Saturday, September 6, 2008

Universally Preferable Behavior: An Overview of a Critique of Stefan Molyneux's Theory

[Part of The Molyneux Project]

[If you came here looking for the final critique, click here for the real final critique]

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.

Unfortunately, explaining exactly what's wrong with Stefan's theory in a charitable and fair way would require me to pour through the book again to build up each problematic facet of Stefan's arguments directly from the text, so that I could critique him on his own terms. But to be perfectly honest, I really don't feel like doing that, and I'm somewhat skeptical that I ever will. As one might gather from looking through my notes, the book is presented in a manner that makes it rather difficult to isolate individual themes and to lay out specific features of the theory's structure. So it would take quite a bit of effort to show conclusively that this theme or the other one is actually a core component of the theory. Further, the problems with Stefan's theory, as I understand it, are so foundational that I'm not sure I would really learn anything from the exercise, except maybe how to construct clear arguments from extremely convoluted texts.

Since being completely charitable and fair to Stefan would require me to demonstrate conclusively that he actually argues each of the positions I attack, and because I'm not sure I want to bother doing that, it seems I'm in a rather crummy position. I promised I'd offer a critique, and I've so far failed to uphold that promise. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to lay out my critique of Stefan's book without specifically citing any part of the text, with the full admission that I may have misunderstood certain elements of his arguments. I personally believe that what I'm going to say here is correct, but if anyone can go directly to the text and legitimately demonstrate that Stefan is not subject to the criticisms I offer here, then that will be that. I just personally don't think anyone will be able to. So without further ado...

The first major problem with Stefan's argument is that his theory is built in an extremely rigid way, such that any inflicted behavior is held to be either always morally wrong or always morally right, and yet Stefan thinks that there can be grey areas about whether or not a particular action is right or wrong. Further, it does not seem as though Stefan believes these grey areas to simply result from epistemological problems (circumstances where we cannot be sure whether something is morally wrong or morally right, but there is a truth to the matter going one way or the other); he seems to think that there really are grey areas in morality. But if you're working in a system which is explicitly black-and-white, that can't be the case. For example, if it's always morally wrong to invade others' property rights, then it's wrong to do so in the flagpole case, and anyone who "does it anyway" is immoral. Period. Otherwise, it's not always immoral. And if it's not always immoral, then Stefan's theory is wrong for other reasons. So no grey areas.

To be clear, I'm not rejecting the idea that there can be grey areas in morality. Plenty of other theories can accommodate them. But Stefan's can't, because it's built on black and white distinctions.

That brings me to the second major problem with Stefan's theory: it's built on black an white distinctions. Stefan treats morality as always being a matter of obligation. Either everyone is morally required to do certain things all the time, or they are morally prohibited from ever doing it. In designing his theory this way, Stefan leaves out an entire category of behaviors: the morally permissible. Morally permissible behaviors are those which we may engage in if we want to, but which we may choose not to engage in if we do not want to. Stefan's theory is built in such a way that the realm of the "permissible" is captured entirely within the category of "aesthetics", and the realm of the "obligatory" is captured entirely within the category of "morality." What differentiates them, Stefan seems to think, is that moral issues involve the initiation of force, coercion, or violence - they are "inflicted" - whereas aesthetic issues do not. The implication here is that if the initiation of force, coercion, or violence is involved in a particular behavior, it cannot be morally permissible: it must be obligatory for all people at all times to either do it or not do it.

It is a matter of common sense that there is no "positive" action (that is, an action you actually do, rather than an action which you avoid: murder is a "positive" action, while not murdering is a "negative" one; "not murdering" is not, one might note, an inflicted behavior at all) involving the initiation of the use of force which all people must be engaging in at all times. So if Stefan's distinction is allowed to stand, we will necessarily find that we end up advocating the non-aggression principle. It's simply a direct entailment of the distinction and our most basic intuitions about morality: we couldn't possibly all be morally required to be initiating force against each other all the time. It would be ridiculous.

So that leads to the next serious flaw in Stefan's theory: there is no good reason to believe that any action involving the initiation of force must either be morally obligatory for all people at all times or else morally prohibited for all people at all times. I don't even want to begin to try to get into the reasons Stefan offers in favor of this position - I discuss his various arguments in several places in my notes, and though those comments don't constitute thorough critiques, the amount of personal frustration that they represented makes me unwilling to refine them. I'll simply say that it is emphatically not a formal requirement of a moral theory that it make the same claim about what people should do regardless of the circumstances, nor is it a formal requirement of a moral theory that it must always either mandate or prohibit classes of actions.

My next set of objections to Stefan's theory focuses on the morality-aesthetics distinction itself. According to Stefan, moral issues are those which deal with "inflicted" behaviors, while aesthetic issues deal with "non-inflicted" behaviors. I've already pointed out that because of the way that Stefan's theory is built, it invariably ends up being the case that "inflicted" behaviors are deemed morally impermissible for all people at all times (because no positive inflicted behavior could possibly be morally required for all people at all times), and "non-inflicted" behaviors, by Stefan's strict system of delineation, are uniformly classified as morally permissible (though perhaps we might find them undesirable or negative in other ways).

But what exactly constitutes an "inflicted" behavior? Do inflicted behaviors need to be physically violent? Does blackmail count as something that's "inflicted"? Some people argue that certain kinds of verbal or expressive acts can be seriously damaging to people, often more so than some kinds of physical damage. I think this is perfectly reasonable. Does that mean that "expressive harms" (as they're often referred to in the philosophical literature) are "inflicted" behaviors? If so, then does that mean that it must either be morally obligatory for all people to verbally or expressively harm people at all times, or else it must be morally prohibited? If that's the case, then clearly it must be morally impermissible to cause harm to people through our words and expressions, no? What about offensive behavior?

Also, what about coming to the defense of others, or using force to secure restitution for a crime committed against someone else? Do those count as inflicted behaviors? I don't see how they could not, unless someone wanted to say that the aggressor's initial immorality provides some kind of justification for violence such that we wouldn't actually be inflicting anything on the aggressor but rather carrying out the "normal" consequences for immorality. And if one did say that, then I would have to challenge them to come up with some account of what kind of violence would be objectively justified, and under what conditions, because surely it's not the case that the mere fact of someone having committed an immoral action entitles us to do anything we want to them. In any case, it seems to me that the use of force on behalf of others is very clearly an inflicted behavior (though I would say it seems like an acceptable one in certain circumstances). But if we accept this, then we must ask if for all people at all times it's morally obligatory to come to the defense of others or morally unacceptable. But neither of these alternatives seems acceptable; I wouldn't want to say that a pacifist is objectively immoral to refrain from using force, but I also wouldn't want to say that people who come to the rescue of other people are objectively immoral.

And what about damage to property? Stefan seems to think that this clearly is "inflicted", but how does that make any sense? Inflicted on what, the property? Or on the owner? Is Stefan suggesting that we take the Lockean view of property as an extension of oneself so literally that to invade one's property rights would be to actually inflict violence on someone? Not only is that a highly contentious view of the nature of property rights which many philosophers now reject, but it also leads to some pretty odd conclusions. For example, let's imagine that your grandfather died and left you some money in his will, but you didn't know that he had done so. Now imagine that I came along and took that money and started planning my life around the idea that I would continue to have it in the future. But now you find out that I have done this, and come to demand your money. On what grounds, I might ask, should you have title to the money? There are literally no grounds for you saying that the money is an extension of you as a person, since you didn't know that the money had been left for you when I took it, and by Lockean standards, it's actually me who has the justification for keeping it because I made use of it first. Of course, you might try to argue that the money belonged to your grandfather, and my taking it was like stealing from him, but your grandfather is dead; it would seem pretty odd to me to find as ardent an atheist as Stefan arguing that your grandfather could have rights to money even though as a person, he no longer exists. So have I inflicted anything upon you? It's not clear. (Also, I should note that Stefan's argument in favor of some conception of property rights is largely addressed in a past article.)

Another similar problem arises from Stefan's discussion of animal rights. He suggests that animals can't have rights the way that people can, and just sort of chalks the issue up as a grey area. But I don't think he can get out of this one so easily. If we can inflict things on animals (and I think it's clear that we can), then we must seemingly come up with some conception of when we must do so, and when we must not. Nothing in between can suffice, because morally "optional" behaviors can't be moral issues at all: they're aesthetic.

Another issue with Stefan's theory is the maxim description problem, which I discussed in another post, and won't spend time with here. It occurs to me that many of my objections to Stefan's ethics-aesthetics distinction could be challenged by attempting to rephrase maxims, but as I try to show in the other post, that won't save Stefan's theory.

And the final, most fatal problem with Stefan's position is that he never seems to offer any coherent reason that we should do what is universally preferable. That is, he never connects morality with any fact about human existence in a way that's comprehensible to me. He doesn't seem to think that it corresponds with what people want, that it has anything to do with any spiritual feature of humanity, that it's necessary for people to follow it, or that it has to do with what people think. He seems to think that we should be able to make some kinds of observations about whether or not a particular moral theory is correct, as would be evidenced by his insistence on empirical observation and his chart discussing different features of socialism and capitalism. But as far as I'm aware, there really aren't any observable consequences of morality that can't be explained in terms of psychology, economics, and sociology. So the biggest problem with Stefan's morality is simply that it has nothing to do with morality. It doesn't give us any reason to do anything, except that our doing universally preferable things is in some sense "required" (though apparently not required for anything), whatever that means. It makes a bunch of really awkward distinctions, makes some claims about how philosophical paradigms need to work that don't seem to really be based on anything substantial, and basically rigs the deck so that we arrive at something that looks a lot like the familiar Non-Aggression Principle, but with all the constituent terms redefined so as to produce a result having nothing to do with the traditional Non-Aggression Principle. But it doesn't tell us anything about the way that we ought to live or how we ought to treat each other. So in pretty much every way I can think of, the theory has nothing to do with morality.

So I hate to leave it at that, but I sort of have to. To be as charitable as I really should would require an enormous amount of time and effort, and given my basic impression of the theory (which should be clear from the above), it doesn't seem like it would be particularly worthwhile to spend my time that way. Anyway, I'd like to extend an extremely heartfelt thank you to everyone who's been supporting me (or denigrating me) in this project. It's really been an honor to be made to feel so important in my own tiny little way, and I've really appreciated all of your kind words and helpful comments. I'd also like to thank Stefan Molyneux, even though I don't feel like he's always been completely fair or kind to me in our conversations, for graciously providing me with both an electronic and a print copy of his book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, free of charge (though if Stefan writes a rebuttal to the above which firmly establishes his theory and addresses my objections, I will gladly send him the money I bet him), and for at least not being explicitly uncivil towards me throughout this entire project. Without his generosity, none of this would have happened, and to be honest, I'm kind of glad it did.

So I guess that's all I have to say. Again, thank you all.


Vichy said...

This section was the biggest stumbling block I ran into when debating UPB (or having UPB thrown at me while debating something else, like it's some miraculous cure-all):
"So the biggest problem with Stefan's morality is simply that it has nothing to do with morality. It doesn't give us any reason to do anything, except that our doing universally preferable things is in some sense "required" (though apparently not required for anything), whatever that means. It makes a bunch of really awkward distinctions, makes some claims about how philosophical paradigms need to work that don't seem to really be based on anything substantial, and basically rigs the deck so that we arrive at something that looks a lot like the familiar Non-Aggression Principle, but with all the constituent terms redefined so as to produce a result having nothing to do with the traditional Non-Aggression Principle. But it doesn't tell us anything about the way that we ought to live or how we ought to treat each other. So in pretty much every way I can think of, the theory has nothing to do with morality."
You basically summed up the entire book, and I can hardly believe you went through an entire book consisting of that sort of thing. Ye are made of sterner stuff than I, friend.

Danny Shahar said...

Haha thanks again, Vichy. To be honest, I ended up skimming much of the later parts of the book just to find out whether Stefan was going to give some account of how his framework has anything to do with morality, and just didn't find anything. Because I went through pretty quickly, it's certainly possible that I missed something. So the invitation is certainly open to anyone who can show me the place in the text where Stefan clears up the issue. But if he doesn't, then it certainly seems like a fatal problem for the theory.

Vichy said...

Given my experience on the boards discussing it, I think that if the link exists not many proponents of theory seem to be aware of it.

Jad said...

I'm not a philosopher (I bet you love comments that start like that). I understand, as you say, it is "emphatically not" a requirement that an ethical/moral structure (sorry about the loose terms) make the same claim about what people should do independent of circumstances. Can this not be pointed to as the major failure of the philosophy of ethics?

My instinct (!=valid, I understand) is that a system that evaluates the interacting of moral agents in a convincing manner must be predicated on the axiom that, as evidenced by biology, all homo sapiens are largely "equal."

It seems at least that this axiom should stand until overturned.

Along the same lines, it seems appealing to me that a proposed moral framework should evaluate claims based on observable "reality." I know it's a word with wide interpretations, but let's say "reality" in the strict materialist sense.

As you say (I think) isn't the result of these two starting points the non-aggression principle?

Is the failure of UPB to do with one of these two axioms being "up for debate?" Or is the failure farther "down the line?"

I understand your issue with the cabin-in-winter or the flagpole scenario--is that the point-of-failure of UPB?

I know you've put alot of time into this work and have been frustrated by it, so I don't want to make you rehash the whole debate. I've also read (much of) your posts here and I understand many of the points you make. I guess I'm interested in having something like UPB that could undergo the kind of scrutiny you bring to bear. It seems to me that such a thing would have alot of value since it roundly rejects most of the "evils" in the world that are embraced by competing, widely accepted frameworks.

I appreciate your time and thought--I hope I'm not wasting much of either. If there's a better forum to pick your brain about this, point me to it.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Jad. Those aren't stupid questions at all, and they deserve a serious answer. Unfortunately, giving them the answer they deserve would take a whole lot of time, energy, and care, and for a very good reason: you're basically asking me to explain the fundamental nature of ethical theories, and that nature is up for very serious debate. In fact, there's an entire field of philosophy, called "Metaethics" which is solely dedicated to the exploration of these kinds of questions. And unfortunately, providing a survey of metaethical theory is neither something that I have time to attempt nor something that I would do even close to well if I tried.

However, I can try to offer some brief comments on your specific questions, and you can tell me if they clear anything up. If they don't, I can try to dig up some of the papers in metaethics that I've found particularly influential (no guarantees, though; it's been a while on a lot of that stuff, and it's not really my area of expertise). If neither of those options sound appealing, I can try to connect you with someone with a better background in metaethics than me (again, no guarantees) who can better help you work through these issues.

Because this comment box is tiny and cumbersome to write in, I'd prefer to respond to your questions in a separate blog post. But I can understand if you might not want your questions to be answered in such a public forum, so if you prefer, I can paste my answers into the comments box here when they're ready, or I can even e-mail them to you if you'd like. Just let me know what you'd prefer, and I'll make it happen.

Thanks so much for taking the time to check out my work, and I hope to hear from you soon!

Danny Shahar said...

Actually, I think it might be helpful for my to take a crack at this on a medium scale. So I'm just going to post my responses, and if you'd rather I took them down, I can definitely do that.

Jad said...

Thanks. I have no problem with you using the questions in a post. In the mean time, I'll find what I can on metaethics--I appreciate the pointer and your energies towards my education ;-)

Danny Shahar said...

Sweet; check this out if you haven't seen it:

Andrew said...

I really agree with the part of your post that vichy quoted, about how Stefan's UPB has nothing to do with moreality. I think the best evidence for this is the FDRers themselves, who by and large seem to be lost in life.

Danny Shahar said...

To the extent that your assessment is true, I don't think it's likely that the flaws in Stefan's theory are entirely to blame. I suppose it's possible that holding an incoherent ethical framework to be true might have negative consequences for one's psyche, or that the bad mental habits formed by adopting it could be detrimental.

But if the Molynites (I don't mean that pejoratively; it just sounds so much better than FDRers) are finding that their pursuit of philosophy is negatively affecting their lives and their ability to find happiness, it might be worthwhile to consider the case of a somewhat similar group: the Randians. I don't mean to stretch the comparison too far, but nevertheless I think it might be worthwhile for them (and you) to read Nathaniel Branden's excellent and penetrating reflection on his experience with Objectivism:

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"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."