The Promise and Failure of UPB–The Inside Story (Pt. 2)


This is the second article of a five-part series. Part One is here.

The rise and fall of Danny Shahar

Few people have paid Molyneux’s thinking as much critical attention as Danny Shahar. No one has written more about Molyneux’s ideas. And through it all, few have kept such a consistently gracious tone in every written comment to and about Molyneux.

At the same time, few FDR visitors have caused Molyneux to erupt in outbursts of rage as those directed at Shahar.

Shahar is (at the time of this writing) a graduate student in Philosophy—well trained in the language of philosophy, schools of thought, and academic criticism. Stefan Molyneux is a popular philosopher who uses common language to communicate his ideas.

At some point in December 2007, Shahar, on break from college, decided to take a busman’s holiday and conduct the same rigorous critique on UPB that he would normally use for any scholarly text.

It all began innocently—just a simple academic exercise.

On Shahar’s blog, he described the encounter this way:

So I made this bet with Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio. See, he put out this book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, in which he attempts to…well…rationally prove his ethical views. Of course, I don’t think he could possibly have done that. I inquired as to exactly what a Universally Preferable Behavio(u)r is, and being the saint that he is, Stefan offered to send me the book for free, saying that I could pay him for it if I liked it.

Being the jerk that I am, I proposed a bet with Stefan, that I would pay him $50 if I couldn’t demonstrate why his argument was flawed, and that I would get to keep the book for free if I could. So I’ve started reading through his book, and I figure that I’ll keep a running log of my thoughts on this site. This project has very important implications, in that Stefan’s views often conflict with mine, and if he were able to prove himself right, he would simultaneously prove me wrong. Hopefully that’s good enough by ways of introduction to The Molyneux Project, or TMP as I’ll call it. Now to actually start the critique…

Perhaps, to Molyneux, Shahar represented some academic validation—finally—of his work. Or perhaps Molyneux feared the disappointment of an even greater rejection than before, since it would no longer be a rejection of Molyneux-the-student but Molyneux-the-40-year-old philosopher by a student. Or perhaps both at once. At any rate, from the very beginning an emotional tension underscored their polite interchanges.

As you read in Part 1, Molyneux believed the light of clarity that pours forth from UPB to be almost blinding—instantly recognizable and life-changing. Perhaps he expected Shahar to give it a good, quick read and declare it to be a landmark achievement.

Shahar’s writings on the web suggest that he is by nature a gracious, self-effacing, humble man. But if he talks softly, the “big stick” he carries is an intimidating knowledge of philosophy schools of thought, a critical eye, and deft, incisive logic.

So instead, Shahar opened a page on his blog and began keeping notes as he methodically worked his way through the book. For Shahar, it was business as usual—completely understand the logical framework and then critique the work as a whole.

Keeping his notes on-line, between December 28, 2007 and May 6, 2008, Shahar wrote over 20 in-depth (and mostly devastating) posts as part of the “The Molyneux Project” before even beginning his overall critique of the book as a whole.

It is easy to see that the methodology Shahar employed to address UPB must have been grinding for Molyneux. Consider this parallel: Molyneux claims he was rejected by academia because (he believed) his corrupt fellow students would simply “parrot the party line,” (mainstream, accepted world views) and get a free pass on the assumptions and premises behind their arguments. But because Molyneux was an original thinker, he was consistently forced to prove “everything from the ground up,” until he was finally driven out.

And now here was a philosophy student, of all things, repeating the same nightmare—asking question after question about meaning and fundamental argument.

After all, Molyneux had just served up the cure for (ethical) cancer. He had given humanity the one thing they had been waiting for for thousands of years. It was huge.

Shahar didn’t even acknowledge that as he instead began working through the Molyneux book chapter-by-chapter, argument-by-argument. He not only kept notes on his blog, but also, in a thread on FDR, he began asking questions. The thread is an interesting read, as it begins with an enthusiastic Molyneux welcoming Shahar’s questions (along with feigned caveats) and a participatory approach to helping Shahar understand Molyneux’s ideas.

Whether by calculation or temperament, Shahar approached Molyneux during that thread in the only way possible to carry on a sustained conversation. Shahar approached Molyneux as a student approaches a teacher—not to challenge, but to receive clarification. To Molyneux, it is an irresistable posture.

During that thread, Molyneux’s followers, who are initially concerned about Shahar’s motives, chip away at Shahar with leading questions and occasional veiled insults.

Shahar maintains an even, cordial, academic tone. Yet, fifteen months after it began, the thread lapses into silence with far less input from Molyneux at the end than the beginning.

On the surface, Molyneux was delighted with Shahar’s participation—if somewhat confused by his methodical approach when clearly the only possible reaction to the book was to announce its groundbreaking genius and move on.

Behind the scenes, however, Molyneux seethed.

In podcast #1025, “The Foo Infection,” one of Molyneux’s followers calls in to seek advice on dealing with her father. As Molyneux begins making his points to her, he lapses into a rant against Shahar:

53:09—“And I’ll give you just a tiny example because I know this is all stupid and abstract, right? There are people on the board, continually—and this fills my inbox, and so on—who condescend to me, right? And there was a guy, this guy who is doing this “Molyneux Project,” right? He’s very condescending, I find, right? I experience him as very condescending, and I find he just makes up whatever argument he wants and I don’t even need to be there, right?

So, how is it that I don’t end up feeling diminished by that? Because they genuinely, really, and totally want to put me down. But it doesn’t happen for me.

And it was in that—I don’t know if you’ve read the thread—where he just came down with some, to me, with some jaw-droppingly condescending stuff, right? I mean if Aristotle comes back to life, or Ayn Rand, they can condescend to me from here to the end of time, right? Or whatever. (Well, maybe not Rand, but certainly some of the real, you know, geniuses. Fantastic, you know, I’m at their feet, learning, blah, blah, blah.)

I don’t know, that (laughing) you know, a young whippersnapper (laughing), a philosophy student is going to be the one to condescend to me in a way that’s going to be particularly believable, especially when I’ve seen the quality of his arguments, right?”

Somehow, Molyneux clearly he viewed the mere act of Shahar questioning him as condescension. One can’t help but wonder—why then did he extend the invitation in the first place?

As Molyneux continues, he becomes so focused on his rage with Shahar, he nearly forgets the original caller altogether! As he continues, his voice rises in anger.

57:17 And that’s exactly what this DonnyWithAnA fellow did, as well, right? Like “ha, ha, I don’t know where you’re getting that from. Anyway, enough of your craziness, let’s get back to the topic at hand,” right? And it’s like OK, so, you obviously don’t care about me as a human being. I WILL NOT be instructed by people who do not care about me as a human being. I will not be. It is way too dangerous—to be instructed, to be lectured. I won’t even take directions from somebody who isn’t a nice person.

It’s way too dangerous to take instructions from people—even if they’re completely right—it is way too dangerous to take instruction from people who aren’t empathetic, kind, and considerate. And that doesn’t mean that you never get into conflicts or anything, but it’s treated respectfully, decently, right? So if people are condescending and I say, you know, I kind of experienced that negatively, and blah-blah-blah and they’re like hmmph! Who cares! Right? Then I’m like Ok—so you don’t care about me. You don’t care my thoughts. You don’t care about my feelings. You don’t care about….so, if you don’t care about me, and you want to lecture me, then what do you know about truth and wisdom?

Right, because the truth…..reason equals virtue equals happiness, right? If somebody is able to deal with you in a positive and productive way, then they obviously understand something about two equals talking to each other, right? And if they put you down, or if they lord it over you, or if they “fog” you, or if they condescend, or whatever, then they don’t know smack about truth and it’s just a play-act for their own vanity. It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s got nothing to do with me.

And that gives me get closure. Then I don’t feel diminished anymore. I don’t feel hurt. Because it’s like, OK—I opened myself up to this person. I said what my experience was, and BAM! Right? So, it’s like, OK, so, when they condescend towards me it’s got nothing to do with me, because I said, Oh, by the way, that wasn’t very pleasant, and they don’t give a shit, right?

That outburst of rage yields far more insights into Molyneux’s psychology than I want to get into right now, but what astounds is that it is a rage directed toward one of the most courteous visitors who has ever visited FDR.

It is difficult to say where Molyneux believed that Shahar had been condescending, because I personally haven’t seen Shahar act less than respectful in any of his writings, but I suspect Molyneux began to feel irritated during the thread “Moral Goodness and Universally Preferable Behavior.” On the third page of that thread, Molyneux thanks Shahar for “pounding” him on this topic, but does not reply again in that thread.

Finally, Molyneux remembers the point of the conversation and tries to link his outburst back to the caller’s complaint. At 59:35 he says sheepishly, “We’re not talking about my guy right, we’re talking about your guy.”

(But it was all about his guy!)

That’s not the only podcast where Shahar plays a role. In “We Are All Full of Treasure,” Molyneux vents again.

81:15—It’s [UPB] held up pretty hard to some strong knocks, DonnyWithAnA non-withstanding—God knows what the hell he’s doing with it. And all he came up with, you know, ‘I’ve read the first two thirds, and there’s lots of tiny, little errors in it.’ It’s like, really? (laughs) Because if you’re not excited then you’re a tool, right? Frankly, if you’re not excited about that then, that’s like saying, well, you know, this theory of evolution is really good, but there’s some gaps in it…(laughs)…OK, if you’re not excited about the origin of life? Anyway…

In Molyneux’s view, Shahar was holding in his hands an idea as important as the theory of evolution, and he…Just. Couldn’t. See. It.

The relationship finally deteriorated altogether when Molyneux, tired of Shahar’s polite requests for clarification released an essay entitled “Hanging By A Thread—Flagpoles, Lifeboats and the Edge of Ethics.” He also released a video and podcast of him reading the essay entitled “Freedomain Radio: Hanging By A Thread…?” (Podcast #1029). He does not mention Shahar by name in the article, but in the introduction to the podcast states:

This was in response to a listener—also a philosophy student—who persistently questioned me on an aspect of the book I’ve written called “Universally Preferrable Behavior—a rational proof of secular Ethics” available at FreedomainRadio.com.

And then repeats his own beliefs about UPB:

Just get this book into your hands. I don’t think there’s a more important thing for you to read…as a human being, but, that’s of course—if I thought there was a more important book to write, I would have written that one. So, I hope you’ll get a hold of a copy. I think it’s a completely life-changing book.

So, when a philosophy student is asking a bunch of pestering questions about the most important book human beings could read, the only thing to do is dismiss him altogether—along with the rest of academia.

The article, which is largely an indictment of the intellectual “murky swamp” today’s academic ethicists inhabit, also offers Molyneux’s view of the “man on the flagpole” problem. Shahar, who by now had heard at least “The Foo Infection” podcast and who understood the essay was directed at him, began this thread at FreeDomain Radio. Shahar continued to be polite and respectful, but to no end. By the second page of the thread, Molyneux’s behind-the-scenes rage could take it no more.

Shahar was banned from his forum.

The Final Curtain

Anyone who watched this entire exchange saw an amazing act of self-delusion unfold that continues today. At each step, Molyneux accused Shahar of doing nothing more than finding typos and picking nits—a charge that several of Molyneux’s followers still parrot today.

But as you read Shahar’s blog, you can sense the frustration as he tries to make sense of a book with changing terminology, obscure meanings, unclear references, and logical flaws that hamper many of Molyneux’s arguments. And that was as Shahar worked his way through the framework. By the time he was ready to discuss the book as a whole, the few parts that made sense were anything but original and certainly no contribution of any kind to the study of philosophy. Yet, as you read Shahar’s notes you can sense that actually wants Molyneux to do well; that it pains him to level the kind of criticism at the book that it deserves, knowing how much personal emotion Molyneux had invested in it.

But Molyneux was no longer interested. “Hanging by a Thread” was Molyneux’s indictment of academic philosophy in toto. And with that, Molyneux washed his hands of Danny Shahar and academia altogether.

At least publicly.

Later that evening, after asking Shahar to stop posting on FDR, Molyneux showed up on the FDR chat room to entice the other FDR insiders to join him in ridiculing Shahar. It is a common practice on FDR for the “elite” members to ridicule errant or soon-to-be-banned members behind the closed doors of a private chat.

Molyneux blustered into the general, open chat room, ignoring whatever conversations were going on and began mocking Shahar. As he continued, other members of FDR chimed in, in support of their wounded leader. (In the excerpts below, I have included only Molyneux’s comments.) He begins by quoting Shahar:

Stef: “I hope you take seriously the possibility that our inability to communicate effectively is at least partly a result of some unclarity in your ideas (I’m an honors philosophy student at a pretty good school, and I can’t think of another philosopher whose work I’ve had so much trouble understanding). Even if it’s been mostly my fault, it can’t hurt to make your ideas as easy as possible to understand. Again, take care, and I hope things turn out well.”

Stef: i am harder than hegel!

Stef: yay!

Stef: it’s so not amazing to me that the layman understands me very well, and professionals don’t

Stef: sing with me

Stef: “oooobfuscation time”

Stef: “come on!”

Perhaps it is humanizing to realize that—behind the scenes—the man who possess the most amazing knowledge available on the planet can be as petty as the rest of us!

Molyneux’s frustration with Shahar’s critique had reached such a fevered pitch that another FDR member became collateral damage.

Another typically witty and brilliant member (who posted under the name “Stewart”) was participating in a thread about the military draft, a conversation otherwise unrelated to UPB, and immediately had UPB invoked against his argument. Stewart had not read the book, but—discovering that it was now available for free—began reading it and offered to share his thoughts when he was finished. Molyneux suspected that Stewart’s review would not be favorable and banned him pre-emptively!

As before, Molyneux showed up in the FDR chatroom to lead insiders in another ridicule, this time with Stewart as his target. In the chatroom, Molyneux links to the thread where he banned Stewart and says (again, comments from other chat room visitors have been removed):

admin: here is teh lovely man so interested in ethics

admin: takes a private email, publishes it, tries to slam me, than flounces off

admin: hahaha

admin: “i know sooo much about ethics, i’ve read it all!”

admin: srsly

admin: “ethics is something you footnote, not something you live!”

admin: oh these stone foolz

admin: they truly give philosophy a bad name

admin: how can you srsly claim to be a bitchy ethicist?

admin: sigh

admin: off to academia with you

admin: that is your sentence

admin: although he’s not in academia

admin: yeah he’s a consultant

admin: “wanBbitchy?.com”

A few observations: First, this exchange is a very good example of how FDR exerts behavior control. As soon as Molyneux declared Stewart to be persona non grata, all members of the inner circle who were encouraged to join in Molyneux’s ridicule of Stewart, regardless of their personal feelings. Surely, all of them realized at some level that the same fate awaits them should they one day cross swords with Molyneux.

Second, the Stewart thread is an excellent example of what one faces in the FDR environment. At FDR, the military is “bad.” Not a place for subtle distinctions, the board reacts angrily to any comment that doesn’t overtly promote that point of view. In the actual discussion, Stewart simply stated, “a belief in conscription is not necessarily hypocritical.” He would have been happy to demonstrate his logic to anyone who asked, but none did. He was instead immediately surrounded by the FDR faithful, unable to grasp that Stewart had neither complimented nor criticized the military (or the draft), who then sniped away, sometimes psychologizing, sometimes engaging in personal attacks, and ultimately changed the subject to UPB. And when that happened, Molyneux stepped in for the dénouement and it was over. I suspect that Molyneux’s sensitivity to criticism, following Shahar, prompted him to pre-emptively dismiss Stewart. Afterward, Molyneux began to caution his followers about “trolls.” In his case, however, a “troll” was any new visitor to FDR who asked a pointed question about UPB.

Finally, even though Molyneux has taken great pains to dismiss academia, it’s revealing that his final shots at Stewart were for daring to critique UPB even though he was not (according to Molyneux) an academic! What’s a critic to do?

None of that mattered however. Shahar had burst the dam and more critiques were on their way.

Next: Part 3—When good men do nothing.

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