In her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand sought to show how a morality in line with her preferred political system, “laissez-faire” capitalism, could achieve the same level of truth and objectivity that scientifically “verified” theories about the material world enjoy. This ambition to conflate ethical propriety with empirical truth takes even greater importance in Molyneux’s moralistic speculations. In some respects, it is the basis of Molyneux’s whole system. Yet, to be fair, that’s hardly the starting point of UPB.
Molyneux’s commences his theory of ethics with what could be regarded as a clever debating tactic. He insists that “inherent in the very act of arguing are a number of embedded premises that cannot be conceivably overturned.” As Molyneux explains:
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. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behavior. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behavior. Thus universally preferable behavior – or moral rules –must be valid. (40-41)
Once Molyneux has established, to his satisfaction, the “validity” of UPB, he then tries to set it up a “methodology” for “validating ethical theories and propositions.” (46) Molyneux assumes that the “validation” of morality should work exactly like the validation of scientific theories. Just as, according to Molyneux, scientific theory, in order to be “valid,” must be both logical (i.e., ‘internally consistent”) and “empirically verifiable,” so must moral theories. “We must begin using the power and legitimacy of the scientific method to prove the validity and universality of moral laws,” Molyneux opines.
How is this done? Molyneux provides several examples of how moral propositions can be tested “logically,” with the presumption that any inconsistency that can be ferreted out of a given principle automatically “invalidates” the moral injunction in question. Here’s an example of Molyneux in action:
If I say that gravity affects matter, it must affect all matter. If even one pebble proves immune to gravity, my theory is in trouble. If I propose a moral theory that argues that people should not murder, it must be applicable to all people…. I … cannot logically argue that 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 rule for another is invalid – it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall down, while others fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an observable fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules. Biologists have no problems classifying certain organisms as “human” because they share common and easily identifiable characteristics – it is only moralists who seem to find this level of consistency impossible.
And here is Molyneux’s “invalidation” of rape:
Similarly, any moral theory that advocates rape faces a similar contradiction. Rape can never be moral, since any principle that approves it automatically contradicts itself. If rape is justified on the principle that “taking pleasure is always good,” then such a principle immediately fails the test of logical consistency, since the rapist may be “taking pleasure,” but his victim certainly is not.
This is UPB in a nutshell. I have tried to present the main elements of the theory as fairly as possible. Although Molyneux follows in the Objectivist tradition of faux-rationality, he is not as good a writer as Rand (even if he is significantly more prolix). There is a kind of sloppiness in his writing—a slovenliness or carelessness in the manner he handles the expression of meaning—that can make it challenging to figure out precisely what he is trying to convey. Nevertheless, for those of us with some familiarity with the manner in which philosophers in the Objectivist tradition “reason,” it is possible to glean the hang of Molyneux’s system.
In ensuing posts, I will seek to explain what is wrong with Molyneux’s quixotic attempt to demonstrate a rational basis for secular ethics. The criticsm of UPB will be divided as follows:
- Foundationalism and logic
- Preferences and morality
- The necessary premises of debating
- Criterion for ethics
- The Non-Aggression Principle