Universally Preferable Behaviour by Stefan Molyneux (Review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 18, 2008 in Criticism of Atheists,Ethics,Reviews

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.

Proof 1

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.

Proof 2

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.

Proof 3

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?

Proof 4

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.

Proof 5

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?

Conclusion

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.

To Molyneux and everyone else, I recommend Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments and Copi & Cohen’s Introduction to Logic.

  1. “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.” []
  2. “…preference exists as a
    relationship between consciousness and matter…” []
  3. See the Forward, page 7. []
  4. See Molyneux’s Ground Rule #7 on page 10. []
  5. Page 40. []
  6. Page 41. []
  7. Pages 41-42. []
  8. Page 42. []
  9. Pages 42-43. []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Weed December 12, 2009 at 9:59 am

Fascinating review that exposes Stefan Molyneux as the fraud he really is. I would like more people to be able to read it. Please could you amend the spelling of his surname (to Molyneux not Molyneaux) so the review will appear in internet searches.

  (Quote)

lukeprog December 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the correction, Barbara.

  (Quote)

Nima January 26, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I think Stef would be more than happy to explain what you are missing when interpreting these (out of context) statements. The fact that you say you read Universally Preferable Behavior, but after that still admittedly don’t know what UPB actually is, yet still attempt to refute passages from it, simply speaks for itself …

  (Quote)

Nathan February 22, 2010 at 4:41 am

So what you are saying is that in order to be valid, Stef’s theory should contain logical arguments?

  (Quote)

drj February 22, 2010 at 8:52 am

Nathan: So what you are saying is that in order to be valid, Stef’s theory should contain logical arguments?

A valid argument is a well formed deductive argument – so yea, since the arguments he published for his theory are dressed deductively, they need to be valid. If they arent valid, they are fallacies.

A big rookie mistake – its exceedingly rare to see a pro philosopher publish invalid arguments. Seems Stef does it several times in the same publication :(

  (Quote)

Stonegoal February 26, 2010 at 11:08 am

Did you read any of the book? How could you use “And if so, does that mean that killing others to become king, maintain a harem, and father hundreds of children is moral?” as a question questioning UPB’s claim of being valid?

The term Universally Preferable Behaviour should really be Human Preferable Behaviour but he choose Universally because of marketing.

  (Quote)

lukeprog February 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Did I read the book? Yes. I quoted extensively from it.

  (Quote)

Krof Gninut April 6, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I strongly reccomend that you reread it. Things like this are an integrated whole, and are not likely to make sense if you fail to understand the key concepts. I have seen people miss the whole point because they didn’t see a booleen operator on one sentence.
So please, reread it. Carefully. If you have any questions about it afterwards, I can try to answer them (or Stef can do it himself, if you’d rather speak to the author).

  (Quote)

Krof Gninut April 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Oh, and there is a problem with the Stephan Roberts comment on the site header: logical athiesm should be held because the belief in god has neither proof nor logical constistancy.
To disbelieve for the same reason a religious person disbelieves other gods is to disbelieve ideologically, not rationally.

  (Quote)

lukeprog April 6, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Krof,

I explain what I mean by the header quote here.

  (Quote)

Nima April 15, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I think this post misses the main point of UPB. I thought it through for quite a while and re-read it a few times. I admit that it is written with confusing and at times inconsistent terminology (not logic!) and thus leaves a lot of room for attack.

Here is my own interpretation of it:

http://www.economicsjunkie.com/universally-preferable-behaviour-a-rational-proof-of-secular-ethics/

Of course I may be wrong and always appreciate feedback.

  (Quote)

Krof Gninut April 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I think this post misses the main point of UPB. I thought it through for quite a while and re-read it a few times. I admit that it is written with confusing and at times inconsistent terminology (not logic!) and thus leaves a lot of room for attack.Here is my own interpretation of it:http://www.economicsjunkie.com/universally-preferable-behaviour-a-rational-proof-of-secular-ethics/Of course I may be wrong and always appreciate feedback.  (Quote)

Thank you very much :D. It’s always interesting to read UPB written in different ways.

  (Quote)

Daniel October 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Universally preferable behavior is not defined in the book. Without a definition, none of the arguments in the book can be meaningfully evaluated.

Krof, even in your formulation, you skirt the issue of defining UPB: “… when somebody says that all people at all times and at all places should prefer one thing over another, then he is making a statement about universally preferable behavior (UPB)”.

This is not a definition, and I do not think that any useful definition of UPB can contain the word “should”. As the book is so kind to recall for us, we cannot get an “ought” from an “is”.

  (Quote)

Tre October 27, 2010 at 10:33 am

For those who claim UPB is not defined in the book: It is defined multiple times in various forms, the most obvious occuring on page 29 under the heading THE DISCIPLINE OF THEORETICAL ETHICS.

“If I say that something is “morally good” – in other words, if I propose an ethical theory – then clearly I am arguing that human beings should act in a particular manner, or avoid acting in a particular manner.”

This statement says that ethical theories propose behaviours that ALL human beings should or should not perform – Universally Preferable Behaviour.

Proof 1 Re-examined: To argue against UPB is to claim that ALL persons should deny the truth value of UPB. This claim that “All persons should…” is arguing in favour of Universally Perferable Behaviour and is thus a Self Detonating statement.

  (Quote)

WD December 26, 2010 at 9:59 pm

The sooner this self-important blowhard & fraud is forgotten the better.

  (Quote)

Tre December 27, 2010 at 5:50 am

@WD:

I would just like to inform you that you have committed the fallacy of ad hominem: attacking the person instead of the argument. Please refrain from commenting if you have nothing of value to add to the conversation.

Appreciated.

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser December 27, 2010 at 7:53 am

Tre,

You’re wrong. WD did not commit the fallacy of ad hominem. Ad hominem has the form of “X is a bad person, therefore is argument is false.” But WD asserted no such thing. You appear to have imbibed the vocabulary of logic without ever actually working through a logic textbook.

  (Quote)

Tre December 28, 2010 at 6:26 am

Hello Luke,

This is a comment page about the book UPB. When someone comments “The sooner this self-important blowhard & fraud is forgotten the better” it implies that no one should pay any attention to what he is saying. He is a fraud, therefore do not even consider the truth value of his arguments, is what WD implies. That is ad hominem. If that is not what WD meant to imply by his statement, he may wish to clarify his position.

I also find it amazing how you can make a blanket statement about me, without knowing anything about me. I minored in philosophy in university studying classical Aristotelian logic, modern symbolic logic and inductive inference and reasoning.

What kind of logical training do you posses Luke?

  (Quote)

weebles February 15, 2011 at 10:27 am

For me, criticizing Molyneux is UPB.

:)

  (Quote)

cos April 25, 2011 at 7:28 am

I havn’t read his book but i have read the comments and critic. Personally i like Stefans sincere and passionate desire to thrash out fairer life for our children. I think the key is “Prefered”, he’s not making a scientific statement he’s highlighting the fact that were a social animal that can get on without the states interferance. Instead of force and coercion a “Prefered” condition for all of use is neccesary for our survival. While offering a sound alternative utalising our special skills.

  (Quote)

Zeb May 30, 2011 at 10:57 am

TL/DR: It seems to me desirism leads to a general preference for an almost universal standard of behavior in any given community of desirers. And so desirists my find easy converts among proponents of UPB.

Although this theory sounds like it is presented and argued terribly, it sounds like it ends up pretty close to desirism. According to desirism, what is morally good are the desires that tend to fulfill the most and strongest desires of people generally. That would mean that if all people had true beliefs, generally they would desire that all people have those “good desires.” (I have always been and remain uncertain if “good desires” are only those that all people should have, but that’s my understanding.) Which is to say that if all people were fully informed, they generally would desire that all people good desires. And of course if people desire that all people have good desires, they by implication of BDI are desiring that all people act on good desires, and it seems reasonable to expect that acts based on true beliefs and good desires would be similar to each other. And so I think you get to an ideal (given universal true beliefs) general preference for a universal set of behaviors. I’ll note that it’s not clear to me from this review whether the “universally” in the theory refers to the set of people who have the preferences, or the set of people whose behavior the preferences apply to.

  (Quote)

Jacb June 4, 2011 at 5:46 am

Tre – I think that’s an implication rather than an entailment relation, this post obviously is paying close attention to his argument and dealing with it on that level, and WD is perfectly within his rights to mention other views about stefan molyneux.

tl;dr it’s not an ad hom

  (Quote)

rob July 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Why wouldn’t you bring this up directly with Stefan on a sunday show which he broadcasts every week Luke? 2Pm est http://freedomainradio.com/board/CuteSoft_Client/CuteChat/Channel.aspx?place=Lobby-1
Just ask can you speak to him and you will be put through and you can have a conversation with the man himself.

  (Quote)

leo August 16, 2011 at 9:34 am

What is worse? Universally Preferable Behaviour or Divine command theory?

  (Quote)

cos August 17, 2011 at 4:10 am

What about good ole fashioned common sense.

  (Quote)

donjoe November 20, 2011 at 4:50 am

You may want to correct your spelling – there is no such thing as a “non sequiter”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_sequitur_(logic)

  (Quote)

Luke Muehlhauser November 20, 2011 at 11:06 pm

donjoe,

Thanks!

  (Quote)

Guy December 26, 2011 at 6:28 am

Please have a look at Hoppe’s much, much more coherent argument.
http://chickenman.radish.co.il/?p=784

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment