This article presents and clarifies examples of common types of confusion. I’ve selected Stefan Molyneux’s book “Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics” as the source of these examples because it contains several good ones and because many people seem to have been unable to recognize them as confused.
I’m hoping those who read this will be emerge with deeper insight into Stefan’s arguments and more clearly understand his confusion.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with the theory of Universally Preferable Behaviour (UPB), you’ll very likely enjoy reading this whether you agree with it or not. After reading many critiques of Molyneux’s book on ‘Secular Ethics’ I arrived at the conclusion I have some things to say that others have not said clearly. I am definitely coming late to the party, as Stefan published his book back in 2007 and I just found out about it, yet it still seems to garner significant interest and support as well as continuing criticism.
Summary Overview and Conclusions
Here’s a quick overview of where I’m going to wind up…
We do not and cannot choose to live-at least not initially. Even if some believe we can ‘choose to live’ in some metaphysical dimension, there is certainly no empirical evidence that we have chosen to live the human lives we find ourselves living. Life is not initially a choice. It’s more of an accident, a gift, a mystery or whatever you ‘prefer’ to call it. It is not a preference, and for human beings to continue to live is not a preference. Some individuals do eventually develop the preference to stop eating and living. This does not mean they ever chose to start eating and living. Their biological behavior is governed by their biological apparatus, not by the voluntary choices they become able to make after gaining experience living in the world as biological organisms.
Only living human beings have preferences. We cease being human once we fail to continue living. The choice to not breathe or eat at all, ever, is not an option for human beings. It’s a physiological, empirically observable and verifiable impossibility. If you never breathe and eat, you can never become a living human being capable of developing preferences. Voluntary choices do not apply to the behavior of corpses. Human beings have not voluntarily chosen to have breathing, eating and digesting systems. They did not choose to have the need to eat; to have mouths, throats, stomachs, intestines-none of it. Breathing is not a preference. It’s a natural endowment, a physiological necessity, a biological mandate. It is decidedly not a preference.
Preferred or voluntary choices are optional and can typically be changed or revoked. Revoke the ‘choice’ to breathe and you no longer have human life. This is clear evidence that breathing is not an optional choice or preference, any more than having lungs is a preference. If you argue that our choice to breathe is made possible by our biological endowment of lungs, you are again mistaken, because empirically lungs and breathing come together. The empirical evidence of mammals, reptiles and other creatures with lungs demonstrates that you cannot have one without the other. Without breathing, what would lungs do and why would they exist? They wouldn’t be lungs as we know them. Lungs and breathing are components of a biological system that has contributed to the emergence of human beings, who can eventually develop preferences and preferred behaviors. We didn’t prefer to live in an environment that surrounds us with breathable air either. That’s ‘nature’ again.
So to say we’re alive because we’ve followed preferences is based on confusing the level on which we are physiological organisms with the level on which we have voluntary choices. These are two different levels of consideration, two different realms of discourse. Identifying these two levels as the same one, is the underlying confusion that has informed Mr. Molyneux’s fundamental error. He has committed the error of, in Hume’s words, deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. He has, in his own words, axiomatically derived a preference from existence.
Examples of Confusion
Want to know how and why I reached these conclusions? The following written dialogue, at times more of a debate, between myself and selections from Stefan Molyneux’s book: “Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”, focuses on the ‘proof’ of the existence of universally preferable behavior (UPB).
The quotations included are from two chapters of Mr. Molyneux’s book, the introductory ‘The Discipline of Theoretical Ethics’ and the conclusive ‘UPB: Five Proofs’. He claims to have proven a case for ‘Secular Ethics’. I claim to have disproven it by unraveling the confusion underlying the proof. You decide.
Stefan’s writing is preceded with ‘SM:’ and my comments are preceded with ‘MG:’. We begin on page 29:
SM: ‘UPB: The Discipline of Theoretical Ethics’
When I speak of a universal preference, I am really defining what is objectively required, or necessary, assuming a particular goal. If I want to live, I do not have to like jazz, but I must eat. “Eating” remains a preference – I do not have to eat, in the same way that I have to obey gravity – but “eating” is a universal, objective, and binding requirement for staying alive, since it relies on biological facts that cannot be wished away.
MG: Is Stefan defining a preference or a requirement? You cannot logically have it both ways. A preference is by definition not required. A requirement by definition is not bound by any preference. These two terms have very different meanings and already Mr. Molyneux is losing sight of this and believing that he can logically consider ‘preference’ and ‘requirement’ synonymous terms.
This is a fundamental confusion over definitions. ‘Universally Preferable Behavior’ sounds intriguing and I want to learn more about it and its potential implications for human character and ethics. ‘Universally Required Behavior’ sounds like the ‘same old, same old’ standard science of biology stuff that applies to all living organisms by nature.
If we strip away all but a few words from Stefan’s preceding paragraph and leave them in order we get: ‘preference, required, necessary, must, preference, requirement‘.
Defining UPB as both preferences and requirements is a self-contradictory definition right out of the gate, and any further arguments built on top of this fundamental confusion will also be unsound, until the distinctly different connotations of preference and requirement become clarified.
Some people do deliberately starve themselves to death. All those who have stopped eating, however, stopped only after having eaten for some time first. Their instinctive bodily drives initially overwhelmed other considerations. Someone who chooses to stop eating, has first needed to eat in order to be able to grow into a person with sufficient maturity to eventually develop the complex preference for not eating. We have no choice but to eat initially, or we will not survive our infancy. I have not been able to find a single instance of an infant intentionally starving itself to death and all accounts I could find of infants not wanting to eat involved some medical problems.
Eating is a biological law applying only to living organisms, whereas gravity is a physical law applying to all objects that have mass, living organisms included. They are both ‘scientifically formulated laws’ and that is the important point. They are both postulated as ‘laws of nature’. Neither can be preferred into existence. You do have to eat in the same way you have to obey gravity, in that obeying either is required by ‘natural laws’ that cannot be broken because we prefer to break them. They are different in scope. Biological organisms form only a subset of all physical objects. A corpse, while no longer subject to the biological law of eating, is still subject to the physical law of gravity. These are two different levels of consideration or ‘levels of order’.
The drive to live is so deeply ingrained in our organisms that more than 85% of those who are clinically depressed and entertaining suicidal thoughts, even though profoundly miserable, do not actually kill themselves. Even those who do take themselves out, do not prefer to stop eating. I looked up the common ways that people typically kill themselves and ‘starve yourself to death’ did not appear on any of the lists I found. There are many far easier ways to end your life. Most people can’t even maintain the preference to eat less in order to lose weight, let alone prefer to stop eating altogether.
Mr. Molyneux himself states, “eating” is a universal, objective, and binding requirement for staying alive, since it relies on biological facts that cannot be wished away. Agreed. A biological fact cannot be preferred away. It’s a requirement, a necessity of life that cannot be preferred any more than having a stomach can be preferred into existence. This is Mr. Molyneux’s fundamental confusion and as we will see, he repeats and multiplies this foundational error over and over again as he continues to build more elaborate reasoning on top of this flawed foundation. You cannot build sound conclusions on the basis of false underlying assumptions and Stefan’s formulations are a good example of how a single faulty assumption can permeate an entire system of orientation and invalidate it. Further explanations of these points follow.
SM: As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence. It is true that a man who never exercises and eats poorly will be unhealthy. Does that mean that he “ought” to exercise and eat well? No. The “ought” is conditional upon the preference. If he wants to be healthy, he ought to exercise and eat well. It is true that if a man does not eat, he will die – we cannot logically derive from that fact a binding principle that he ought to eat. If he wants to live, then he must eat. However, his choice to live or not remains his own.
MG: This much is sound: “As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence.” Agreed. The meaning of this is relevant here in that anybody reading, writing, philosophizing or caring about any of this in any way is already alive. Living is the ‘is’ of our situation. Human beings are alive. ‘Should’ we be alive? Perhaps the answer to this question depends on one’s ‘preference’. The fact of our aliveness, however, seems to have happened without our foreknowledge or consent let alone our preference, if we limit ourselves to the empirical evidence.
We cannot prefer to live. We can only prefer to continue living or to stop living. We cannot prefer to eat. We can only prefer to continue eating or to stop eating. We started eating before we even knew what a preference could be, fairly fresh out of the womb. Living organisms are imbued by nature with a deeply powerful drive to continue living. To become alive initially is not a choice that anyone can make, therefore it cannot possibly be considered a preference. Again, ‘existence’ represents a different level of consideration than ‘preference’, so one cannot ‘logically’ be derived from the other. This would be confusing (or considering as the same), two different ‘levels of order’ or ‘realms of discourse’.
See how Stefan’s fundamental confusion between preference and requirement continues to fracture the arguments he builds on top of this erroneous underlying assumption?
SM: “Behaviour” exists in objective reality, outside our minds – the concepts “ought,” “should,” and “preference,” do not exist outside our minds.
However, the fact that “ought” does not exist within objective reality does not mean that “ought” is completely subjective. Neither the scientific method nor numbers themselves exist within reality either, yet science and mathematics remain objective disciplines.
MG: To restate, let’s say the concepts “ought,” “should,” and “preference” exist only inside our ‘minds’, or more clearly, only inside our skins. The difference between ‘inside our skin’ and ‘outside our skin’ is a fundamentally important one, and commonly confused. The terms subjective and objective are not as clear in referring to this basic distinction as they are riddled with connotations that blur the distinctions.
The fact that “preference” (or an “ought”) does not exist outside our skins means that it cannot control or govern the reality outside our skins. A preference is not a product of nature, it is an artifact of humankind. Our biology is a product of nature. Notice the two different levels of order here. On one level we have things produced by nature. On another level we have things produced by humans. The objective (outside our skins) reality of our biological need to eat (a product of nature) cannot be preferred by voluntary human choice (inside our skins). Our biology defines our entire species regardless of who prefers what.
Science and mathematics are human disciplines which attempt to understand and gain knowledge about ‘objective reality’. This does not mean that science and mathematics exist outside our skins, or outside the ‘human mind’. Human beings have created science and mathematics. Science and mathematics do not allow us to prefer nature to be a certain way. They only allow us to understand the way nature is, regardless of our preferences about it.
In this context, nature is the ‘is’. Preference is the ‘ought’. Nature provides biology. People provide preferences. We cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, as this would be to confuse two different levels of order, so we cannot prefer to eat. Nature has mandated that we eat or cease to exist. None of the more successful life forms have excelled because of their ‘preference’ for eating. All the most unsuccessful organisms that are now extinct, also ate. Again it becomes clearer, the argument that eating is a preference is a product of confusion and there is no way to remove it except by changing the initial definition of universally preferable behavior we started out with.
SM: ‘UPB: Five Proofs’
As we discussed above, the proposition that there is no such thing as preferable behaviour contains an insurmountable number of logical and empirical problems. “Universally preferable behaviour” must be a valid concept, for five main reasons.
The first is logical: if I argue against the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely. Saying that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules – must be valid.
MG: Definitions are so important because once we make them then we tend to orient in the world as if they are true, regardless of the evidence. We often wind up placing our definitions of reality ahead of reality itself, and where our preexisting definitions conflict with reality, we sometimes discount reality and cling to our definitions.
Molyneux first defines UPB by arguing that the existence of breathing, eating and sleeping provide empirical proof that UPB exists. Accurate or mistaken, at least this definition does seem to point in the direction of universality. It at least indicates an attempt to apply UPB to all living organisms. It also refers to behavior. Only the ‘preference’ part of it doesn’t stand up to examination. Some Universally Required Behavior does seem to exist for living human organisms.
Now he states “if one ‘should’ do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour. Thus universally preferable behaviour – or moral rules – must be valid.” Now he’s defining UPB as any type of ‘should’, so any type of ‘moral rules’ at all, automatically “create” UPB. This is not a logical statement.
This definition leaves behind any trace of universality and even behavior. It does retain some notion of preference in that ‘should’ definitely implies a preference of some sort. Yet now he’s defining UPB as equivalent to ‘moral rules’, any ‘should’ or ‘ought’ at all. Obviously we have moral rules without universally preferable behaviour, as we’ve had moral rules before he wrote his book. In effect, he has just confessed there is no such thing, logically, as universally preferable behavior.
If we examine his opening statement in this section carefully, we can see his uncertainty looming right beneath the surface. He says “Universally preferable behaviour” must be a valid concept. A valid concept? What does this mean, that he’s allowed to think about it? Why didn’t he open with something like “Universally preferable behaviour can be demonstrated as an empirically verifiable reality.”? I remain unclear about the definition of ‘a valid concept’ and how it’s relevant to human affairs.
I’m actually still open to the possibility that universally preferable behaviour exists. Just show it to me so I can take a look at it and then decide for myself whether or not he’s actually found any. Show me. What difference does it make if we believe it’s possible or not? If he has found some, let’s look at it and see if it stands up to scrutiny. The syllogisms that follow are of little value or relevance.
If he’s identified some universally preferable behaviours that are not biological imperatives, let’s see them. What are they? Present a few examples. If he can’t, and he apparently cannot, he has failed to present objectively verifiable evidence to support his theory. No rhetoric in the world can prove it true as long as he cannot present empirical evidence to support it.
SM: Syllogistically, this is:
1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.
MG: I’ve already demonstrated that this is a logical impossibility. If something is required then it is not a preference. If it’s a preference, then it is not required. Plus, if all organisms do it, then it has nothing to do with specifically human preferences. Neither a fish, a baby bird, a kitten nor a newborn baby girl voluntarily chooses to breathe or eat. These are obviously not preferences which involve voluntary choice. Life offers no choice. Flesh and blood, along with breathing and eating, come together in the form of living organisms.
2. Man is a living organism.
MG: Now we’re talking. I’ll definitely concede this point.
SM: 3. Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.
MG: Molyneux seems to understand that this cannot possibly be correct when he states “As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” What he meant by that was that preference in no way can be axiomatically derived from existence.” And yet now here he is claiming that the mere existence of the biological need to breathe and eat is a preference, deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ in broad daylight! This is grossly self-contradictory. To be very clear:
1. Man is a living organism. That’s the is of ‘existence’.
2. Therefore all living men are alive due to preferred behavior. That’s the ‘preference’ derived from it.
That’s obviously deriving a preference from existence, just as he has repeatedly asserted cannot legitimately be done. Stefan is saying that the fact we exist proves we have practiced preferred behavior. This conclusion directly contradicts his earlier premises and is an example of identifying two different ‘levels of order’ as the same one. One ‘level of order’ is our biological physiology. Another level of order involves our ethical preferences as conscious human beings. These are different realms of discourse, different levels of ‘intellection’, and Molyneux has made the mistake of considering them one and the same. Avoiding this common confusion is fundamental to making accurate evaluations.
SM: Since the scientific method requires empirical corroboration, we must also look to reality to confirm our hypothesis – and here the validity of universally preferable behaviour is fully supported.
Every sane human being believes in moral rules of some kind. There is some disagreement about what constitutes moral rules, but everyone is certain that moral rules are valid – just as many scientists disagree, but all scientists accept the validity of the scientific method itself. One can argue that the Earth is round and not flat – which is analogous to changing the definition of morality – but one cannot argue that the Earth does not exist at all – which is like arguing that there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour.
MG: I can almost agree with this paragraph until its concluding error. I’ll grant that I believe in moral rules of some kind, yet insist that Molyneux has so far not demonstrated any evidence whatsoever that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour. And I’m rooting for him to do it! I’d love to see some examples. Yet even as he claims to come to the part of his argument where he’s going to show us the real evidence in the real world, he just keeps repeating his groundless claims without presenting any evidence that exists outside his own skin-outside his own personal convictions.
He has obviously convinced himself that UPB exists, inside his own skin. He doesn’t seem to appreciate how different the realm of discourse outside his skin can appear to others outside his skin and inside their own.
1. For a scientific theory to be valid, it must be supported by empirical observation.
MG: Yes, exactly! This is the part that’s missing. I cannot empirically observe any evidence of UPB for the simple reason that he has not presented any.
SM: 2. If the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is valid, then mankind should believe in universally preferable behaviour.
MG: What does this have to do with belief? I thought we were looking for objectively verifiable evidence. Proof. There’s none on offer.
SM: 3. All men believe in universally preferable behaviour.
MG: What?? Now he claims to know what all men believe! And they all believe in UPB!! I thought the whole book was supposed to prove that UPB exists. Now all of a sudden we’ve jumped to the conclusion that everyone already ‘believes’ in it? This is not logic. This is dogma.
SM: 4.Therefore empirical evidence exists to support the validity of universally preferable behaviour – and the existence of such evidence opposes the proposition that universally preferable behaviour is not valid.
MG: Rather than wasting his breath trying to convince us that empirical evidence exists, he should simply be showing us the empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is not either valid or not valid. It either exists or it does not exist. This is not a logical syllogism. Plausibility is irrelevant. Where’s the proof? It’s certainly not in evidence.
SM: The fourth argument for the validity of universally preferable behaviour is also empirical. Since human beings have an almost-infinite number of choices to make in life, to say that there are no principles of universally preferable behaviour would be to say that all choices are equal (i.e. subjective). However, all choices are not equal, either logically or through empirical observation.
For instance, if food is available, almost all human beings prefer to eat every day. When cold, almost all human beings seek warmth. Almost all parents choose to feed, shelter and educate their children. There are many examples of common choices among humankind, which indicate that universally preferable behaviour abounds and is part of human nature. As mentioned above, no valid theory of physics can repudiate the simple fact that children can catch fly-balls – in the same way, no valid theory of ethics can reject the endless evidence for the acceptance of UPB.
MG: No one, I don’t believe, is arguing that there’s no such thing as human preferences, and just because these choices may be considered ‘subjective’ (they exist inside our individual skins) doesn’t make them all equal. This is just another way to repeat the same conclusion that UPB is rooted in biological laws. Some children can catch fly-balls, others cannot. The ability is not universal, and many of those who cannot catch them would prefer that they could! Additionally, ‘almost all’ does not imply universality so apparently naming UPB “Usually Preferred Behavior” would have been more accurate, if less dramatic.
The examples Mr. Molyneux offers such as almost all human beings prefer to eat every day, when cold almost all human beings seek warmth, and almost all parents choose to feed, shelter and educate their children, are each rooted in biological mandates or the need to survive in a human culture. Life (in the form of living organisms) does seem to have an insatiable appetite for more life-a tenacious hunger to continue living. This is true of life in apparently any form. Even plants ‘prefer’ the light of the sun. Yet these are the natural instincts, urges and drives of living organisms in general.
There is no evidence of voluntary choice or human preference in these behaviors. Food and shelter are required for physical survival, and education in some form is required to live with others or to ‘make a living’ in some human culture somewhere in the world-a human requirement for social support and cooperation. This is essentially another form of ‘survival behaviour’ that is required by nature or by human culture.
1. Choices are almost infinite.
2. Most human beings make very similar choices.
MG: Without a specific context there is no way to tell what this statement means. Plus, there is no accounting here for the influence of schooling and conditioning that may have skewed typical choices from what they may have been without such conditioning. Still, in my experience people make choices sufficiently dissimilar that living with others can frequently become quite challenging. How is the persistent reality of warfare consistent with the assertion that most human beings make very similar choices? Perhaps the outliers are simply WAY out there? Still, even the members of my own family have made significantly different choices in their lives, and continue doing so. The definition of ‘very similar choices’ is left open to question.
SM: 3. Therefore not all choices can be equal.
MG: I don’t believe this particular point is in contention. If all choices were equal, people would have little reason to spend so much of their time and energy poring over them as they do. This is hardly a controversial point.
SM: 4. Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid.
MG: Why? Not all children can catch fly balls. The theoretical possibility that there might be such a thing as ‘universally preferable choices’ may be valid or logical. This is a far cry from actually pointing some of them out. Certainly they are not generally recognized and followed or there wouldn’t be nearly as much strife and warfare in the world as there is. We would all agree about what must be done and so most of us would presumably do it! This is clearly not what is happening. Ruminating about what “must be so” is a far cry from giving actual examples of it. This latter is called providing objectively verifiable empirical evidence and scientists generally consider this an indispensable component of the ‘scientific method’.
SM: The fifth argument for the validity of universally preferable behaviour is evolutionary.
MG: We’re supposed to be beyond proving the ‘logical validity’ stage now, and into the empirical evidence stage and Stefan keeps reverting back to logical arguments instead of confronting the challenge of presenting empirical evidence. Show us. Breathing and eating are off the table. Even worms and insects do these things. They obviously do not involve human preference. He should show us some practical examples of universally preferable behavior that apply specifically to the preferences of human beings, if he’s actually found any. The rest of Stefan’s proofs just keep repeating the same disproven points over and over.
No matter how logical, how consistent, how silly or how self-contradictory anyone chooses to believe Stefan’s proof of UPB is, it fails to achieve proof according to the scientific method, which requires the presentation of actual evidence.
As quoted in ‘The Nature of Science and the Scientific Method’ by Christine V. McLelland: “Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not a part of science (National Academy of Sciences, 1998).