Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Ethics

Molyneux not only doesn’t have a distinct philosophy of truth or metaphysics or theology but he doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of the these topics to see that he doesn’t have one. I’m not sure his grasp of ethics is much better but he does have his own brand of ethics. It has a name “universally preferable behaviour” which at least nominally points towards Kant as an inspiration.

Molyneux has written about his theory of ethics on multiple occasions. He wrote a long treatment of it in 2007 that’s available as a free PDF from his website (UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics – archive link). It’s an interesting read only if you want to chart Molyneux’s capacity to write philosophically — which appears to be declining over time. I don’t want to imply that this earlier work is good or intelligible, it isn’t, but it at least feels like he’s exploring ideas. He is also clearer back in 2007 that his ideas connect with other philosophers:

“As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence. It is true that a man who never exercises and eats poorly will be unhealthy. Does that mean that he “ought” to exercise and eat well? No. The “ought” is conditional upon the preference. If he wants to be healthy, he ought to exercise and eat well. It is true that if a man does not eat, he will die – we cannot logically derive from that fact a binding principle that he ought to eat. If he wants to live, then he must eat. However, his choice to live or not remains his own. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 30)

David Hume, the is/ought distinction or the general term “Humean” don’t appear in the later work. However, the same tendency to vagueness while asserting clarity is apparent in the 2007 work. Also, Molyneux is already attempting to win arguments in advance with appeals to a kind of weaponised begging-the-question:

“In general, any theory that contradicts itself in the utterance cannot be valid. It does not require external disproof, since it disproves itself. We do not need to examine every nook and cranny in the universe to determine that a “square circle” does not exist. The very concept is self-contradictory, and thus disproves itself in the utterance. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 31)

Eleven years later he is using a modified form of this:

“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.

He aims to appeal to the basic principle of non-contradiction but this is mainly a rhetorical move on his part. It is a revision of a technique used by followers of Ayn Rand who would defiantly assert that “A is A” as their deep logical insight and therefore that they cannot be wrong because [here they insert a convoluted and tendentious argument] they are really just asserting that a thing is what it is. Molyneux’s strategy is an improvement on that but not by much. He aims to appeal to the principle that it cannot be the case that A is not-A and that when you say that he is wrong, you are asserting that he is right.

To get to this point with ethics, Molyneux asserts a principle of infinite preference.

“If I point at Africa on a map and refer to it as the Arctic, and you correct me, it might not be much of a debate, but clearly you are correcting me with reference to the true name of that continent, which is Africa. You are not saying you have a made-up name for the continent, personal to you, and that you would like me to indulge you by referring to the continent by that name – you are in essence saying two things:

1. The correct name for the continent is “Africa.”

2. Using the correct name is infinitely preferable to using the incorrect name.

I use the phrase “infinitely preferable” because some preferences are relative, and some preferences are absolute.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 2257-2263). Kindle Edition.

I won’t belabour the flaws in the example (which are many) as I assume if given long enough he could come up with a better example less dependent on contextual language. The key point is Molyneux’s claim that if a person corrects another person then they are implying an infinite preference for the truth. In 2007 he makes his point clearer by avoiding a confused example:

PREMISE 4: CORRECTION REQUIRES UNIVERSAL PREFERENCES

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.

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 35)

It’s a better argument. Not a great one but it at least attempts to get at the idea that preferring to be right is a kind of ethical choice. That it is universally or infinitely preferable though is simply asserting what needs to be demonstrated. The is/ought distinction is still there and if somebody consistently chooses to be wrong there isn’t a 100% watertight reason why being factually/logically right should be chosen above being wrong in all circumstances. We essentially appeal to the virtue of correctness.

It is a virtue that I try to hold myself to and believe in. I can point to many practical circumstances as to why it is better in general, to be right rather than wrong but in a fallible universe where knowledge is imperfect, we have access only to what is apparently factually/logically correct. So aiming to be correct is actually playing the odds. The person stubbornly ignoring reason and evidence in some particular circumstance will sometimes be right.

In 2007 Molyneux pulls this together in this way

“if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules –must be valid. Syllogistically, this is:
1.The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.
2.Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.
3.Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 40)

The trick should be now more apparent. Molyneux’s argument is circular. He assumes the concept of infinite preference lies at the heart of any assertion of truth and then declares the argument won because any argument against it is an appeal to truth which he has asserted is one of infinite preference.

Oh and for f_ck’s sake whatever that set of three points is at the end is, it is NOT a syllogism. And NO, by pointing that out I’m not proving Molyneux’s point about infinite preference. I’m just pointing out that he hasn’t a clue what he is talking about.

Back in 2007 I start to feel like he’s trolling me…

“Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behaviour, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and drinking. Syllogistically, this is:
1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
2. Man is a living organism.
3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
4. Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.
5. Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. “

Molyneux, Stefan. UPB: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007, (page 41)

You should have noticed several things by now:

  • I’m quoting from the 2007 book more than the 2018 one.
  • Molyneux doesn’t seem to be grappling with any actual ethical issues.
  • That ‘if you argue with me then I must be right’ trick is very annoying.
  • Molyneux has zero idea what a syllogism is.

This goes nowhere. The point isn’t to illuminate ethical principles but to set up a set of confusing fallacies so that Molyneux can assert that he is right. From there he can assert whatever he decides is right in some circumstance as being right.

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11 thoughts on “Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Ethics

  1. Holding up eating and breathing as “universally preferable behavior” reminds me of the jokes that “Conservatives disagree with Obama about everything. Obama should tell them drinking bleach is bad!” except Molyneux’s serious.
    And arguing “I think you should do X” is hardly endorsing universal preference. If you’re say, keeping slaves in 1835 and I argue for abolition, my preference is hardly universal even though it would be right.

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  2. There are plenty of occasions where humans consider a falsehood preferable to the truth. And when correcting someone is less a case of preferring the truth than needing to be right.

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  3. Do you feel this book attempts to forge links in a chain of reasoning that leads to Molyneux’s embrace of white nationalism? Or is it just a fatuous assertion of intellectual superiority?

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    1. He certainly asserts right wing examples but he aside from the libertarian/ancap concept of self ownership he doesn’t say how anything follows. I’m confident he couldn’t do that anyway without exposing the flaws – who would wish for poverty to be the universally preferred state? Which would imply that the optimum ply equitable distribution of wealth is the ethical position (not necessarily socialism, for example he might argue that a free market delivers the least amount of poverty – but it would still imply it is the right principle by which to judge economies ethically)

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      1. In my younger days I would have said that it is better to be commonly wealthy than equally poor. I’d guess that I’d still say it, but I’d move the emphasis from wealthy to commonly. (In my younger days Communism was the primary threat to liberty and well-being; now Fascism and Oligarchism are.)

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  4. Since the first post about Molyneux involved discussion of the culture-dependency of IQ tests …
    Android served me up an ad for a free IQ test (a vehicle for serving more ads at you), so I gave it a try. This had one question that you had to not be colour blind to answer correctly, and a couple more testing fine colour discrimination. It also had one requiring you to be aware of contrast illusions. And apart from that had some questions depending on English fluency. (I suppose I should be “glad” of the absence of questions penalising my score for having amusia.)
    To add to the nonsense it told me that my IQ was x% above average, rather x, thereby adding 100 to my supposed IQ.

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      1. Thanks – VD was complaining about that piece because he loves Taleb. It’s a mixed bag though – some of the issues are more subtle. In particular it is a mistake to think psychologists can’t do stats – it ignores a hefty chunk of the history of statistics to think that!

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      2. I’ve only ever studied Psychology a A-level but yeah, a significant amount of what we did was research methods and statistics. It’s given me at least the basic skills to be able to look at a study and have some idea of its reliability based on how many subjects were involved and the % that reported ~effect etc. There’s plenty of misreporting, sensationalising etc in the “hard” sciences so pointing out that the same thing occurs in psychology isn’t really saying anything interesting at all.

        But I do agree with the main point of his article, that IQ is nonsense, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of the arguments he’s using. And it’s always funny when Teddy gets his knickers in a twist about things like this.

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