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The Promise and Failure of UPB–The Inside Story (Pt. 3)

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

When good men do nothing

I’ve read UPB several times since its free release as a PDF. I’m certainly no philosopher, having neither the depth of Stefan Molyneux nor Danny Shahar, but on my third read, a few things began to tug at me.

One of them was an apparent error by Molyneux that appeared to be so inept, so foolish that it stopped me cold. I had to question myself—surely there was something I didn’t understand. Molyneux couldn’t have wasted some 20 pages on such a ridiculous mistake.

What wasn’t I getting?

It wasn’t until Shahar also mentioned it in his final critique that I breathed a sigh of relief. No, I wasn’t crazy. Yes, the elementary mistake was true. The problem is exposed in “Virtue and its Opposite,” Page 65, where Molyneux states:

The opposite of “virtue” must be “vice” – the opposite of “good” must be “evil.” If I propose the moral rule, “thou shalt not steal,” then stealing must be evil, and not stealing must be good. This does not mean that “refraining from theft” is the sole definition of moral excellence, of course, since a man may be a murderer, but not a thief. We can think of it as a “necessary but not sufficient” requirement for virtue.

Each morally preferable action must by its very nature have an opposite action – because if it does not, then there is no capacity for choice, no possibility of avoidance, and therefore no capacity for virtue or vice. If I propose the moral rule: “thou shalt defy gravity,” then clearly morality becomes impossible, immorality cannot be avoided, and therefore the moral rule must be invalid.

(Italics mine)

Molyneux wants to operate off the principle that there is an opposite action for every morally preferable action. However—as Shahar points out—he confuses negation with opposition.

In other words, the mistake Molyneux makes is claiming that the exact opposite of every possible human action is inaction.

Now, it’s true that the opposite of action is inaction. If I were to ask you “what is the opposite of walk?” you might say “don’t walk,” and pedestrian crossing signals around the world would agree with you.

But if I ask, “what is the opposite of walking forward one mile?” would you not immediately say “walking backward one mile?” Doesn’t “running up the stairs” reverse to “running down the stairs?” And so it goes for nearly every human action—the opposite is whatever it takes to reverse every element of that action.

Apparently, not so in Molyneux’s world. The opposite of theft is doing nothing. The opposite of murder is doing nothing. The opposite of rape is doing nothing.

Molyneux’s application or “test” of UPB are contained in his “two men in a room” scenarios. One man commits an act. The other does nothing, or, at minimum, does not commit the act. And Molyneux’s response to the question “could both men be good (or evil)?” is this: “UPB destroys this possibility, since no valid moral theory can require opposite actions under the same circumstances.”

Well, he’s right about that. But his egregious mistake is in concluding that the opposite action of theft is nothing. The reality is, in any of the Molyneux two-men-in-a-room scenarios, the man doing nothing could perhaps be described as a victim, or a beneficiary, but because he is never doing the opposite action, he cannot be considered good or evil. He is neither. He is null. The opposite of 1 is not 0. It is -1.

To set up a true two-men-in-a-room test to Molyneux’s specifications, you would need to make it possible for either man to perform both an action and the precise reversal of that action. So, to test a proposition regarding theft, they would each need to enter the room carrying the same stealable object, say, a freshly printed copy of UPB.

Each man could steal the other man’s book (action), freely choose to give his book to the other man (opposite action), or do nothing (null). You can work through all the possible scenarios, including one man deciding to steal the other’s book at precisely the same time the other man freely chooses to give it up—and at no time can you create a failed-logic scenario in which both men are doing an opposite action and are both good (or evil).

Molyneux continues to operate on this error for some 20 pages of the Application section of UPB.

In Shahar’s final, formal critique of UPB, he points this error out in what he terms as “Claim 2” of UPB and charitably suggests a possible way to fix the claim in order to build an argument that works. He suggests that Molyneux fell into this problem by trying to create Kant-like maxims, but writing them as logical truths. However, it is a matter of speculation whether Shahar’s suggested fixes still reflect Molyneux’s original intention. Only Molyneux could answer that.

But what Shahar cannot fix and kindly overlooks is the fact that Molyneux has wasted about 1/5 of his book on this, his central test for the validity of UPB.

I recently discovered that BrainPolice also uncovered this problem (maybe sooner than I did), which he describes in his article regarding UPB, Eliminative Methodology and Consistency

BrainPolice refers to Molyneux’s “binary” methodology, which brought a clarifying thought to my mind. It is a Boolean methodology, which makes sense given Molyneux’s past as a software designer. Boolean logic is a wonderful thing, since basically everything resolves to either true or false. It is the language of microprocessors and a pattern of thinking that software designers become very accustomed to. Unfortunately, we live in an analog world. While it makes intuitive sense to Molyneux that by eliminating the negative proposition, that which remains is positive, BrainPolice points out that Molyneux is never able to make the the positive case for what remains. Why it is moral and why we should adhere to it cannot be explained.

As I consider Molyneux’s academic history (as discussed in “At war with the academics” [Part 1 of this series]), I wonder if this is what Molyneux’s professors saw during his student days—a time when, as he claims, his colleagues would never consider his theories because they kept challenging his assumptions. In this error, are we seeing what they saw—a grandiose claim for a world-changing theory, dragged down by a mistake that would be easily caught even by a freshman philosophy student?

Ultimately, as a test for UPB, the Application section of the book becomes like a calculator one has dropped in the bathtub that now responds to every calulation with “&09+RND451!!” (I know because I’ve done this.) Because the good man consistently does nothing, it is a short-circuited ethics calculator.

The final Shahar critiques

During Shahar’s involvement, he limited his focus primarily to the first, the Theory, section of UPB. When he had finished gathering his notes, he wrote three summary critiques of Molyneux’s book, each more “final” than the last. The first, on May 6, 2008, was entitled Universally Preferable Behavior and the Maxim Description Problem. It began:

So now that I’m no longer going to be communicating with Stefan directly, I’m not sure if there are any real prospect of my actually understanding his book. Still, I think it might be worthwhile, if anyone’s interested, to lay out a bit of criticism of some of the main themes that I actually found objectionable, and not just confusing. This post won’t represent an attempt to completely tackle that task. Rather I’ll focus on one idea which comes up several times in Stefan’s book, and which represents a significant problem for any theory taking the form that Stefan’s does.

At this point, Shahar introduces what he terms the “Maxim Description Problem.” Shahar points out the Molyneux has adopted, overall, a maxim-based approach nearly identical to Kant’s. In short, using the following form “in all circumstances C, I will do X,” one states moral precepts, universalizes them, and searches for problems. Typically, that problem is any instance in which a law can contradict itself. As you consider that Molyneux’s two-men-in-a-room test, you see that his primary evaluation of whether a moral proposition is invalid is based on whether both men can commit opposite actions and yet both be good or evil.

As Shahar points out, the same criticism that has been applied to Kant then also applies to Molyneux. As Shahar points out: “…any individual action can be justified by a number of different possible maxims. Accordingly, we could reach the conclusion that an act is permissible or impermissible depending on the maxim that is being used to justify it.”

Shahar quite likely considered those final notes to be the end of it, but his critique by then had generated wide interest outside of FreeDomain Radio as well. In response to a continual barrage of questions, he released a more formal critique on September 6, 2008 entitled Universally Preferable Behavior: An Overview of a Critique of Stefan Molyneux’s Theory. In the intro, he writes:

So it appears that people are still keeping tabs on my Molyneux Project, which makes me feel sort of bad about not finishing it. To be honest, there’s a reason that I didn’t complete the project, and I feel like that should be put out into the open for the benefit of whoever still cares. Basically, the main problem is that I can’t figure out any way to make Stefan’s theory into a coherent ethical framework without directly contradicting some core things that Stefan says. And unfortunately, Stefan has basically broken off communication between himself and me, which makes it impossible for me to determine whether or not I’ve misinterpreted some of his arguments. But perhaps more tellingly, prior to the cessation of our contact, the conversations that I had with Stefan suggested to me that I had not misinterpreted him, but rather that he had simply built a theory that couldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

In the months that followed, other serious critics began making their own observations about the problems with UPB, sometimes citing Shahar’s work as a useful resource. As interest continued to grow, Shahar felt compelled to finish a final, formal critique on April 20, 2009, entitled A Critique of Stefan Molyneux’s Ethical Theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour:

So in case anyone (or everyone) has forgotten, in the early days of this blog I went through Stefan Molyneux’s book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. My goal was to figure out whether there was really anything to all the fuss that had been made about Stefan and his site, Freedomain Radio, but also to win a bet that I had made with Stefan about the claims that he made about the book. After wrestling with the project for a while, I concluded that Stefan’s ideas were troublesome for a rather large number of reasons, and tossed out a rather slipshod overview of some of the things that were wrong with the book. By that time, Stefan had lost interest in continuing to speak with me about the subject, and I was sort of bored with the whole thing anyway, so I was mostly glad to just be done with it.

Recently, however, and for reasons that are not known to me, Stefan’s ideas have re-entered the limelight. Perhaps most significant in my world has been Alex “Brainpolice” Strekal’s recent involvement in a recorded debate with Stefan that was subsequently plastered all over the internet. But in any case, I thought it might finally be time to actually finish what I started in the form of a systematic critique of the book. So here’s that effort.

Shahar’s final critique is comprehensive enough that it defies summary here, so I recommend reading it in full. However, you can tell from the introduction that things aren’t going to go well for UPB.

Stefan’s project is an audacious undertaking. He describes his task as a battle against the “beast” of folk morality — a view that he defines as “…the superstition that, without the tirades of parents, the bullying of gods or the guns of government, we cannot be both rational and good” — and contends that “Of course, if I have failed, I have at least failed spectacularly, which itself can be both edifying and entertaining!” In this critique, it will become clear that I believe that Stefan has failed. But I am somewhat inclined to agree that his failure was rather spectacular.

In his book, Stefan boldly attempted to address a wide swath of philosophical disciplines, ranging from metaphysics to the philosophy of science to ethics — all in less than 150 pages and without a single footnote.

(Italics mine.)

From beginning to the final critique, Shahar’s involvement for Molyneux had continued on and off for months. Now, there were other voices to be heard from.

Next: Part 4—Other Voices

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