appears that I have been thoroughly called out by David Gordon at Mises.org,
ridiculed for my "preposterously bad" reasoning, told that I should learn how
to construct basic arguments, and been loftily informed that I have failed
miserably in my philosophical goals. The article is called The
and it is a review of my free book Universally
Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. (By the way, I have asked Mises.org
whether they will publish this response, but I have received no reply.)
admit that I am always skeptical when a review starts with insults - when I
studied acting and playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montréal, I
was always told to "show it, don't say it!" If my arguments are illogical,
showing this will surely reveal my incompetence - the insults are unnecessary.
The logical fallacy involved is called "poisoning the well."
instance, David writes in his second paragraph:
does not succeed in his noble goal. He fails, and fails miserably. His arguments
are often preposterously bad."
are not arguments; arguments are either valid or invalid, rational or
irrational, empirically verifiable or immune from a null hypothesis - the words
"miserable" and "preposterously" are not philosophical or rational terms.
have a look at David Gordon's criticisms of my book Universally Preferable
Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics.
writes, when discussing my view of ethics:
preferences, furthermore, have to do with morality, behavior that can be
forcibly imposed on people. ‘Those preferences which can be considered binding
upon others can be termed ‘universal preferences' or ‘moral rules'" (p. 40)."
use the word "binding," I am not referring to physical violence - otherwise I
would use the word "enforceable" or "compulsory." "Binding" means "having power
to bind or oblige; obligatory: a binding promise." It does not equal violence.
"Is there, then, behavior that is in his sense universally preferable?" (emphasis
sense"? If I'm talking about universal preferences, I am not talking about
subjective preferences, thus inserting the phrase "in his sense" moves the
discussion from universal and objective to subjective and personal. This is
like saying "Does Stef follow his own personal version of the scientific
method?" If it is my own personal version, it is not the scientific method. If
it is the scientific method, it is not my own personal version.
"His first claim is that the very fact of
engaging in inquiry over the existence of universally preferable behavior
suffices to answer the question in the affirmative. If I am engaged in debate
about this topic, must I not prefer truth to falsehood? An attempt to deny this
leads to contradiction: ‘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' (p.
all, the word "claim" is incorrect. "Claim" is a weasel word designed to
downgrade your opponent's arguments - there is no philosophical content or
value in the word "claim," since it is by definition a statement with neither
empirical or rational backing. A "claim" can be dismissed without argument,
since it is not founded on arguments - since I make both prose arguments and break those arguments down into a
series of syllogisms, the correct word would be "argument," not "claim."
Molyneux is certainly right that someone who
wants to discover whether universally preferable behavior exists, prefers,
while trying to find the answer, truth over falsehood; but how does this
generate a preference to correct others with mistaken views? Molyneux wrongly
supposes that if someone wants to discover the truth, he must be in engaged in
an actual debate with someone else. Why must he? Further, what has any of this
to do with enforceable obligations, the ostensible subject of his inquiry?
Using the word "exists"
is problematic, since I clearly state many times in the book that neither
morality nor UPB "exists" in the way that trees or rocks do - but more
importantly David has just ignored the actual
words from my book that he just quoted a paragraph earlier.
wrote was, "If I argue..." David then substitutes "if someone wants to discover
the truth" - which is not the same thing at all, and a complete straw man. "Arguing"
is objective behaviour; "wanting to
discover the truth" is an unverifiable subjective desire. Throughout the book, I
repeatedly argue that thought is not subject to ethical judgement - only
behavior, which is reflected in the title of the book - Universally Preferable Behaviour.
accept that someone who wants to discover the truth about where he left his
keys is not engaged in a philosophical debate, but so what? I also will concede
that someone sitting in a darkened room attempting to remember something from
his childhood is also attempting to discover the truth, but this has no bearing
on a philosophical discourse about universally preferable behavior.
quite a long time writing this book, and really picked my words carefully,
which is why I used the phrase, "If I argue against the proposition that universally
preferable behavior is valid..." and not "if I want to discover the truth in any
context." I don't know exactly what to say about this kind of repetitive
substitution and straw manning, other than that it seems clear that David is
not being exactly objective about the book.
writes, "Further, what has
any of this to do with enforceable obligations, the ostensible subject of his
answer to that is in the book, where I write in the chapter UPB: Ethics or Aesthetics?:
Although we first focused on UPB in
the realm of ethics, UPB can now be seen as an "umbrella term," which includes
such disciplines as:
The scientific method
Ethics is the subset of UPB which
deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that
justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory, and is subject to
the requirements of logical consistency and empirical evidence.
If we can
establish the validity of the concept of universally preferable behavior, we
have come a long way towards establishing a rational system of ethics. So if
David is bewildered as to what UPB has to do with ethics, he must have missed
that part of the book, or misunderstood its relevance.
Molyneux has many more arguments on
offer. How can we deny the existence of universally preferable behavior, he
asks: does not life itself depend on it? "Thus it is impossible that anyone can
logically argue against universally preferable behavior, since if he is alive
to argue, he must have followed universally preferable behaviors such as
breathing, eating and drinking."
Is it not obvious that Molyneux has
confused two different senses of "universally preferable behavior"? Biological
laws are, as even our author elsewhere realizes, descriptive regularities;
Molyneux fails utterly to show that acting in accord with such laws to keep
oneself alive has anything to do with moral obligation.
write many times in the book, UPB is not synonymous with ethics - ethics is a subset of UPB. It is so obvious that
biological laws are not the same as moral laws that I don't even know really
how to reply to it. Biological laws are involuntary, universal, objective, and
scarcely need human or philosophical reinforcement. Moral laws are voluntary; I
can choose to steal, but I cannot choose to be an amphibian. Exercise is a
choice; the effects of exercise are not.
argue against the validity of UPB, however, when you are only alive because you
have followed UPB (eating, drinking, sleeping), that is a self-detonating
argument, the same as yelling into someone's ear that sound does not exist.
proves the validity of UPB, not the subset called ethics. That is one reason
why the book continues after this early argument. If the book ended with me
saying, "You have to eat in order to live, and therefore you cannot steal!"
well, that would be quite an incomplete argument, to say the least.
tries to dissect a paragraph I have written about universality:
"I also cannot
logically argue that it 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 for another is
invalid - it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks fall
down, while other rocks fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts an
observed fact of reality, which is that human beings as a species share common
characteristics, and so cannot be subjected to opposing rules. (p. 44)"
Molyneux offers no argument that the
rules of morality must respond only to the characteristics that define the
human species. If someone proposed a rule of the form, "Human beings who meet
such-and-such requirements, and not others, may kill under the following
circumstances," no doubt we should want to look at the reasons alleged for this
claim very closely; but we could not dismiss the proposal outright because it
draws a distinction between two classes of people. Arbitrary appeals to the
laws of physics or biology have nothing to do with the case.
all, when David says that I make no arguments about why morality must apply to
all human beings, that is entirely false. Please see the chapter "UPB: Optional and Objective."
if I propose a moral rule which says that redheaded people may murder every
second full moon, then I have violated universality. This would be like a
biologist saying that green spotted frogs become mammals for 10 minutes every
second full moon. Other biologists would doubtless ask how frogs could change
their essential physiology in order to be classified so differently. We cannot
create arbitrary rules in philosophy, any more than we can in physics or
engineering or biology or any other rational and empirical discipline. In the
book, there is an entire chapter rebutting arbitrary distinctions:
In the same way, an ethicist cannot
validly put forward the moral proposition: "It is evil to rape the elderly." "Rape"
is the behaviour; whether the victim is elderly or not is irrelevant to the
moral proposition, since as long as the victim is human, the requirement for
universality remains constant. "Thou shalt not steal" is a valid moral
proposition according to UPB - "thou shalt not steal turnips" is not, for the
simple reason that theft is related to the concept of property - and turnips,
as a subset of property, cannot be rationally delineated from all other forms
of property and assigned their own moral rule.
David did not get to this part of the book, or perhaps he did not understand it,
or perhaps he did not understand its relevance - he certainly did not quote or
David gets to my arguments against rape as UPB, he quotes me:
If "rape" is a moral good, then "not raping"
must be a moral evil - thus it is impossible for two men in the same room to
both be moral at the same time, since only one of them can be a rapist at any
given moment - and he can only be a rapist if the other man becomes his victim.
Incredibly, Molyneux takes the rule he
is considering to be one that requires people to be continuously engaged in
rape. It never occurs to him to take the rule as mandating, "at some time or
other, you ought to attempt rape," an evil imperative that would escape his strictures.
Evidently this construal would violate his bizarre requirements about
universality: a morally required action is one that everyone must perform at
the same time, all the time.
This is not my complete argument, although it is a challenging argument for most
people to understand. Rape cannot be UPB because sexual penetration is only
rape if it is unwanted - thus one man must want to rape, while the other man
must desperately not want to be raped, which means that both of them cannot simultaneously
value rape as universally preferable behavior. It certainly is true that it is
physiologically impossible to rape all the time, which is empirical evidence
for the invalidity of the theory that rape can be UPB - but more importantly,
it is logically impossible for rape to be UPB.
It never occurs to him to take the
rule as mandating, "at some time or other, you ought to attempt rape," an evil
imperative that would escape his strictures.
not escape my strictures (and again, if they are my strictures, then we are talking subjective preference, not objective
truth) - because as I repeatedly point out in the book, the word "universally"
means "independent of time or place." Thus when David says "at some time or
other" he breaks universality, and thus is no longer talking about ethics.
Again, this would be like a physicist saying "my universal theory is that on
Wednesdays, between 2 and 3 AM, rocks fall upwards."
Evidently this construal would violate
his bizarre requirements about universality: a morally required action is one
that everyone must perform at the same time, all the time.
sure what the word "bizarre" means here - universality by definition is independent
of time and place, and so I don't think that it is a "bizarre" requirement to
ask that a universal theory apply all the time and everywhere. The scientific
equivalent of David's sentence would be: "it is a bizarre requirement that a
universal theory about physics apply everywhere, and all the time." Writing the
word "bizarre" does not make something bizarre.
He deploys an analogous argument
against a rule that made theft obligatory: people could not always and
everywhere steal. He adds another consideration that is equally inept.
provides no argument against my formulation of the ban against theft, but then
says that another of my arguments is "equally inept." In other words, he says, "You
have a first argument - your second argument is equally inept."
from my book:
In other words, working to gain
control of a piece of property is only valid if you can assert your property
rights over the stolen object. No one will bother stealing a wallet if he has
certain knowledge that it will be stolen from him the moment he gets his hands
on it. (p. 81)
one of a few arguments against "theft as UPB" in the book - a thief is both
violating and affirming property rights when he steals, which is a logical
This last sentence is entirely
reasonable, but it has no bearing on the rule mandating theft. If people think
that theft is obligatory, it by no means follows that anyone will succeed in
taking away something you have stolen.
not my argument at all. The logical contradiction involved in stealing - the
simultaneous violation and affirmation of property rights - does not require
that someone else actually succeed in
stealing from the thief. (The other argument I make in the book, that stealing
cannot be UPB because property transfer must be opposed in order to be theft,
is not addressed in this article.)
then criticizes my treatment of property rights in the book, by quoting one
paragraph and saying that my theory is incomplete. Well, I quite agree with him
- one paragraph is an incomplete theory, which is why there is considerably
more material on property rights in the book itself; you can check out the
chapter title "The Third Test: Theft." David complains that I have given "no
account at all of how people initially gain title to physical objects external
to their bodies." I'm not sure if he missed the few pages in which I discuss
this, which ends:
Since we own our bodies, we also
inevitably own the effects of our actions, be they good or bad. If we own the
effects of our actions, then clearly we own that which we produce, whether what
we produce is a bow, or a book - or a murder.
that my argument is incomplete by quoting only one paragraph is like proving
that a book is scattered by only quoting footnotes.
also takes great offense to my argument that we cannot rationally or
empirically justify 50% property rights. He quotes me:
"The problem with any
theory that argues for less than 100% property rights is that it instantly
creates a ‘domino effect' of infinite regression, wherein everybody ends up
with infinitely small ownership rights over pretty much everything, which is
clearly impossible" (p. 79).
By hypothesis, the first person has
half ownership in what he has acquired. If this share is subject to further
attrition, the original hypothesis has without justification been replaced with
since property rights are a subset of ethics, they must be universal - if universalizing
50% ownership causes ever-declining ownership, clearly the theory has some
problems, to say the least. The fact that 50% ownership cannot be rationally
sustained is entirely my point. His issue here seems to be with mathematics,
not my book.
last issue with the book comes with a deliciously catty aside:
Molyneux makes some good points
against public education, but he would
not be Molyneux if he did not give us a bad argument as well. "Since public
schools are funded through the initiation of the use of force, they are a form
of forced association, which is a clear violation of the freedom of association
validated by UPB [universally preferable behavior]" (p.118, emphasis omitted).
He is of course right that public schools funded through taxation rest on the
initiation of force; but it does not follow from such funding that students are
required by compulsory attendance laws to attend them. The funding does not suffice
to make these schools a form of "forced association." (emphasis added)
actually mention compulsory attendance laws anywhere in the book (I do mention
that I was compelled to attend, but I do not make the claim that this is a universal
legal compulsion.) When I'm talking about "forced association," I am clearly referring
to people being forced to pay for public schools, since that is the example
given in the same sentence above.
Despite the impression I have so far
given, Molyneux is by no means stupid: quite the contrary. Therein, I suggest,
lies the source of the problems of his book. Because of his facile
intelligence, he thinks that he has a talent for philosophical argument and
need not undertake the hard labor of learning how such arguments are
constructed. Unfortunately for him and his book, he is mistaken.
disappointed that David did not discuss any of my seven ethical categories, my
distinctions between ethics and aesthetics, my definition of evil, my
justifications for the nonaggression principle, my distinctions between
irrationality, lying and murder, the coma test I propose for an initial
evaluation of moral theories, my eight premises for arguments and universality,
the UPB approach to self-defense, and many of the other arguments put forward
in the book.
final note, I also wanted to point out that although David rejected much of
UPB, his article was entirely based upon an acceptance of UPB, in that:
1. Truth is universally preferable to
falsehood. i.e. it is not a subjective opinion, but arguments which conform to
reason and evidence.
2. It is universally preferable for my
arguments to be rational, and not irrational.
3. It is universally preferable for me
not to contradict myself.
4. In the realm of rational argument,
success is universally preferable to failure, and success and failure are not
5. I exercise 100% property rights over
the creation of the book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of
Secular Ethics (he refers to it as my book, and my arguments etc.)
6. I am 100% responsible for the creation
of the book, and for all of the contents therein.
These are just some of the many UPB assumptions built into the review; I think this is
wonderful, and a full confirmation of the theory.
As I have
to all the other critics of UPB, I extend to David my cordial invitation to
have a public debate about the nature and purpose of ethics. I fully agree with
him that it is an essential topic that we all need to continue to work on, and
I think that a public conversation about rational ethics would be of great
benefit to the entire community. David, when you see this, I really do look
forward such an exchange.