The Promise and Failure of UPB–The Inside Story (Pt. 4)


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

Other voices

Note: Despite every attempt at clarity (even splitting this entry in two at one point!), what follows is lengthy and not particularly easy to digest since it contains a summaries of some very disparate thinkers. The reason I’ve compiled this—the reason I find it interesting—is that there is a commonality in the reaction to UPB outside FDR. No matter how the following commentators, critics, and philosophers approached UPB, most reached the same conclusion: no matter what Molyneux otherwise failed or succeeded in doing, he failed completely in the most essential goal—to make a case for why anyone would want to be moral.

Any additional reviews or critiques of UPB that have been published or uploaded since this article was written may be found on the Critics and Criticism section of this site.

At first, in the uncritical world of FreeDomain Radio, UPB was heralded as the breakthrough Molyneux claimed it to be. And within that world, Molyneux worked furiously to discount Shahar as the outlier—the wannabe philosopher better suited to correcting typos than recognizing true genius. Molyneux’s most ardent followers were mollified with that dismissal (and apparently continue to be so).

But more critics were speaking up.

XOmniverse

In blogs and on YouTube, other critiques appeared. On December 7, 2007 (predating even Shahar’s first article), XOmniverse released Review: Universally Preferable Behaviour, noting that Molyneux’s theory might serve as a “social/ethical protractor”—usable to calculate the social status of a given behavior, but avoids the idea of core ethics altogether. As a result, it is unable to tell you why a behavior is ethical.

My main problem with his thesis—and I went into this with high expectations….is that his theory and his method only seem valid for determining those actions which are actual that impact other human beings. For example, he offers an explanation of ‘I like ice cream’ and he does not offer an explanation of how I’m going to determine if I’m going to eat the ice cream in my freezer or save it for another time. Since that decision does not affect other people, it does not fall into the category of universally preferable behavior, but it’s a decision I have to make and I need some sort of principle upon which to make that decision. So, if we define ethics as simply the science of determining the principles on which to make decisions, he fails at doing anything apart from social ethics.

Molyneux was clearly unaware of his exclusive focus on social or relationship ethics. He describes UPB this way: “There is little point writing a book about personal preferences – and we can turn to Ann Landers for a discussion of socially preferable behaviour – here, then, we will focus on the possibility of Universally Preferable Behaviour.”

But XOmniverse seems to be suggesting that Molyneux unwittingly has produced something closer to a philosophical Ann Landers than he realizes. In XOmniverse’s view, without an examination of core ethics, the book is tragically flawed. Core ethics are considered essential even to non-philosophers; hence, the common cliché: Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking. Molyneux’s book, which focuses strictly on transactional or relationship ethics, leaves the entire area of core ethics untouched.

The review was favorable—XOmniverse stated that he did like the book; however, he also states: “In terms of actually getting at the philosphical guts of ethics and providing a solid theory on which to base all of your decisions, I think it fails in that regard.”

Unfortunately, that was the very goal of the book!

BrainPolice

On January 2, 2009, another respected left-libertarian, Alex Strekal (who often writes under the name BrainPolice), offered My View on Stefan Molyneux’s UPB, noting again that UPB may have some value, but certainly cannot measure up to the claims
Molyneux has made for it.

I think that UPB is a great tool for de-legitimizing ethical theories that inconsistently apply a principle. But, by itself, it does not apply a proof of any particular principles. It needs a context—an ethical theory or set of principles to function as a tool for analysis…technically, UPB can be used to validate any ethical theories so long as that ethical theory applies its principles consistently. So, one could universalize certain principles that justify authoritarianism as well, and end up with perfectly internally consistent ethical theory….Yet, Molyneux claims that UPB objectively proves libertarian ethics by itself, which leads him to make some bad arguments and overlook valid criticisms, or particular points of contention, internal to libertarianism. Hence, he will claim UPB proves property rights as if it is a metaphysical given…

Later in the review, BrainPolice summarizes:

Ultimately UPB is hyped up by Molyneux to be something that it isn’t—namely, as the best and final possible proof of libertarianism. Compared to such hyped-up claims, UPB clearly is a failure. To be generous, however, it can have some legitmate use as a purely critical tool with regard to inconsistent ethical theories and hypocrisy in people. It can be used to provide a decent criticism of internally inconsistent authoritarian theories of interpersonal ethics. Unfortunately, it also can and has been mis-used. Despite Molyneux’s tendency to treat it as a positive proof, at the end of the day, it’s only valid use lies in the realm of disproving things and revealing some sort of hypocrisy.

And this, after recognizing the failure of UPB, is the most generous thing he can say about it.

Molyneux agreed to debate BrainPolice a few weeks later regarding their philosophic differences. Molyneux recorded the debate and posted it under the title FDR 1310—Virtue, values, and ownership

Amusingly, Molyneux’s characterization of the importance of UPB in this debate is far humbler than the way he had characterized it earlier, behind the scenes among his followers:

To me, UPB is to me more a methodology than a conclusion. Unfortunately, I didn’t make that point clear enough in the book, right?…I mean, we hope that the methodology produces conclusions that make sense, and you can’t use UPB to prove that rape is great, right? Or murder is great or rationally consistent or whatever, right..true. So, in a sense, UPB can’t be overturned because it is a rational methodology. And, of course, I’m not going to say in any way shape or form that I’ve invented any kind of rational methodology but I think taking the approach that I have to ethics is, you know, may be mildly innovative or whatever.

Good points are exchanged during the debate; however, the nature of Molyneux’s debating style tended to direct the flow. Molyneux has a tendency to use lecture at times, use metaphors that aren’t immediately clear, and frequently drops off into tangents that draw the debator further and further away from the main point. BrainPolice comments about the debate, Molyneux’s style, and the points he had hoped to make about UPB—had the debate remained on topic—in this article: Retrospective Thoughts On The Convo With Molyneux on March 23, 2009.

Luke12000

In The Corruption of UPB, uploaded to YouTube on April 13, 2009, Luke12000’s analysis leads him to a position similar to that reached by BrainPolice: at best, UPB can only validate any ethical theory “that doesn’t come down to hypocrisy.” (Luke12000 has recently made this video private. It may be available on request.)

…the thing that Stefan Molyneux does that is intellectually bankrupt is that he tries to validate Libertarian ethics and only Libertarian ethics using the framework of UPB. Now, since UPB validates any ethical system that is not hypocrisy, UPB validates libertarian ethics—assuming you agree with the position of property rights that libertarians put forward. But UPB also validates any other ethical theory that doesn’t come down to hypocrisy. For instance, you could be a mutualist. You could believe that the only type of valid private property is ownership of your body. You could believe in no private property. All of these things can be consistently applied without falling victim to hypocrisy and therefore UPB validates them.

Luke12000 concludes his own video thusly:

If Stefan Molyneux continues to engage in these intellectual gymnastics—this sophistry—to try to prevent people from seeing the contradictions in his philosophy, it’s really going to hurt him.

As I read and listened to the various critiques of UPB in preparation for this article, I noticed something common to each of them.

These critics want Molyneux to succeed. None of them use a tone of language that suggests a dismissal or disrespect of Molyneux. You can see in Shahar’s analysis many attempts and suggestions that could possibly help Molyneux’s framework hold together. XOmniverse and BrainPolice both found merit in UPB, despite its complete failure to deliver on its primary goal. The closing comments of Luke12000’s review express a genuine concern.

One senses in each review a genuine appreciation both for Molyneux’s prior accomplishments and for the enormous task he took on with UPB. Each seems to have reached his negative conclusions with reluctance.

And then there is ReIgNoFrAdNeSs.

ReIgNoFrAdNeSs

ReIgNoFrAdNeSs (as mentioned in Luke12000’s video) amusingly issued something similar to the Amazing Randi’s million-dollar challenge to so-called paranormal acts. ReIgNoFrAdNeSs claimed that he could come up with a moral proposition that has nothing to do with libertarian ethics but which cannot be invalidated by UPB:

UPB is said to be a “methodology for the evaluation of ethical propositions.”

My challenge then is this:

a) Define “ethical proposition,” and if need be, the component terms comprising said definition (so that 3rd parties [such as myself] can formulate examples of ethical propositions to be submitted/”validated”), and

b) Demonstrate (step by step) the validation process (the logical progression) upon ethical propositions submitted by a 3rd party (such as myself).

This is the only way UPB could be tested/validated, and indeed defined.

Of course, it would also help to know in what terms/sense does UPB “validate” ethical propositions. In terms of their “truth value,” or in terms of something else?

What is of issue here is whether “ethics”

a) exists prior to and independently of UPB (in which case ethical terminology can be defined prior to the submission of an “ethical proposition,” so as to prevent semantic disparities/misunderstandings/equivocation involving ethical terminology and the MEANING of an ethical proposition), or if

b) “ethics” is simply an invention of UPB (an old word given new meaning). If this is the case, then UPB is essentially one big circular argument.

Unfortunately, ReIgNoFrAdNeSs got no further than the first “a)” above. No FDR members could define “ethical proposition” in a way that would stand up to scrutiny. Still, ReIgNoFrAdNeSs soldiered on, eventually developing a proposition that would be validated by UPB, but certainly no argument for ethical behavior:

People should do what they have the power and desire to do without regard for any other moral considerations.

It’s internally consistent. There’s no hypocrisy. UPB validates it. And, of course, it has virtually nothing to do with ethics as Molyneux describes them.

ReIgNoFrAdNeSs has since removed his channel and philosophy videos from YouTube, but continues discussing other topics under the name D4Shawn. What remains is this amusing thread on FDR about his proposition. D4Shawn makes an appearance after the conversation is underway. As is often the case when FDR members cannot immediately dismiss a criticism, they begin to complain about D4Shawn’s argumentation style (which is never disrespectful in this thread). Molyneux makes one (extraordinarily odd) attempt to dismiss the claim because it could also apply to lions. (?) After that, he doesn’t discuss it again. He does make several more interjections in what may appear to attempts to moderate behavior in the thread, but it’s mostly to characterize D4Shawn as rude. Finally, the members of FDR quit responding to the challenge altogether and both thread and challenge are left hanging.

(Stranger-than-fiction trivia: The opening post of that thread is by FDR-member Jacob Spinney, a “psychological illusionist” from Phoenix, Arizona. He apprenticed and has been associated with the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). In other words, he opens the thread on FDR with ReIgNoFrAdNeSs’s “Amazing Randi” challenge! Hmmm. If you would like to take a break from this article to see Jacob Spinney psychically bend a fork with the Amazing Randi narrating, then download this.)

LaughingMan0x

On Thursday, April 16, 2009, LaughingMan0x leveled yet another devastating critique of UPB entitled Reflections of UPB: A Total Critique of Molyneux, which he also released in a two-part series on YouTube.


(Here’s Part 1…)


(…and this is Part 2.)

LaughingMan0x first describes a difficult foundational problem with Molyneux’s work:

Stefbot says: “Truth is universally preferable to falsehood; [and] It is universally preferable to replace false ideas with true ones.”

Adding: QUOTE: “UPB is simply a recognition of this basic reality; UPB is reason, science, evidence, etc.

Yet this merely begs the question: Why is it the case that truth is universally preferable to falsehood?

This premise, part of the very intellectual foundation of UPB theory immediately fails the: FACT/VALUE distinction. In other-words, Stefbot is falsely attempting to state: “values” as universal facts. This is a simple category mistake, but nevertheless a significant one, with devastating implications on the intellectual merit of UPB.

LaughingMan0x continues with an in-depth examination of the internal problems of UPB. In the end, he arrives at the same conclusion many others have—that the work may be useful in determining logically inconsistent moral propositions, but very little beyond that:

Hence, in terms of furthering a debate, Universally Preferable Behavior, as it pertains to establishing individual hypocrisy is incredibly useful. However, it does nothing more and the people who advocate its usage should claim nothing more. If we accept its fundamental premises and apply them consistently, we accept the moral nihilism we attempting to void in the first place, negating the very point of UPB.

So, what may we conclude from this? It seems that unless Molyneux significantly reduces his claim that UPB is the solution to the problem of objective ethics and downplays its importance—and hopefully he’ll label this what it actually is, a tool to prove hypocrisy in a debate or analysis—then the only beast Molyneux will have slain is himself.

On April 10, 2009, Stefbot (the name Molyneux uses on YouTube, taken from avatar name he formerly used for on-line gaming) uploaded Freedomain Radio: Ethics, Rights and Society, a debate between himself and LaughingMan0x regarding UPB and other Molyneux theories. However, as is often the case, Molyneux attempted to “win” the debate by dragging it off topic as often as possible.

BrainPolice offers a review of the debate in video form here and in written form here.

So, the critics having spoken, UPB is revealed as falling far short of its goal. In the end, it is a flawed, Kantian-derived, short-circuited ethics calculator able only to identify self-contradictory moral propositions. Potentially useful… perhaps.

One might ask, then, how did all of the critical rumbling that was happening on the outside of FDR impact emotions inside the community?

Calming the waters within

Few things are more revealing about the nature of the FDR community than the way it treats its own when they raise questions about the FDR doctrine. We have already noted the case of Stewart, who was pre-emptively banned on fear of a negative review of UPB.

But another admired member was ejected simply for asking a question.

LibertyIsNotGiven

In the FDR community, it is well known that two members are regarded as Molyneux’s best and most loyal followers. In 2007, one of them excitedly introduced to the community LibertyIsNotGiven—an agorist and YouTube commentator who would soon become a new member—in this way:

Date: 10-21-2007 4:35 PM
Subject: LibertyIsNotGiven – Sweet Youtube videos!

Ok,

I don’t often recommend youtubers. But, this guy is just a blast to watch. Never more than 5 minutes long, he has a talent for ZEROING in on precise logical errors, and totally demolishing other ‘tuber’s insanities, without ever having to revert to ad hominem. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.

Unfortunately, zeroing in on precise logical errors is only allowed on targets outside of FDR. Pointing out logical errors inside FDR rates a chillier reception.

LibertyIsNotGiven was a member of the FDR forum for a year-and-a-half and made a little more than 100 posts. Yet, he never considered himself a member of the “community.” Like many people, me included, he had tremendous respect and interest for Molyneux’s take on politics and economics, but was put off by some of the other aspects such as the tendency toward psychologizing and refusal to respond to legitimate criticism.

LibertyIsNotGiven told the story of his involvement with FDR, especially the last chapter that began with a question and ended with his official separation from the FDR forum in the video Freedomain Radio – This Train is Bound for Bullshit, uploaded on April 25, 2009:

Since this article was written, that video has been deleted. I haven’t spoken to LibertyIsNotGiven but his reason for doing so may be similar to so many others who leave FDR—their tendency is to put the entire experience behind them and no longer have any association with FDR in any way, even a cautionary video such as this. (This silence may probably healthy for them, but not particularly useful for the influx of FDR newcomers who are unaware what awaits them!) I do still have a few quotes from the video below:

When Stefan Molyneux first published ‘Universally Preferable Behavior—a Rational Proof of Secular Ethics,” I was skeptical about the true universality of his proposals, but I was also unflinchingly supportive, because I thought at the very least it was something to be built upon, while allegedly comporting with the fact-value/”is ought” dichotomy. This was an encouraging development in ethical thought—so I thought—and I wrote a fairly favorable review of the book…Even when things started to get a little “weird” over at FreeDomain Radio, I saw more so-called good than I saw evidence of the place become cult-like, as a number of people are claiming.

At this point, he describes running across Shahar’s critique of UPB. He became convinced that it was at least a perfectly sensible, civil critique, so he decided to begin a discussion of it on the forum.

So, I posted a flat one-line message in the Philosophy section on the Freedomain Radio message board stating that I would be interested in seeing some responses to Shahar’s critique and I linked to the [Shahar’s] blog entry. The thread survived for about two full pages and over that span, I received one actual response to Shahar’s article. Most of the thread thread revolved around a user whose name I cannot recall who asserted that Shahar is unqualified to critique ethical proposals because he hangs around “vile” people—a rival forum, Liberating Minds.

LibertyIsNotGiven soon found himself surrounded by FDR members who wanted to comment on everything except the contents of Shahar’s critique. Even the very member who had written the gushing introductory post earlier now began psychologizing LibertyIsNotGiven—accusing him of simply seeking attention. Finally, the entire thread was deleted without explanation (a not-uncommon response to criticism on FDR). He made a second post stating that “censorship is not an argument,” and that thread, too, was deleted. And so LibertyIsNotGiven, who had actually given Molyneux much support during the release of UPB, found himself with no other choice but to leave.

Molyneux and many of the FreeDomain Radio regulars themselves are living proof that truth, reason, logic, intregrity and intellectual honesty are most certainly not universally preferable behaviors. In FDR lore, the term defoo refers to a person exiting harmful relationships, primarily family, but I assume it applies more generally as well. I suppose this video is my declaration of being defooed from FreeDomain Radio.

I will probably remain subscribed to stefbot here on YouTube, simply because he has plenty of good things to say when he stays in the realms of politicw and economics. But the knee-jerk psychologizing, disinclination to respond satisfactorily to legitimate criticism and overall air of dishonesty have colluded to effectively destroy my once high opinion of Molyneux and his operation.

(One final piece of trivia. LibertyIsNotGiven, who is also a musician, has posted one of the sweetest renditions of Wild Mountain Thyme I’ve heard. I listened to it several times while writing this. His voice reminds me somewhat of Gordon Lightfoot, who, like Molyneux, is also Canadian! Another stranger-than-fiction coincidence?)

The Aftermath

No doubt, Molyneux’s position is difficult. He is trying to popularize philosophy but at the same time he is leading a community. That community tends to receive his teachings uncritically and praises him for it. They are allowed to criticize things that aren’t of particular importance to Molyneux but they may not challenge doctrine.

So, imagine how hard it is for Molyneux to manage external criticism of his work—especially something as tragically flawed as UPB. When he’s debating an opposition voice such as XOmniverse, for example, he is also simultaneously managing his reputation within the community. It is impermissible for Molyneux to be wrong—or disillusioned members may slip away, along with their donations.

And so we see, in this final stage of the promise and fall of UPB, an arsenal of weapons developed to keep members from questioning doctrine—ad hominem attacks against critics, dismissal of valid arguments as minor nitpicking, and banishment and thread-removal of “heretics.”

Today, discussions about UPB are approached with great caution on the forum. Molyneux rarely participates in them, unless the thread is non-critical. New members with very few posts who begin asking about UPB are flagged as potential “trolls.”

While the ranks are tightening against internal criticism, Molyneux has gone nuclear in the war with academia that began during his encounter with Shahar. In his book that was published following UPB, Everyday Anarchy, Molyneux formalizes his argument against academia in an entire section that begins on Page 51 (Anarchism and Academia), discussing in great detail how independent-thinking anarchists simply run into a brick wall in academia.

…since academics cannot be fired, if a department head hires an unpleasant, troublesome, difficult or just unnerving person, he will have to live with that decision for the next 30-odd years. If divorce became impossible, people would be much more careful about choosing compatible spouses.

This is one simple and basic explanation for the exaggerated politeness and conviviality in the world of academia. People who are cantankerous, or who ask uncomfortable questions, or who reason from first principles and thus eliminate endless debating, or whose positions place into question the value and ethics of those around them, simply do not get hired.

It’s hard not to notice that if you replace the words “academia” and “do not get hired” with the words “FDR” and “get banned,” the second paragraph above, it now mirrors a common criticism of the very community he has created!

Knowing what has been revealed concerning Molyneux and his deep disappointment over his own rejection by academia, his several-page description in this section of the hypothetical anarchist student (who sounds suspiciously like Molyneux himself) being rejected by academia is mostly poignant.

Today, it seems unlikely that UPB will gain any further traction, given its nearly universal dismissal outside the FDR community. Still, I think the tale itself—from Molyneux’s unswerving belief in UPB’s potential greatness and his (and his community’s) reaction to the eventual critiques that countered that belief—paints a fascinating portrait.

I have a few more thoughts from a philosophy-naïve point-of-view, but those can wait until the next and final chapter.

Next: Part 5—What’s a god to do?

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