Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Molyneux and the Objectivist Tradition 1

UPB: intro. Stefan Molyneux’s theory of Universally Preferable Behavior (i.e., UPB) is an attempt to establish moral principles on the same firm “objectivie” basis as the best theories in science. Essentially Molyneux wants to show how the a moral proposition such as “rape is wrong” can be “verified” in the same way as Einstein’s theory of relativity or the motions of the stars and planets have been “verified” through the scientific method. If he could succeed in this endeavor, Molyneux believes this would demonstrate the objective truth of moral propositions—especially the moral truth of various social and political ideals that Molyneux holds close to his heart, such as the non-aggression principle, “voluntarism” (i.e., anarcho-capitalism) and “peaceful parenting.” Molyneux’s foudationalist mindset is very much in line with what Rand attempted in her own ethical speculations.

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:

  1. Foundationalism and logic
  2. Preferences and morality 
  3. The necessary premises of debating 
  4. Criterion for ethics 
  5. The Non-Aggression Principle 
  6. Recapitulation


Anonymous said...

Molyneux is a straw man. Why don't you take a crack at Tara Smith?

gregnyquist said...

Molyneux is a straw man. Why don't you take a crack at Tara Smith?

Molyneux has a much larger audience than Tara Smith. Tara Smith may be intellectually more respectable than Molyneux. But how many people actually bother with Smith? What has she accomplished beyond putting an academic gloss over what is at bottom just repackaged orthodox Objectivism? And I've already gone over that. Somebody needs to articulate what is wrong with Molyneux's UPB and put that theory to be once and for all.

Anonymous said...

Looks like there is another schism brewing:


Anonymous said...

Richard Salsman, 4/29/2020 on FB:

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism provides a consistent, comprehensive case for liberty, egoism, rights, and capitalism. One might think, therefore, that an institute many decades old with her name on the door would help the wider world know that crucial fact. Alas, tragically, it is no longer so, indeed hasn’t been so for many years, but especially in the years that one OG has been granted the title Chief Content Officer (CCO), or, more accurately, Chief Censor. A wholly unqualified charlatan who couldn’t get a job in academia, nonetheless he is venerated by the likes of YB, TS, HB and a host of other sycophants, who attempt to elevate themselves by trying to dissipate the great legacy of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff. That’s impossible, of course, but they do still try. Now watch, if you can stomach it, this dishonest and pathetic performance by OG, the CCO at ARI whose simple task is to explain why AR’s philosophy is DISTINCTIVE. He cannot do it; his ramblings are vague, dilatory, subjective and wholly lacking in rational content. By the way, this is NOT a spontaneous, extemporaneous Q&A but a preplanned, “thought-out” opening statement devoid of any coherent argument. Her philosophy, he intones, is “new!” — “different!” — “pathbreaking! — “unconventional!” Different, how? No answer. True, in what way? Blank out. Why should I care? Because I’m OG, and here’s how it hit me, subjectively, in Calgary, many years ago.
This is waste; this is ridiculous; this is corruption. Why would anyone fund such tripe, who possessed even a scintilla of conscientiousness, or pride? It is using Ayn Rand’s illustrious name as a shield for incompetence. Don’t fall for it, Objectivist sheeple. It is the now the oak tree in Atlas Shrugged, if you know what I mean. I yearn nostalgically for the 15 years when the great Mike Berliner built that place, grew it, made it real, professional, viable, COLLEGIAL. All that’s mostly gone now, due not to MB of course, but to all those inferior successors who squandered his achievements and preferred to carve out personal sinecures. In the process they trashed and ostracized more than a few wealthy businessmen, who eventually left - shrugged - out of pride. Yet it still stands, like that oak tree, sentry at its side, the “Chief Content Officer,” ensuring unending content-less-ness. ARI supported the bailouts of 2008-09, then the Lockdown of 2020. There’s “content” for you - no different than what you’d find at Heritage or Brookings. The CCO remains, ever as smug, ever pretending to promote Rand’s views, hoping contributors won’t notice and won’t stop funding the fraud. But the CCO, thougn funded, is irrelevant; the truth will out, eventually; reality is the best avenger of all.

Gordon Burkowski said...

Who is OG?

Anonymous said...

Onkar Ghate

max said...

"The idea of a universal natural law-order that supposedly can be discovered by all rational minds was an invention of Roman Stoic philosophers over a century after Rome defeated the remnants of Alexander’s empire.

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor (Leviticus 19:15).

“There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:49).

These two verses are the biblical foundation of the principle of the rule of law.

Hebrew or gentile, rich or poor, there was to be one civil law-order.

This was crucial in the Mosaic law’s concept of justice. No one was exempt from the rule of law.

This legal underpinning of liberty rests on a principle of morality. That principle is this one: the defense of private property. The Bible is clear about this: "Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15). It is one of the Ten Commandments.

When Christianity adheres to the judicial specifics of the Bible, it produces free market capitalism.
On the other hand, when Christianity rejects the judicial specifics of the Bible, it produces socialism or some politically run hybrid "middle way" between capitalism and socialism, where politicians and bureaucrats make the big decisions about how people's wealth will be allocated. Economic growth then slows or is reversed. Always.

Prof. Foner is incorrect when he says that capitalism is immoral. Capitalism follows Smith's lead: to be successful, a producer must serve the customer. You must appeal to his self-interest. This is surely moral. It is anti-coercive. It does not rely on a badge and a gun to extract wealth from someone else.

There is a confrontation within the Republican Party: social conservatives vs. libertarians. But this is not based on morality vs. immorality or amorality. It is based on rival views of morality."

Anonymous said...

"Capitalism follows Smith's lead: to be successful, a producer must serve the customer. You must appeal to his self-interest. This is surely moral."

Ha ha, if only.

Anonymous said...

Titus said... is an indispensable resource for trackers of ARI's corruption and immorality.

Titus said...

Richard Salsman. I remember him from the 1980s when he was defending insider trading. In fact, that was his claim to ARI fame: he started as the ARI's point man on insider trading and on the high moral character of convicted felon Michael Milken.

None of these people are good. When RS criticizes OG, it's no more than the pot calling the kettle black.