Universally Preferred Behavior Demolished!

The purpose of this text is to point out critical errors in Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior thesis. To make my points concerning upb I will be quoting extensively from his book entitled “Universally Preferable Behavior: a rational proof of secular ethics”. On page 9 Stefan states that UPB is quote:

“[A] methodology for validating moral theories that is objective, consistent, clear, rational, empirical – and true.”

In this text I intend to show that:

  1. UPB contains fatal logical errors.
  2. That UPB simply assumes the meta physics of Moral Realism without any rational justification whatsoever. 
  3. That at best UPB is just another system of hypothetical imperatives. 
  4. That it is therefore not “the holy grail of philosophy” Stefan so arrogantly claimed it to be. 

Let us begin! 

First, for all you “Stefbots” out there, let’s get one thing straight!

On page 35 he claimed that “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.”

First, preferences are by their very nature and definition subjective not objective. They are non cognitive mental states. And by me making an argument against upb it doesn’t imply that I am “accepting the fact that it would be better” for the upb proponent to correct their error” because it isn’t a fact that it would be “better”. 

What I am assuming is that like myself, you have a subjective preference to have as many true beliefs as possible and as few false beliefs as possible. I am not assuming that truth is some kind of universal preference or good, I’m only assuming that it is preferred sometimes by some people for subjective reasons. 

I don’t say “you should correct your opinion because it is objectively incorrect” that is an is ought fallacy. Instead I say if you are seeking the truth you ought to correct your mistaken beliefs. 

I’m not rejecting universal statements of fact, but propositions which claim the existence of so called objective universal values and moral oughts. 

Saying what agents value is subjective and not objective or universal, isn’t a universal prescriptive statement, but a universal descriptive statement about the nature of values. 

In other words arguing against your upb dogma isn’t proving your upb dogma. 

This of course means that the first premise of his first of 5 proofs for upb is false. 

Let us move on! 

Now on page 30 of his book Stef defined UPB as mere hypothetical imperatives when he wrote quote:

“When I speak of a universal preference, I am really defining what is objectively required, or necessary, assuming a particular goal. If I want to live, I do not have to like jazz, but I must eat. “Eating” remains a preference – I do not have to eat, in the same way that I have to obey gravity – but “eating” is a universal, objective, and binding requirement for staying alive, since it relies on biological facts that cannot be wished away.”

That is, upb isn’t deriving oughts from is’s but from if’s, or in other words subjective human goals. So according to this definition nothing can be what he calls “upb” unless there is an if clause. Without an if clause, without a subjective human desire there can be no ought. If I say “shut the door” this is merely a command and thus has no truth conditions. It isn’t a proposition, but an expression of desire for a person to perform a particular action (shutting the door). However, if I say ‘if you don’t want the house to get cold, you ought shut the door” then “Shut the door” is true, because it is an objective requirement for keeping the house warm. 

Later, on the same page he writes: 

“Naturally, preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired.” 

In other words, if you don’t share a preference for a warm house, then there is no reason (ought) why you should shut the door. Again “Shut the door” on its own has no truth conditions, no condition under which it can be true or false. It is merely expressing a desire for someone to perform a particular action. I tried to explain this in our debate but it seemed to fly right over his head. 

Now, at this point a moral nihilist has no issue with this first definition. Such if—then reasoning doesn’t produce moral oughts, moral truths, or knowledge, it doesn’t transgress the is ought gap, as it is just kantian hypotheticals. It doesn’t produce a universal moral principle as it is conditioned by an if clause and therefore by definition conditional. On moral realism it is just true that “you ought not murder” full stop! No if clause required. 

Now, on page 33 he puts forth a second definition of upb quote:

“Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer.”

The first definition is just stating what is necessary assuming a particular goal, it is merely fact-stating. But this second definition is prescribing what “what people ought or should to prefer”. 

The first is descriptive, the second is prescriptive. So the second is making a universal prescription. Stefan is committing an equivocation fallacy which is “employing two separate definitions in an argument. 

But that is only one issue with this second definition, because it is also an is ought fallacy. From whence comes knowledge of what “people ought prefer” without an if clause? Magical Upb pixies? As seen earlier, without a subjective human goal, ought simply has no sense or meaning.

Now, upb proponents have a dilemma; either they accept the second definition of upb which commits an equivocation and an is ought fallacy. And in that case would need to demonstrate how upb produces oughts which are not contingent upon subjective human goals. Or they must forsake moral realism and only hold to the first definition of upb. 

Either way, upb is not what Stefan promised. It isn’t “the holy grail of philosophy”. 

If upb is merely a system of hypothetical imperatives then it cannot distance itself from the same questions which plague other systems which rely on them. 

For example, on page 30 he wrote:

 “[I]f I tell him (his son) that it is moral for sons to obey their fathers, and immoral for them to disobey their fathers, then I am proposing a preference that is universal, rather than merely personal.”

Labeling some action moral or immoral doesn’t give anyone a reason not to perform said action. If his son wants to, and can disobey him without undesired sequence, why ought he not do what Stef defines as immoral? 

I know that Stefan is a libertarian, so why ought anyone obey the non aggression principle if they can disregard it with impunity? Upb can’t make moral prescriptions true. “Thou shalt not initiate force” is either expressing a false belief or a negative attitude about initiating force, but I see no cogent reasons to think it describes reality. I see no reason to think that upb can produce moral truths. 

Another issue with upb is that it assumes the existence  “property rights”, and “ownership” without any justification. 

On page 77 Stefan writes:

 “Thus we can reasonably say that exclusive self-ownership is a basic reality – that all human beings at all times and in all places have exclusive ownership over their own bodies, and thus have exclusive ownership over the effects of their own bodies, both in terms of moral behaviour and property creation or acquisition..”

Later, on the same page he wrote:

 “If a man does not have the right to use property, then he does not have the right to use his own body. He does not have the right to use his own lungs, and therefore must stop breathing. 

Although this sounds silly, it is an immediate and inevitable result of the premise that human beings do not have property rights.

It is fairly safe to assume that anyone you are debating property rights with is drawing breath, and thus agrees with you that he has the right to use his own body at least.”

But this is comically absurd. There are no such things as rights, property, or ownership. There is only the ability to physically control one’s body and physical occupation of land and physical control over external objects. Ownership in the moral sense isn’t just mere possession of a thing, if it were, then if I take what you call “your car” by force then by that definition I would “own” said car. 

“Ownership” language has to do with the supposed “rightful” possession of a thing. But again, such is absent from reality. One breaths because it is partially involuntary, and because one wants to, and because one can. There are no such things as “rights” only subjective human expectations (or beliefs) about what ought and ought not be. 

And as Stefan noted on page 75 if Ownership doesn’t exist for whatever reason “then the whole question of morality – let alone property – goes out the window.” 

In my experience when most people use such terms they are not just referring to these physical realities (possession, occupation) but are instead making prescriptions concerning who has the “moral right” to have exclusive control of and access to an object or geographic location. After all, to argue that “a person has physical possession of X, therefore they ought have possession of X” is to transgress Hume’s is/ought. People say “that’s my car!” which means something like “only he or she should have access and control of it unless he or she consents to allow another access and control”. Often propertarian language has nothing to do with stating facts. My contention is with prescriptive uses of such terms not with descriptive usages.

Now, if Stef is using “ownership” in some novel way, if he is equivocating ownership with the fact of control, then ok, but he can’t deduce oughts from the fact of control. From the fact that someone has control over one’s body (or anything else).

There goes so called “moral responsibility” or so called “blame worthiness”. An ought or ought not may not be deduced from the fact that one controls one’s self. No one can logically deduce that anyone ought to be blamed or praised or held “accountable” from the fact that people have some level of self-control. While it may be true that ought implies can, It is a non sequitur to argue that can implies ought. 

Stefan’s fundamental argument for his so called “secular ethics” goes something like this: Stealing can’t be stealing if a person wants to be stolen from.  He states that stealing isn’t a mutual agreement and thus cannot be preferred by all parties. But on the contrary, voluntary exchange of so called property is. Therefore he states that voluntary exchange of property is a universally preferable ethic. This same argument is made concerning theft, rape, murder etc… However can it truly be said that Stefan has argued successfully for a universal morality?

Here’s a rather damning problem with Stefans position. 

It is true that one cannot desire another to take what they possess without permission because granting permission is implicit  in “desiring” and thus not granting permission is a contradiction in terms.  The key term in this kind of argument isn’t “theft” but “permission”. The very concept of “theft” assumes the so called reality of private property, of ownership, and of so called “rightful” possession. 

If I claimed “I want you to steal from me” I would be assuming that private property and “rightful” possession of a thing or “rightful” occupation of land exists. And if I state that I think theft is moral then I have implicitly contradicted myself by assuming the very concept of “rightful” possession or occupation. Theft cannot exist if there is no such thing as “rightful” possession and private property. 

Not stealing, can only be universal if we assume the delusional concept of so called “rightful” possession and occupation. If we don’t, (and I don’t) then the so called “universally preferable behavior” of not stealing is meaningless. Another way to put this is to say that “stealing” implies “ownership” (that is rightful possession). 

In reality, if I take your Rolex watch by force, it isn’t “stealing”, it is physical removal without permission. But taking without permission by itself can’t be “theft” or “stealing” because if you take the watch back without my permission then by that definition you would be a thief. Also, Stef can’t be using these moral terms like “theft” in a purely legal sense, otherwise theft or stealing would simply mean something like “taking without government permission”. 

Stefan is an anarchist so it would be inconsistent for him to define theft or stealing and other terms in such ways. 

We cannot logically infer an ought or an ought not from the fact that you paid for the watch. Stealing then, necessarily implies that you “rightfully” possess the watch. But rightful possession doesn’t exist. Not in any real or objective sense. Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that notions such as rights, ownership, and private property are not useful, I’m saying, I see no reason to believe that they are true, or that they depict reality. That they are at best emotive expressions, false beliefs, or man made legal constructions. 

Also, from the fact that theft rape and murder or the non initiation of force can’t be universally simultaneously preferred, one may not deduce an ought or an ought not. 

Also Implicit in Stefan’s view seems to be a baked-in-belief in the “moral wrongness” of non consensual interactions.

It is clear that Upb implies Moral Cognitivism : which is the view that moral language can be true or false. UPB also implicitly assumes that Moral Realism is true which is a form of Moral cognitivism that asserts the existence of true moral propositions and moral facts. After all, how could upb validate or invalidate moral theories if moral cognitivism were false? 

How could UPB be useful or meaningful if moral facts, don’t exist? Or if moral propositions are false? It would simply be senseless to validate or invalidate non cognitivist utterances, or to weigh the truth or consistency of false moral propositions. 

Stef falsely claims to have “slain the beast nihilism” when in reality, all he has done is assumed its antithesis without any justification what-so-ever.

Now since Stefan has offered no cogent reason or evidence to believe in “moral rightfulness” or “wrongness” I can’t see how he can truthfully say anything on upb is morally “right” or “wrong” which includes rape, murder, or initiatory force. 

The issue at hand, is that he is attempting to produce an ethic from a deeply imbedded metaphysic that he simply assumes without any logical scrutiny or justification whatsoever. To call your thesis “universally preferable” without even attempting to argue for the metaphysic on which it hinges is to expect people to accept your metaphysic on faith which is the height of intellectual laziness and arrogance.

It is here that the UPB proponent faces his second and final dilemma: either the proponent must cling to faith in some kind of “rightful possession” and “moral wrongness” or join the moral skeptic by rejecting such propositions and remain un-convinced until sufficient arguments and evidence have been presented. 

There are many other crucial flaws with upb, but to address them all would be rather lengthy and daunting. I really wish that Stefan had studied more meta ethical theory before setting pen to paper. Frankly much of it is ill defined and ambiguous. 

UPB is proof that any moral philosopher who neglects the diligent study of meta ethics does so at the peril of his own thesis. 

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