Stefan Molyneux’s Response to David Gordon’s Review “The Molyneux Problem”

[This is in response to David Gordon’s Mises Daily Article Reviewing Stefan Molyneux’s book “Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics” ~iambinarymind~]


So it appears that I have been thoroughly called out by David Gordon at, ridiculed for my “preposterously bad” reasoning, told that I should learn how to construct basic arguments, and been loftily informed that I have failed miserably in my philosophical goals. The article is called The Molyneux Problem, and it is a review of my free book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. (By the way, I have asked whether they will publish this response, but I have received no reply.)

I must admit that I am always skeptical when a review starts with insults – when I studied acting and playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montréal, I was always told to “show it, don’t say it!” If my arguments are illogical, showing this will surely reveal my incompetence – the insults are unnecessary. The logical fallacy involved is called “poisoning the well.”

For instance, David writes in his second paragraph:

“…Molyneux does not succeed in his noble goal. He fails, and fails miserably. His arguments are often preposterously bad.”

Adjectives are not arguments; arguments are either valid or invalid, rational or irrational, empirically verifiable or immune from a null hypothesis – the words “miserable” and “preposterously” are not philosophical or rational terms.

So, let’s have a look at David Gordon’s criticisms of my book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics.

He writes, when discussing my view of ethics:

These preferences, furthermore, have to do with morality, behavior that can be forcibly imposed on people. ‘Those preferences which can be considered binding upon others can be termed ‘universal preferences’ or ‘moral rules’” (p. 40).“

When I use the word “binding,” I am not referring to physical violence – otherwise I would use the word “enforceable” or “compulsory.” “Binding” means “having power to bind or oblige; obligatory: a binding promise.” It does not equal violence.

He then writes:

“Is there, then, behavior that is in his sense universally preferable?” (emphasis added)

“In his sense”? If I’m talking about universal preferences, I am not talking about subjective preferences, thus inserting the phrase “in his sense” moves the discussion from universal and objective to subjective and personal. This is like saying “Does Stef follow his own personal version of the scientific method?” If it is my own personal version, it is not the scientific method. If it is the scientific method, it is not my own personal version.

David then writes:

His first claim is that the very fact of engaging in inquiry over the existence of universally preferable behavior suffices to answer the question in the affirmative. If I am engaged in debate about this topic, must I not prefer truth to falsehood? An attempt to deny this leads to contradiction: ‘If I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behavior is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely’ (p. 40).”

First of all, the word “claim” is incorrect. “Claim” is a weasel word designed to downgrade your opponent’s arguments – there is no philosophical content or value in the word “claim,” since it is by definition a statement with neither empirical or rational backing. A “claim” can be dismissed without argument, since it is not founded on arguments – since I make both prose argumentsand break those arguments down into a series of syllogisms, the correct word would be “argument,” not “claim.”

David then writes:

Molyneux is certainly right that someone who wants to discover whether universally preferable behavior exists, prefers, while trying to find the answer, truth over falsehood; but how does this generate a preference to correct others with mistaken views? Molyneux wrongly supposes that if someone wants to discover the truth, he must be in engaged in an actual debate with someone else. Why must he? Further, what has any of this to do with enforceable obligations, the ostensible subject of his inquiry?

Using the word “exists” is problematic, since I clearly state many times in the book that neither morality nor UPB “exists” in the way that trees or rocks do – but more importantly David has just ignored the actual words from my book that he just quoted a paragraph earlier.

What I wrote was, “If I argue…” David then substitutes “if someone wants to discover the truth” – which is not the same thing at all, and a complete straw man. “Arguing” is objective behaviour; “wanting to discover the truth” is an unverifiable subjective desire. Throughout the book, I repeatedly argue that thought is not subject to ethical judgement – only behavior, which is reflected in the title of the book – Universally Preferable Behaviour.

I fully accept that someone who wants to discover the truth about where he left his keys is not engaged in a philosophical debate, but so what? I also will concede that someone sitting in a darkened room attempting to remember something from his childhood is also attempting to discover the truth, but this has no bearing on a philosophical discourse about universally preferable behavior.

I spent quite a long time writing this book, and really picked my words carefully, which is why I used the phrase, “If I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behavior is valid…” and not “if I want to discover the truth in any context.” I don’t know exactly what to say about this kind of repetitive substitution and straw manning, other than that it seems clear that David is not being exactly objective about the book.

David then writes, “Further, what has any of this to do with enforceable obligations, the ostensible subject of his inquiry?”

Well, the answer to that is in the book, where I write in the chapter UPB: Ethics or Aesthetics?:

Although we first focused on UPB in the realm of ethics, UPB can now be seen as an “umbrella term,” which includes such disciplines as:

·         The scientific method

·         Logic

·         Empiricism

·         Debating

·         Language

·         Ethics

Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence.

If we can establish the validity of the concept of universally preferable behavior, we have come a long way towards establishing a rational system of ethics. So if David is bewildered as to what UPB has to do with ethics, he must have missed that part of the book, or misunderstood its relevance.

David then writes:

Molyneux has many more arguments on offer. How can we deny the existence of universally preferable behavior, he asks: does not life itself depend on it? “Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behavior, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferable behaviors such as breathing, eating and drinking.”

Is it not obvious that Molyneux has confused two different senses of “universally preferable behavior”? Biological laws are, as even our author elsewhere realizes, descriptive regularities; Molyneux fails utterly to show that acting in accord with such laws to keep oneself alive has anything to do with moral obligation.

As I write many times in the book, UPB is not synonymous with ethics – ethics is a subset of UPB. It is so obvious that biological laws are not the same as moral laws that I don’t even know really how to reply to it. Biological laws are involuntary, universal, objective, and scarcely need human or philosophical reinforcement. Moral laws are voluntary; I can choose to steal, but I cannot choose to be an amphibian. Exercise is a choice; the effects of exercise are not.

If you argue against the validity of UPB, however, when you are only alive because you have followed UPB (eating, drinking, sleeping), that is a self-detonating argument, the same as yelling into someone’s ear that sound does not exist.

This only proves the validity of UPB, not the subset called ethics. That is one reason why the book continues after this early argument. If the book ended with me saying, “You have to eat in order to live, and therefore you cannot steal!” well, that would be quite an incomplete argument, to say the least.

He next tries to dissect a paragraph I have written about universality:

“I also cannot logically argue that it is wrong for some people to murder, but right for other people to murder. Since all human beings share common physical properties and requirements, proposing one rule for one person and the opposite for another is invalid – it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall down, while other rocks fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an observed fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules. (p. 44)”

Molyneux offers no argument that the rules of morality must respond only to the characteristics that define the human species. If someone proposed a rule of the form, “Human beings who meet such-and-such requirements, and not others, may kill under the following circumstances,” no doubt we should want to look at the reasons alleged for this claim very closely; but we could not dismiss the proposal outright because it draws a distinction between two classes of people. Arbitrary appeals to the laws of physics or biology have nothing to do with the case.

First of all, when David says that I make no arguments about why morality must apply to all human beings, that is entirely false. Please see the chapter “UPB: Optional and Objective.”

Secondly, if I propose a moral rule which says that redheaded people may murder every second full moon, then I have violated universality. This would be like a biologist saying that green spotted frogs become mammals for 10 minutes every second full moon. Other biologists would doubtless ask how frogs could change their essential physiology in order to be classified so differently. We cannot create arbitrary rules in philosophy, any more than we can in physics or engineering or biology or any other rational and empirical discipline. In the book, there is an entire chapter rebutting arbitrary distinctions:

In the same way, an ethicist cannot validly put forward the moral proposition: “It is evil to rape the elderly.” “Rape” is the behaviour; whether the victim is elderly or not is irrelevant to the moral proposition, since as long as the victim is human, the requirement for universality remains constant. “Thou shalt not steal” is a valid moral proposition according to UPB – “thou shalt not steal turnips” is not, for the simple reason that theft is related to the concept of property – and turnips, as a subset of property, cannot be rationally delineated from all other forms of property and assigned their own moral rule.

Perhaps David did not get to this part of the book, or perhaps he did not understand it, or perhaps he did not understand its relevance – he certainly did not quote or rebut it.

When David gets to my arguments against rape as UPB, he quotes me:

If “rape” is a moral good, then “not raping” must be a moral evil – thus it is impossible for two men in the same room to both be moral at the same time, since only one of them can be a rapist at any given moment – and he can only be a rapist if the other man becomes his victim. (p. 66)

Incredibly, Molyneux takes the rule he is considering to be one that requires people to be continuously engaged in rape. It never occurs to him to take the rule as mandating, “at some time or other, you ought to attempt rape,” an evil imperative that would escape his strictures. Evidently this construal would violate his bizarre requirements about universality: a morally required action is one that everyone must perform at the same time, all the time.

This is not my complete argument, although it is a challenging argument for most people to understand. Rape cannot be UPB because sexual penetration is only rape if it is unwanted – thus one man must want to rape, while the other man must desperately not want to be raped, which means that both of them cannot simultaneously value rape as universally preferable behavior. It certainly is true that it is physiologically impossible to rape all the time, which is empirical evidence for the invalidity of the theory that rape can be UPB – but more importantly, it is logically impossible for rape to be UPB.   David writes:   It never occurs to him to take the rule as mandating, “at some time or other, you ought to attempt rape,” an evil imperative that would escape his strictures.

This does not escape my strictures (and again, if they are my strictures, then we are talking subjective preference, not objective truth) – because as I repeatedly point out in the book, the word “universally” means “independent of time or place.” Thus when David says “at some time or other” he breaks universality, and thus is no longer talking about ethics. Again, this would be like a physicist saying “my universal theory is that on Wednesdays, between 2 and 3 AM, rocks fall upwards.”

David then writes:

Evidently this construal would violate his bizarre requirements about universality: a morally required action is one that everyone must perform at the same time, all the time.

I’m not sure what the word “bizarre” means here – universality by definition is independent of time and place, and so I don’t think that it is a “bizarre” requirement to ask that a universal theory apply all the time and everywhere. The scientific equivalent of David’s sentence would be: “it is a bizarre requirement that a universal theory about physics apply everywhere, and all the time.” Writing the word “bizarre” does not make something bizarre.

Then, David writes:

He deploys an analogous argument against a rule that made theft obligatory: people could not always and everywhere steal. He adds another consideration that is equally inept.

David provides no argument against my formulation of the ban against theft, but then says that another of my arguments is “equally inept.” In other words, he says, “You have a first argument – your second argument is equally inept.”

He quotes from my book:

In other words, working to gain control of a piece of property is only valid if you can assert your property rights over the stolen object. No one will bother stealing a wallet if he has certain knowledge that it will be stolen from him the moment he gets his hands on it. (p. 81)

This is one of a few arguments against “theft as UPB” in the book – a thief is both violating and affirming property rights when he steals, which is a logical contradiction.

He then writes:

This last sentence is entirely reasonable, but it has no bearing on the rule mandating theft. If people think that theft is obligatory, it by no means follows that anyone will succeed in taking away something you have stolen.

This is not my argument at all. The logical contradiction involved in stealing – the simultaneous violation and affirmation of property rights – does not require that someone else actually succeed in stealing from the thief. (The other argument I make in the book, that stealing cannot be UPB because property transfer must be opposed in order to be theft, is not addressed in this article.)

David then criticizes my treatment of property rights in the book, by quoting one paragraph and saying that my theory is incomplete. Well, I quite agree with him – one paragraph is an incomplete theory, which is why there is considerably more material on property rights in the book itself; you can check out the chapter title “The Third Test: Theft.” David complains that I have given “no account at all of how people initially gain title to physical objects external to their bodies.” I’m not sure if he missed the few pages in which I discuss this, which ends:

Since we own our bodies, we also inevitably own the effects of our actions, be they good or bad. If we own the effects of our actions, then clearly we own that which we produce, whether what we produce is a bow, or a book – or a murder.

Saying that my argument is incomplete by quoting only one paragraph is like proving that a book is scattered by only quoting footnotes.

David also takes great offense to my argument that we cannot rationally or empirically justify 50% property rights. He quotes me:

“The problem with any theory that argues for less than 100% property rights is that it instantly creates a ‘domino effect’ of infinite regression, wherein everybody ends up with infinitely small ownership rights over pretty much everything, which is clearly impossible” (p. 79).

He then writes:

By hypothesis, the first person has half ownership in what he has acquired. If this share is subject to further attrition, the original hypothesis has without justification been replaced with something else.

Well, since property rights are a subset of ethics, they must be universal – if universalizing 50% ownership causes ever-declining ownership, clearly the theory has some problems, to say the least. The fact that 50% ownership cannot be rationally sustained is entirely my point. His issue here seems to be with mathematics, not my book.

David’s last issue with the book comes with a deliciously catty aside:

Molyneux makes some good points against public education, but he would not be Molyneux if he did not give us a bad argument as well. “Since public schools are funded through the initiation of the use of force, they are a form of forced association, which is a clear violation of the freedom of association validated by UPB [universally preferable behavior]” (p.118, emphasis omitted). He is of course right that public schools funded through taxation rest on the initiation of force; but it does not follow from such funding that students are required by compulsory attendance laws to attend them. The funding does not suffice to make these schools a form of “forced association.” (emphasis added)

I don’t actually mention compulsory attendance laws anywhere in the book (I do mention that I was compelled to attend, but I do not make the claim that this is a universal legal compulsion.) When I’m talking about “forced association,” I am clearly referring to people being forced to pay for public schools, since that is the example given in the same sentence above.

Finally, David writes:

Despite the impression I have so far given, Molyneux is by no means stupid: quite the contrary. Therein, I suggest, lies the source of the problems of his book. Because of his facile intelligence, he thinks that he has a talent for philosophical argument and need not undertake the hard labor of learning how such arguments are constructed. Unfortunately for him and his book, he is mistaken.

I was disappointed that David did not discuss any of my seven ethical categories, my distinctions between ethics and aesthetics, my definition of evil, my justifications for the nonaggression principle, my distinctions between irrationality, lying and murder, the coma test I propose for an initial evaluation of moral theories, my eight premises for arguments and universality, the UPB approach to self-defense, and many of the other arguments put forward in the book.

As a final note, I also wanted to point out that although David rejected much of UPB, his article was entirely based upon an acceptance of UPB, in that:

1.    Truth is universally preferable to falsehood. i.e. it is not a subjective opinion, but arguments which conform to reason and evidence.

2.    It is universally preferable for my arguments to be rational, and not irrational.

3.    It is universally preferable for me not to contradict myself.

4.    In the realm of rational argument, success is universally preferable to failure, and success and failure are not subjective outcomes.

5.    I exercise 100% property rights over the creation of the book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics (he refers to it as my book, and my arguments etc.)

6.    I am 100% responsible for the creation of the book, and for all of the contents therein.

These are just some of the many UPB assumptions built into the review; I think this is wonderful, and a full confirmation of the theory.

As I have to all the other critics of UPB, I extend to David my cordial invitation to have a public debate about the nature and purpose of ethics. I fully agree with him that it is an essential topic that we all need to continue to work on, and I think that a public conversation about rational ethics would be of great benefit to the entire community. David, when you see this, I really do look forward such an exchange.

Stefan Molyneux’s Response to David Gordon’s Review “The Molyneux Problem”

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