean that some choices are universally preferable.
1. Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behaviour.
2. Man is the most successful organism.
3. Therefore man must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
4. Man’s mind is his most distinctive organ.
5. Therefore man’s mind must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.
6. Therefore universally preferable behaviour must be valid.9
Premise 1 is ambiguous, and either false or tautological.
Premise 2 is very unclear: if we’re talking about height, the giraffe is the most successful. If we’re talking about numbers, ants and many species of bacteria are more successful. Etc.
For Premise 3 to follow from the first two premises, we would have to know that UPB is the only thing that contributes to “success,” whatever that means.
In premise 4, “distinctive” is ambiguous.
Premises 5 and 6 don’t follow from the other premises – they are complete non sequiturs. And what is Molyneux trying to establish, here? That whatever leads to successful reproduction is moral? Why should he choose that? And if so, does that mean that killing others to become king, maintain a harem, and father hundreds of children is moral?
I get the impression that one day Molyneux was impressed by a book with many sections of numbered statements, the last always beginning with “Therefore…”, then decided to write his own book just like it, without first learning anything about how logic or argument work.
- “In this sense, “preferable” does not mean “sort of better,” but rather “required.” If you want to live, it is universally preferable that you refrain from eating a handful of arsenic. If you wish to determine valid truths about reality, it is universally preferable that your theories be both internally consistent and empirically verifiable.” [↩]
- “…preference exists as a
relationship between consciousness and matter…” [↩]
- See the Forward, page 7. [↩]
- See Molyneux’s Ground Rule #7 on page 10. [↩]
- Page 40. [↩]
- Page 41. [↩]
- Pages 41-42. [↩]
- Page 42. [↩]
- Pages 42-43. [↩]
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