Saturday, December 26, 2020

Molyneux and the Objectivist Tradition 6

UPB: Criterion for ethics. Universally preferable behavior, which is the core concept of Molyneux’s ethical speculations, is not an easy theory to wrap one's head around. It is not always clear what Molyneux means by it. Consider the ambiguity which clings to the terms of the following passage:

We all have preferences – from the merely personal (“I like ice cream”) to the socially preferable (“It is good to be on time”) to universal morality (“Thou shalt not murder”).

There is little point writing a book about personal preferences – and we can turn to Ann Landers for a discussion of socially preferable behaviour – here, then, we will focus on the possibility of Universally Preferable Behaviour. (50)

Note how Molyneux goes from “personal” preferences to “social” preferences to “universal morality.” Interpreted in one sense, Molyneux seems to be suggesting a relation between personal and social preferences on one side and “universal morality” (presumably Universally Preferable Behavior) on the other. But this transition is not well explained. It’s as if Molyneux wants us to think of universal morality as a preference, but not a preference in the same way as a sweet tooth for chocolate can be a preference. What precisely is the difference? How does one transition from “I prefer chocolate” to “thou shalt not murder”? How are those two statements both preferences?

Elsewhere Molyneux insists that universally preferable “translates” into objectively required. “When I speak of a universal preference, I am really defining what is objectively required, or necessary, assuming a particular goal,” explains Molyneux. (30) As I have previously noted, there exists a fair amount of conceptual difference between what is universally preferred and what is objectively required. If we follow the common meanings of these two verbal constructions, they can’t possibly mean the same thing.

Further equivocations (or at least confusions as to meaning) confront us at other junctures of Molyneux’s theory. For instance, at one point Molyneux equates UPB with moral rules:

Simply put, morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviours, just as physics is a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify the universal behaviour of matter. (40)

Very well. But then Molyneux introduces yet another distinction which the logically fastidious reader might find baffling:

UPB can thus be seen as a framework for validating ethical theories or propositions – just as the scientific method is a framework that is used to validate scientific theories or propositions.
An example of a moral proposition is: “the initiation of the use of force is wrong.” UPB is the methodology that tests that proposition against both internal consistency and empirical observation. UPB thus first asks: is the proposition logical and consistent? UPB then asks: what evidence exists for the truth of the proposition? (46-47)

So Molyneux equates Universally Preferable Behavior with both moral rules and the methodology (i.e., “framework”) to “test ethical theories or propositions.” Does this make any sense? Can a moral rule also be a framework for testing theories and statements about ethics? 

When I describe Molyneux as a faux-rationalist, I’m not engaged in name-calling or ad hominem. I’m merely describing what I find in the pages of Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior. Like Rand, Molyneux very much wishes to be “logical,” rational, and reality-orientated; but also like Rand, he sometimes falls considerably short of this goal. His book is teaming with non sequiturs, equivocations, empirically dubious (and unsubstantiated) assertions, rationalistic tropes (i.e., “self-defeating arguments) and other trappings of faux-rationality. The problem is not so much that Molyneux is irrational or he’s engaging in deceptive practices; rather, I suspect he just doesn’t know how to be rational. He learned too much of his philosophy from a bad source (i.e., Ayn Rand).

Molyneux’s estrangement from the rational and the real is no where more transparent than when he discusses UPB as a framework to “test” moral theories and propositions. Molyneux bases his UPB framework on the scientific method:

Thus any valid scientific theory must be (a) universal, (b) logical, (c) empirically verifiable, (d) reproducible and (e) as simple as possible. 
The methodology for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same as the methodology for judging and proving any other theory. (39)

In other words, Molyneux is suggesting that a “valid” moral theory (or proposition) must be (a) universal, (b) logical, (c) empirically verifiable and (e) as simple as possible.

What does all this mean in practical terms? Namely this: that Molyneux has endorsed a criterion for judging morality that has nothing to do with morality. His insistence that a moral theory should be judged on the exact same basis as scientific theories about matters of fact is one immense non sequitur. The demand for logical consistency is, as I have already pointed out, irrelevant, since consistency of meaning does not guarantee truth. The desire for empirical verifiability is even more puzzling. Empirical verification involves determining whether some claim about matters of fact is true. That is a very different process from evaluating a moral rule (i.e., what is good or evil).

Molyneux would have us believe that such  “universal prohibitions” “ as rape, theft, assault and murder” constitute empirical verifications. (47) It is not clear what he means by this. Is he making a descriptive or a normative claim? In other words, is he merely contending that, as a matter of fact, there exists a “universal prohibition” against rape, theft, assault and murder—that everyone in the world does in fact adhere, or at least gives lip service, to prohibitions against these activities? Or is he contending that these prohibitions ought to exist whether they do or not? I honestly don’t know which of these senses Molyneux means, and I doubt Molyneux knows either. In any case, it is not clear how moral rules, or  anything normative in content, can be “empirically verified” without committing some form or other of G.E. Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy.

Molyneux has been led astray by the desire to create a criterion for judging moral assertions that is “rational,” objective (i.e., true for every one), and universal (i.e., applicable to everyone). He seems to believe that if he can show that a moral theory or proposition is “logically consistent” and “empirically verifiable,” that somehow this will magically render the theory or proposition in question “valid” (which presumably means “true for everyone”). Morality just doesn’t work that way.

Science uses data drawn from the empirical world—documentation of facts—to create the content which is analyzed and tested via the scientific method. If we are to make analogies between science and ethics, why not draw them all the way out? What are the data points of ethics—for determining moral ends? Are they found solely in “logical consistency”? Are they found in material facts? As a matter of fact, they are not found in either of those places. How could they be? What does pure logic or material facts have to do with the profoundest aspirations of the human soul? Shouldn’t the data point of ethics—the data points in reference by which we determine what each human individual should be aiming at—relate in some manner or form to the actual interests or aspirations of human beings? How can a framework for judging moral rules that ignores these interests and aspirations be considered ethical in any significant sense of the word? The criterions which Molyneux sets up for judging moral theories have nothing to do with the actual needs, interests and aspirations of human beings. Molyneux’s standards for judging moral rules are adventitious, arbitrary, unrealistic, and unpersuasive.

When morality is divorced from the constitutional needs and aspirations of individual human beings, it loses all its persuasive force. Ethical behavior, like all behavior, requires a motive. You have to appeal to something real in the human breast, not to something which has little if anything with the needs, desires, and feelings of the individual, such as logical rationalizations and meretricious appeals to "facts." When David Hume contended that "reason" must be slave of passion, this is what he meant. If you want to elicit certain types of behavior from individuals, you have to appeal to their actual preferences, not to the preferences you believe they "ought" to have. Strictly speaking, people don't choose their preferences, any more than they choose their constitutional needs or their basic character or nature. The basic unit of morality is the individual, and because human nature is not homogeneous (people are different!), a secular (i.e., non-theistic) universal morality based on the natural needs of the individual becomes a hopeless endeavor. 

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