UPB 3: Preferences and morality. In his book Universal Preferable Behavior, Molyneux begins his disquisition on ethics by comparing assertions about preferences with assertions about matters of fact. Statements of fact, notes Molyneux are “objective, testable—and binding,” whereas statements of preference are “not generally considering binding … in any way.” Preferences are mere statements “of personal fondness.” It is not incumbent upon anyone to share our preferences. (22)
What on earth does Molyneux mean by saying that statements of fact are “binding”? It might be presumed he is making the point that facts are stubborn things and that if you insist on evading reality you will get hurt But that is not really what Molyneux has in mind. He is using “binding” in a surreptitiously moral sense. If you value truth, he argues, you are “bound” to accept it. Bound in what way? This is not altogether clear. Molyneux merely insists, somewhat oddly, that if you do not value truth, “you would never be in this debate – or any other debate – in the first place!”
If we value truth, mustn’t we accept the truth when it confronts us? That sounds reasonable, but in the real world it’s not so simple. Values exist in a hierarchy, and it is eminently possible for the individual to hold several values that are not in every respect commensurate. I may value truth, but I may value peace of mind more; and so there may exist certain hard truths about life and the human condition, such as the inevitability of death and the ultimate hopelessness of all earthly endeavors, that I prefer to push aside to avoid complete demoralization. My “non-acceptance” of these truths is in no sense binding and, from a practical point of view, might even be laudatory.
Molyneux is on even weaker ground when he insists that those who don’t value the truth would never involve themselves in debate. Given the fact that the participants in most debates rarely change their minds, one wonders how Molyneux can be so confident that debating is everywhere and always about discovering truth. Later on, we will find him returning to this empirically counter-intuitive assertion. It will prove a fulcrum upon which his whole moral system depends.
What Molyneux is really aiming at with his assertions about facts being “binding” is that he wishes to draw, by a kind of analogy, the same feature out of preferences. In other words, Molyneux’s theory seeks to discover and “validate” morally binding preferences—preferences that the individual, assuming he wishes to be moral, is obligated to follow. It is not clear how, at least on secular premises, this is possible without violating Hume’s stricture against reasoning from premises concerning matters of fact to conclusions concerning moral ideals.
David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, wrote:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Is Molyneux guilty of this “imperceptible change” between factual and moral reasoning? Yes, he is. Nor is it all that hard to catch him in the act.
After some exhausting preliminaries, Molyneux launches into the main part of his argument with a short dissertation on preferences:
Preferences are central to any methodology claiming to define the truth-value of propositions. The scientific method, for instance, is largely defined by innate preferences for logical consistency and empirical verification. For science, the premise is: if you want to determine a valid truth about the behavior of matter and energy, it is preferable to use the scientific method.
This is a rather odd way to write about preference. Is the scientific method in point of fact based merely on a “preference” for logic and verification? Molyneux, sensing a problem with his formulation, immediately adds the following baffling proviso:
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. “Universally preferable,” then, translates to “objectively required,” but we will retain the word “preferable” to differentiate between optional human absolutes and non-optional physical absolutes such as gravity. (32)
If “universally preferable “translates” to “objectively required,” why isn’t Molyneux’s theory “Objectively Required Behavior”? Wouldn’t that be a more accurate designation? Molyneux is forced to play these word games because he is attempting the impossible. In defiance of both logic (i.e., Hume’s is-ought gap) and empirical investigation (i.e., psychological experiments—see Haidt, The Righteous Mind), he is insisting that a purely rational basis can be found for a universal secular ethics.
Those attempting the impossible in philosophy have no choice but to resort to sophistry, and one sure sign of sophistical proceedings is playing fast and loose with the meanings of words. What possible justification, in either logic or experience, can Molyneux possibly put forth for so casually redefining “universally preferable” as “objectively required”? The term preferable applies to ends. A preference describes a goal to be aimed at, not a method to be followed. A requirement, on the other hand, refers to the means by which an end is to be attained. If you are pursing a specified goal, there may be various conditions that must be met before this goal can be attained and secured. If I wish to buy car, it is required that I possess the necessary funds. So if the phrase “universally preferable” refers to goals (or ends) and the phrase “objectively required” refers to means, how is Molyneux justified in equating the first phrase with the second?
Molyneux claims he uses the word preferable to “differentiate between optional human absolutes and non-optional physical absolutes.” Molyneux is trying to make the point that, whereas natural laws in the physical world remain constant (e.g., there exist no exceptions to the laws of motion), moral injunctions can be, and often are, ignored. Murder and rape may be among the worst evils a human being can succumb to, but that hasn’t stopped people from committing these terrible acts.
How is Molyneux justified in using the word preferable to illustrate this difference between moral injunctions and physical laws? Well, although Molyneux can use words in whatever manner he pleases, using preferable in this context is, we might say, potentially misleading. Moral rules are “optional” because human beings can choose not to follow them. But are preferences “optional” in the same way? How can they be? Do human beings chose their preferences? Is that even possible? Wouldn't it be more accurate, or at least more consistent with common usage, to suggest that, far from choosing our preferences, we instead use our preferences as a criterion to determine how we chose? If I choose Mary over Jane, doesn’t that indicate I must prefer Mary to Jane? And so if preferences are not in fact chosen, but are rather a criterion by which choices are made, what sense does it make to describe a behavior that is “optional” as “preferable”?
Why has Molyneux entitled his theory “Universal Preferable Behavior” when it is in fact nothing of the sort? Why speak of preference at all when the theory is clearly after something else? I suspect Molyneux uses the term “preferable” instead of the more accurate term “required” because he is engaged in the philosophically disreputable exercise of reasoning from an is to ought. Essentially he is throwing sand in our eyes in the hope that we won’t notice the deception. Using “preferable” instead of “required” leaves the impression that his theory is founded on something which no secularist or naturalist could ever find objectionable. After all, if we build our moral speculations on preference, rather than material facts, don’t we avoid running afoul of Hume’s is-ought gap? Isn’t that how Hume himself avoided the gap? Alas, Molyneux’s “preferable” is not in fact preferable! His use of the word flouts common usage, spreading confusion and despair among his readers. Nor is this unfortunate tendency to use words in strange ways confined merely to this one term. Molyneux’s theory of UPB features this extraordinary capability whereby words magically take on meanings that no sensible person could ever have guessed. Thus “preferable” transforms itself into “required,” “universal” into “objective,” and "debating" into “valuing the truth.” If we wish to understand Molyneux, we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.