Sunday, December 13, 2020

Molyneux and the Objectivist Tradition 5

UPB: The necessary premises of debating, pt. 2. Molyneux argues in his book Universally Preferable Behavior that denying his theory of morality is “innately self-contradictory,” because “saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behavior is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist.” Is Molyneux right about this? Is UPB, which Molyneux identifies more broadly with “moral rules,” valid because it is self-contradictory to deny them? Let’s take a closer look at Molyneux’s arguments:  

Problem No. 3: Biting off more than can be chewed. At the core of Molyneux’s argument is what could be regarded as a clever debating tactic. Molyneux contends that any attempt to argue with another individual implies the desire to “correct” one’s antagonist, and the desire to correct further implies the acceptance of objective truth as a universal value:

If you correct me on an error that I have made, you are implicitly accepting the fact that it would be better for me to correct my error. Your preference for me to correct my error is not subjective, but objective, and universal. 
You don’t say to me: “You should change your opinion to mine because I would prefer it,” but rather: “You should correct your opinion because it is objectively incorrect.” My error does not arise from merely disagreeing with you, but as a result of my deviance from an objective standard of truth. Your argument that I should correct my false opinion rests on the objective value of truth – i.e. that truth is universally preferable to error, and that truth is universally objective.

In debates Molyneux uses this argument to trap his opponent. The contention is that if I argue against Molyneux and his theory of UPB, I must be trying to correct him. And if I’m trying to correct Molyneux, I must also accept truth as a universal value. For why else would I be so determined to criticize Molyneux’s theory if I did not wish to establish a truth for everyone?

When confronted by these assertions, the typical critic of Molyneux is confounded. In debates, few wish to admit that they don’t regard the truth as a universal value. Yet if we take the trouble to examine debates occurring in the real world of fact (rather than in Molyneux’s speculative imagination), do we actually find evidence of truth being pursued as a universal value? I’m inclined to doubt it. For if debates were in fact solely or even primarily concerned with establishing truth, how come so few debaters ever change their minds when the verbal wrangling has at last come to an end? On any issue where we find strong, committed beliefs, debating usually proves pointless. As Nietzsche noted in his critique of Socrates, “dialectic” (i.e., discourse or debate using logic and “reason”) is rarely persuasive. Individuals make use of it only when everything else has failed.

Even if Molyneux were right and my criticism of UPB is tantamount to a desire to correct his various philosophical errors, it would be a non sequitur to infer that I must therefore regard truth as a universal value. The desire, for instance, to correct Molyneux in no way commits me to the necessity of correcting anyone else. I may seek to correct Molyneux because I believe he is a smart and talented fellow and am grieved to find him sunk in the deepest dregs of faux-rationality. Individuals, however, who lack Molyneux’s gifts, who are incorrigibly stupid and talentless, I may have no desire to correct. Nor may I wish to correct those in the grips of harmless delusions, like children who believe in Santa Claus or adults who insist the earth is flat. Truth may be a value under certain circumstances, but under others, not so much. 

Truths which bear heavily on survival and prosperity will of course have value to those who wish to succeed in the adventure of life. But what of those truths that have little if any relevance to practical outcomes? Are those truths valuable to human flourishing? If not, how then can all truth, regardless of its impact on human goals, be considered universally valuable, when as a matter of fact only some truth is found to be so? If it were discovered that some truths are so dark and dismal that to accept them would lead to widespread despondency and nihilistic hedonism, wouldn’t refuge in comforting fancies and lies, assuming they didn’t bear on issues of survival and prosperity, be preferable for the vast majority of humanity (the stalwart and hyper-resilent alone excluded)? Perhaps the biggest issue with truth isn’t that it can be horrible, but rather its sheer tediousness. Imagine if we could transcribe into an immense volume every aspect of truth about the real world: who could ever tolerate reading more than a few lines of it? Most truth is intolerably dull and thoroughly irrelevant. Hence the need to condense, to reduce to human scale, the immense edifice of the potential knowable. Even then, we still feel the need to embellish the truth in order to render it more pleasing to our aesthetic sensibilities. Often a spoonful of narrative is required to enable the medicine of truth to go down; and it is in story and drama that the wisdom of life is most splendidly revealed.  

If Molyneux, unconvinced by these objections, nonetheless persists in contending that the attempt to refute UPB must, in some vague sense or another, involve the acceptance of UPB, I can only reply: why does that matter in the least? The fact that I or Stefan Molyneux or anyone else believes in Universally Preferable Behavior does not in any way validate or render true the theory in question. Belief can always be erroneous, even belief presumably required for a given activity, such as debating.

Two can play the game of drawing out the necessary premises of debating. If I am in fact engaged in the attempt to correct Stefan Molyneux, must I not also be operating under the belief that Stefan is correctable? Wouldn’t it be irrational of me—not to mention deeply impractical—to attempt to correct any individual who in point of fact is not correctible? But in assuming—as a necessary premise of engaging in debate—that my antagonist is correctible, does that assumption automatically become “valid” and hence true?  Must my antagonist be correctible, if I assume him to be so? Is it not possible that my assumption is incorrect? Are we to assume that all assumptions presumed in debating, if they touch upon moral theories espoused by Molyneux, automatically become, as if by magic, valid and true?

The fact that I must make certain assumptions in order to engage in a particular activity does not in any way “validate” the assumptions in question. If I sought to become a professional artist, must I not believe I can succeed in the endeavor? Why else would I embark on such a risky course? Yet it would be a strange way of reasoning to insist that the assumptions presumably necessary in order to undertake a specific course of action cannot turn out to be at least partially false. Many a human venture ends in failure. If I must believe I can succeed in my ambition to be an artist, that belief is hardly guarantees that I will in fact succeed. More likely than not, like thousands before me, my desire to become a successful artist will be frustrated by social necessities well beyond my immediate control. Assumptions adopted in behavior do not constitute reliable guides to validation or truth.

Molyneux, in his eagerness to “validate” UPB, offers additional arguments . He contends that “it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behavior, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviors such as breathing, eating and drinking.” (41) This is, however, a fallacious argument. Molyneux is confusing the requisites of living with the premises of an argument. Now obviously if you’re going to define breathing, eating, and drinking as universally preferable behaviors, then it’s not going to be especially difficult to establish UPB as something empirically real. But then why not simply point to the evidence of individuals breathing, eating and drinking and be done with it? Why bother with all this sophistical rationalistic speculation, when Molyneux could much more easily point to obvious facts in the empirical world?

The reason why Molyneux avoids the easier and more convincing empirical verification of UPB is because UPB is not an empirical theory. Molyneux is not trying to prove how all human beings “universally” prefer to behave. On the contrary, he wishes to demonstrate what people ought to prefer, not what they do in fact prefer:
Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer. (33)
Let us ignore the obvious problems with insisting on what people should prefer—as if preferences were a matter of choice! Molyneux, as we will recall, translates "universally preferable" into "objectively required." This leads to what might be the most serious problem of Molyneux's theory. If a specified behavior, as Molyneux at least implies, should be "objectively required," there must exist some kind of standard to determine why this should be so. No activity is required in and of itself, but only in relation to some goal or moral end. The phrase “objectively required behavior” only makes sense in relation to a specific purpose. So what is the purpose of Molyneux’s “objectively required behavior”? What are the moral ends that undergird and give force and direction to Molyneux’s theory of UPB? Molyneux isn’t very clear about this. He only writes of moral ends in passing, usually in reference to some other point, as we see in the following passage:

If you want to live [Molyneux contends], 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. (32)

Note how he frames these moral ends: “If you want to live,” he writes, or “If you wish to determine valid truths about reality” (emphasis added). Molyneux has no interest in discussing the ethical side of these questions. Should we want to live? If so, why? Should we wish to know the truth? If so, why? Molyneux is seemingly indifferent to these questions relating directly to moral ends. Yet is precisely these issues of moral ends that constitutes the core subject of ethics. Molyneux’s theory about Universally Preferred Behavior is not essentially about ethics at all. It’s rather about how to argue about ethics, which is something different.

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