“Universal preferable behaviour is behaviour that can be preferred by all people at all times in all places,” so states Stefan Molyneux, in his recent debate with J. F Gariepy titled, “[…] Universal Ethics vs Moral Nihilism!”
The debate ran a total of almost two hours, but I believe the crux of the video can be gleaned by being told that Gariepy failed to adequately defend the (default) moral nihilist position in response to Molyneux’s core argument, which I surmise here:
If [they] tell me there’s no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then what they are telling me to do is to, “stop saying that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour,” and … they’re saying “stop it because it is objectively false to claim that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour.”Stefan Molyneux at timestamp 15:20 – 18:00 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aVe2vGhznk
Now, if you say to someone that it is universally preference behavior that you stop arguing for universally preferable behaviour, well that of course is a self-detonating statement. It is a statement that falsifies itself in the very utterance. So if someone comes to me and says, “there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour and therefore you should stop arguing for it” or they come to me and say “universally preferable behaviour is invalid,” or “your theory is invalid and you should stop saying it,” what are they saying?
Well they are saying that there is a universal standard by which ideas are judged, and [Stefan] you ideas fall short of that universal standard.
They’re also saying that truth is infinitely preferable to falsehood. …
[Now if you accept the universally preferable behaviour theory] … you find out that rape, theft, assault and murder can never be universally preferable behaviours. In other words, we have a theory of ethics that validates the four major bands that exist in every reasonable moral system.
And so, with this argument, Molyneux won over the audience. I would have responded this this argument differently, and I’ll let you be the judge as to whether I would have done any better an Gariepy..
Allow me to take the place of Molyneux’s hypothetical debater:
- Me: Universally preferable behaviour theory is wrong/false/in error
- Stefan: So you’re saying that I shouldn’t say universally preferable behaviour theory is correct? Well, that’s a contradiction — that is itself a universally preferable behaviour!
- Me: No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t say UPB theory is correct, I am merely making a declarative statement –making a truth claim that UPB theory is false
- Stefan: But you are saying that people shouldn’t say that UPB theory is correct, hence you are unable to deny UPB theory, because you are universally preferring the truth be told
- Me: Again, no. A declarative is not an imperative statement. I’m not necessarily claiming that you ought not promote UPB theory, when I say UPB theory is wrong. Once you concede that an imperative statement does not necessarily derive from a declarative one, your argument that “any rejection of UPB theory is self-detonating,” itself being necessary self-deflates. You cannot justify UPB theory from the existence of truth claims about it. To put this in the clearest way: Uttering that UPB theory is false, does not establish a contradiction, thereby making UPB theory necessarily true.
That ol’ guillotine
The debate started with each giving their best steelman, of the other’s position. This was interesting because it gave each the opportunity to show they understood each other’s position, that they were acting in good faith, and highlight to the audience any misunderstandings each had.
Despite characterising Gariepy’s argument primarily as one that relies on Hume’s guillotine (we cannot derive obligations from facts), Molyneux himself crosses the is-ought gap when he states his hypothetical debater is making an “ought-claim” when they are merely making an “is-claim.” Specifically, he conflates a declarative statement with an imperative one.
There is a part of me that suspects that Molyneux knows this. He is too logical and Libertarian, not to feel the muddiness between these premises in his argument. (But then again libertarians do have trouble with the fundamental crux of ethics).
Stefan’s concept of universality being ‘across all people at all times in all places,’ doesn’t make clear whether it means across empirical human history, or independent of human existence itself. What does he precisely mean by the “objective moral standards” when he refers to them throughout the debate? Does he mean standards that exist independent of any human opinion, across all the space and time in the universe, or rather does he mean “empirically objective” moral standards (i.e. demonstrably common moral opinions across different cultures in this history on this Earth).
In what way are “rape, theft, assault and murder” universal? Molyneux would point out that these acts cannot be universalised according to some arbitrary preference for Kantian rational ethical systems, and hence are examples of immoral behaviour. But, to spell it out, why does Molyneux get to prefer universalisation over, say, random preferences, and thereby claim that universalisability is the nature and charactistic of ethics proper? His implicit assumption that universalisability is “good” is itself begging the question, and circular. “X is moral because it is universalisable; universalisability is moral because it excludes rape, theft, assault, and murder.”
Of course, if you suspect that morality is charactised by universal, egalitarian preferences, all your intellectual abilities will be geared towards rationalising such assumptions. Suffice to say, a tyrant, who did not think of himself as an equal with others, but above others, would be dumbfounded with the presumption that morality is characterised by playing along with rules that make sense and are fair for everyone.
Cherry picking norms as he likes, Molyneux also benefits because when cultures, or individuals agree with his set of moral rules, as he can point and say: “See how morality is expressed in nature!” Well, Hume disagrees. Molyneux can also dismiss any culture or individual that breaks his preferred norms as “bad” people thereby presenting his unfalsifiable theory all the while wasting our time proving nothing at all.
Let’s get imperative
Let’s go further, though. So far, I’ve said that I am not necessarily making an imperative statement about UPB theory by merely claiming it to be false. In such a case, Molyneux contends that someone could exist in which they believe UPB theory to be false, but by not verbalising it, much like Shroedinger’s cat, Molyneux would not know they held that belief, and hence the UPB theory is never verbally negated. Well, despite the fact that a theory is True (or false) regardless of whether anyone verbalises their beliefs about facts, I am willing to maintain the position of a moral nihilist while telling Molyneux: stop saying UPB theory is true.
How is it that I can make an imperative statement, telling some others what to do, when I myself hold there to be no universally preferable behaviour (or in terms I find more rigorous: mind-independent objective “goods”). Am I now not preferring my imperative universally? No. This is something that Gariepy attempted (but failed) to articulate well: I need not be restricted to making universalisable imperatives –I may command as I please. (Whether I am obeyed and my imperatives fulfilled is another matter completely).
Molyneux, may stop me there and say, that such imperatives are not moral, being merely the ravings of a would-be dictator, but then again — why does his imperative (“Morality must be universalisable”) trump my imperatives?
Ethics is characterised by obeying authority, where a legitimate commander is a subjective mind making imperatives by threat and ability to enact force. Now, before you close that tab and write me off as a crass Nietzschean or worse — a Redbeardian— hear me out one moment longer. This authority may be a loving God, or merciless thug, but the mechanics are the same.
Instead of only criticising Molyneux’s argument, I present a concise case for moral nihilism:
Moral statements such as “is is wrong to kill” can be framed as obligations, e.g. “Do not kill.” As such, morality is constituted by imperatives, i.e. commandments. Therefore, in response to any given imperative, the natural question is, “or else what?” Whether an imperative will be obeyed (or not) is determined by the empirical nature of the authority making the commandment.
For example, if there is a ruling Monarch, an absolute sovereign, God, or even just a bully at school that can physically coerce you to obey them (whether under duress or gleeful compliance), then the likelihood is that the imperative will be acting as a legitimate authority for and hence obeyed. …This is the nature of morality.
We get confused about this simple imperative nature of ethics because, through language, we take imperatives like “Don’t kill” and abstract them through forms like: “killing is bad”, “it is good not to kill”, finally into declarative forms that reference the abstract concept of “Good” itself and perennially philosophise over vestigial questions like ,”What is the Good?” — all while forgetting that morality is rendered meaningless without a tangible connection to physical ultimatums.
In the absence of morality, there is only ethics in its purest form: “what should we do?” If we are asking this question, we already concede rationality, and must answer this however best the facts align to our desires and particular situation. In short, whenever anyone uses moral words, ask: what does that mean? I just do what I must.