Stefan Molyneux's 'Universally Preferable Behaviour': A Critique
Stefan Molyneux's 'Universally Preferable Behaviour': A Critique
'Universally preferable behaviour', or UPB, is the moral theory of the prominent contemporary philosopher Stefan Molyneux. The book which explains it is available for free here on Mr. Molyneux's website: Freedomain Radio – Free Books It sets out to provide an objective, rational foundation for many of our common moral valuations, as well as clarifying them and providing guidance regarding more controversial moral and political issues. In this essay, I attempt to evaluate some of its chief arguments. I shall pass over the introduction, which is mainly about explaining the need for such a foundational moral theory based upon objective reality, which is all quite sound and I do not disagree with, and head straight for the core of the 'proof' for the new theory herein revealed.
Stefan's first argument for UPB is that 'if there is no such thing as UPB, then one should oppose anyone who claims that there is such a thing as UPB, However, if one “should” do something, then one has just created universally preferable behaviour.'. He also says 'if I argue against the proposition that UPB is valid, I have already shown my preference for truth over falsehood- as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely'. I find this argument highly flawed. Though the latter excerpt is in fact correct, the idea that these preferences are 'universal' is wholly undemonstrated and in fact highly unlikely. Actually, there are many circumstances where one should not argue with one who believes in UPB, or many other doctrines that one believes to be false. If someone has no innate moral compunction and a spiteful, malicious disposition, yet believe that they will go to Hell if they do harm to others, then only a naïve fool would seek to relieve them of this belief. In other words, what Stefan has demonstrated is only that his imagined interlocutor has a preference to point out the truth in this one circumstance, not that everyone 'should' do so 'universally', or that the interlocutor necessarily believes that everyone should do so universally.
Stefan's second argument for UPB is that 'everything that lives is subject to certain requirements, and thus, if it is alive, must have followed universally preferred behaviours.' , such as 'breathing, eating and drinking'. This assertion ostensibly has some truth to it, but unfortunately it runs counter to some of Mr. Molyneux's other statements and the intentions of his argument. Firstly, Mr. Molyneux says UPB is not what people 'do' universally prefer, but what they 'should' universally prefer. (pp. 20). Thus the fact that all life forms do prefer certain conditions seems of no obvious relevance to his argument. Secondly, as Mr. Molyneux also says elsewhere in the book, rightly in my opinion, the conditions of life are not always preferred, as the act of suicide demonstrates. The fact that the imaginary interlocutor would have to be alive in order to counter Mr. Molyneux's argument, once again, would not seem to make his preferences 'universal'.
Stefan's third argument is since most people believe in UPB, tacitly at least (e.g. by the commonality of their preferences), it is true. This is a false argument, and once again, runs directly counter to what Mr. Molyneux says elsewhere about opinion not altering reality, (in relation to democracy). Secondly, it could be denied that preferences are universal, and not merely very common – especially moral preferences. His forth argument is along the same lines, pointing to the fact that while 'choices are infinite', 'human beings make very similar choices'; therefore 'not all choices can be equal'; 'to say that there are no principles of universally preferable behaviour would be to say that all choices are equal'. This is also quite false: it could simply be that preferences and their justifications are usually quite general but still relative to individual factors rather than being 'universal' to all humankind. It also repeats the same fallacy as the previous argument, in attempting to derive an 'ought' simply from the 'is' of people's actual preferences, assuming them to be based on 'universal' moral values, rather than merely prejudice or some other form of arbitrariness.
Stefan's fifth and final argument is similar to his second – he basically says that all life forms, and man in particular as the most successful one, must have evolved by acting on UPB. Forgive me if my critique is beginning to sound a little monotonous, but I can only say that this again repeats the fallacy of trying to derive an 'ought' when his argument only indicates the 'is' of shared human preferences, i.e. not as that there is a universal standard of what human beings shouldprefer, but simply that man has (purportedly universal) preferences. In addition, it begs the question whether all human beings 'succeeded' through the same morally relevant preferences: for instance, maybe some succeeded by hard work, and others succeeded by exploiting the hard work of others via fraud, such as religion?
Summing up this section, I would have to say that Mr. Molyneux has been far from convincing in his demonstration of the existence of UPB. However, one of the real Achilles' heels of his theory, at least in the view of this reader, is introduced in a subsequent section. This is in his bold and uncompromising insistence on its 'universal' aspect, whereby, according to Mr. Molyneux, the moral rules governing the relations of human beings are as uniform as gravity upon falling rocks. But, equally, wouldn't a geologist be laughed at for insisting that all 'rocks', from chalk to diamond, had exactly the same propensity and pace of erosion? While I would agree that the theory should be stated in such terms that moral guidelines exist for all human beings, the notion that there are no distinctions among human beings that might have a bearing upon the morality or rationality of their actions seems to me an evident absurdity, which is confirmed elsewhere by Mr. Molyneux's own statements that someone with an IQ of 65, or a small child, cannot be held responsible for their actions to the same degree as a cultivated and intelligent adult. As we shall see, Mr. Molyneux's insistence on this point, together with what he calls 'logical consistency' are the errors which turn out, unfortunately, to be the faulty notions with which he builds much of his structure.
To get an understanding of how Stefan intends his theory, it is necessary to turn to the way he applies it to: rape, murder, theft, etc. His first strategy is a reductio ad absurdum, whereby he assumes that rape is morally good. He claims that this is illogical, since a rape can only occur if the victim resists, and that thus 'attacking virtue by definition enables virtue', and this is an 'insurmountable paradox'. But is it? By the same logic, one could say that fighting evil in general cannot be virtuous since it is only enabled by the evil which one is fighting. So far from being an 'insurmountable paradox', I would say this is par for the course when it comes to moral behaviour, which is always 'enabled' by its opposite or the threat thereof. Mr. Molyneux's next argument is almost equally puzzling. He says 'if only one of (the two men in a room) can be good... we have a logical contradiction that cannot be solved', referring us to the aforementioned example that 'a valid theory cannot predict that one rock will fall up, while another rock will fall down'. But, why should both men even have the capacity to be good at the same time, let alone actually be good at the same time? What is there in the notion of morality, or universal preference, that means it necessarily cannot be mutually exclusive, competitive or relative? We wouldn't say they could both excel equally at winning a chess match with each other at the same time, so why should they both be able to necessarily excel at morality? Again, by the same logic, it cannot be virtuous for one of two men in a room to give CPR to a dying child, because then the other one couldn't do it. It would thus be equally or more moral to simply let the child suffocate to death. Mr. Molyneux's third argument is perhaps the most eye-brow raising of the lot, wherein he says that 'because he will be physically unable to get an erection.... his ability to perform the “good action” becomes impossible'. Surely this could just be obviated by describing the principle as 'he who has raped is good', rather than 'he who is raping is good'. This 'logical problem' would also obviously apply to any moral code that defined actions themselves as solely constitutive of virtue, rather then also having done them. So: a fat man giving food to a starving person could also not be defined as remotely virtuous, because at some point he will not be starving, (or, there will be an absence of starving people to feed), and he won't be able to feed them, and hence he is 'unable to be good'. A much better and much simpler argument would seem to be that it is not universally preferable because not everyone wants to do it - and even fewer victims 'prefer' it to happen to them, nor 'should' they as it will not be conducive to their happiness (the true 'universal preference', in my opinion) or anyone else's. Why Stefan doesn't mention this, and instead sticks to his strictly 'logical' approach all but defies explanation.
Moving onto Stefan's discussion of rape as a possible APA (aesthetically positive actions),
according to his definition of being universally preferable but not enforceable through violence, it might seem he is correct in saying that rape cannot be an APA, as it is enforced through violence. However, even here, there is a conflation regarding who the enforcement is enacted on. In the case of rape, the enforcement is on the victim, whereas in the case of UPB, presumably the enforcement is upon the potential perpetrator – therefore, one cannot necessarily say the rape is not an APA. Furthermore, by 'enforceable', Mr. Molyneux means 'ought to be enforced', which is an entirely different issue from whether or not force actually is in fact used. Again, the argument that it is simply not in any way preferable for many people would have seemed more sensible. Here Mr. Molyneux also gives 'being on time' as an example of a genuine APA, which is a 'universally preferable' rule that can be 'totally avoided'. However, if I have a business meeting, and my boss turns up an hour late with no prior warning that he is a tardy individual, could that really have been avoided ? If one knows someone has a habit of turning up late, then one can avoid them – although if they were your boss if would probably mean getting a new job - but the first time it happens ? If 'avoid-ability' was such a strong determinate of whether something is morally imperative or merely aesthetically preferable, as Mr. Molyneux says it is, then in fact it would seem that 'being late without warning' was no better than rape. Mr. Molyneux then asks whether 'liking jazz' or 'liking classical music' can be a APA, saying that if so its maxim would be 'subjective preferences are universally preferable.' However, surely there could be other, better justifications than the fact that it is merely a' subjective preference', which is really assuming what one sets out to prove. For instance, could one not make the Nietzschean-esque argument that 'liking classical music' is inherently better for one, and a sign of a more developed sensibility, than liking jazz or pop? In other words, the correct formulation is not “subjective preferences are universally preferable', but 'healthy or refined preferences are universally preferable'. If that is not 'universal' enough for Mr. Molyneux, I can only stress again that the concern for 'universality' is a basically arbitrary bugbear that distorts the whole theory and is far from 'logical', just as it is not 'logical' to say that all rocks have the same erosive properties. 'Universality', it seems to me, is a relative and imprecise definition – if one was being strict about it, one wouldn't be able to say anything at all, except perhaps something like 'Existence exists'. The aim of philosophy, and science in general, is chiefly not to make fewer distinctions, but more relevant distinctions.
Thus again, in the discussion as to whether rape is a 'personally positive' preference, Stefan opines that that maxim would be 'personal preferences must be violently inflicted upon other people', and that one could not propose 'personal preferences may be violently inflicted upon other people' since that is not universal enough. But why? As far as I can see, all Mr. Molyneux has given us in support of his preference for 'universality' is the analogy with all rocks falling down due to gravity, which is hardly a water-tight argument, as I have explained. And who is to say that 'may be violently inflicted' is not universal enough? Mr. Molyneux says that if they are not completely absolute and universal, they 'fall into APA territory, and so cannot be inflicted on others.' However, are not APAs also supposed to be a type of 'universal (italics added) preferences' ? Again, by Stefan's logic, what would be the place for physical combat sports like wrestling and boxing? If 'personal preferences may be violently inflicted upon others' is not valid, doesn't that mean such sports are not in the personal preferences category, but either in the morally good or evil? That would seem rather bizarre. (perhaps this issue results partly from the aforesaid conflation of the actions being enforceable on the actor/perpetrator as a result of their behaviour, which admittedly, is one mark of a 'moral' imperative, and on the acted-upon/victim, as part of the initial behaviour itself, which admittedly is generally immoral and violates the NAP, but is an entirely different issue.) In his 'Seven Categories', has not Mr. Molyneux simply built 'non-violence' into his definition of aesthetically positive and personally positive, assuming the violence can only ever be justified in response to immoral behaviour, without justifying this rationally? In other words, has he not tied violence, under the guise and excuse of scientific universality, to enforcement of the 'good' and UPB? He then eliminates rape from 'the good' (illogically, I have argued), and then from APA and personal preference on the basis of his fundamentally arbitrary definitions, which assume what he should be attempting to prove. Going back to his discussion of the NAP where perhaps he supposes to have proved this, we see here his only argument is that a theory must be universal, or, to quote, 'rocks fall down'. This seems to be a very weak argument. It is exactly like ignoring penguins and ostriches ans insisting 'All birds can fly' is more correct and 'scientific' than 'Some birds can fly' because of its greater universality. One cannot simply assumethere are no morally relevant distinctions to be made between different instances of initiating force. And afterall, if the more universal a theory is the better, how is one even justified in bringing in the word 'initiation'? Wouldn't it be more universal, and thus, according Mr. Molyneux, more 'rationally consistent', simply to say 'it is universally preferable not to use force at all'? As I said, this insistence on universality is fundamentally arbitrary and results in assuming what needs to be proved.
Stefan argues that rape cannot be a personally negative action (PNA) since in that case the victim couldn't justify using force to resist, whereas the rapist would supposedly be justified in using force to carry out the assault. It would seem that this argument is not water-tight either, firstly because resisting attack and initiating are not strictly identical, especially in all circumstances, so there is no reason in theory to subsume them under the same maxim, regardless of what Mr. Molyneux claims about 'universality', and, secondly, the notion that PNAs can never be enforced by violence is, as has already been argued, simply assumed rather than proven.
Stefan argues that rape cannot be an aesthetically negative action (ANA) because they cannot be enforced by violence. Again there is a conflation between 'enforced' on the victim and ought to be enforced on the perpetrator. He also says that 'being late' would be an ANA because it is avoidable, but, as I have argued, it isn't always. It would seem more a question of the intimacy and invasiveness of the crime, together with the traumatic emotions it tends to provoke, rather than its 'avoidability', that is at issue.
Stefan argues that 'rape' fit the criteria of evil, because it involves the initiation of the use of force, it isn't logically contradictory to categorize it thus, its avoidable, and it doesn't fit into any of the other categories. He argues here that if the maxim was 'it is moral to take one's pleasure, regardless of the displeasure of others', that would be logically inconsistent because, in that case, it would be moral to enforce two contradictory behaviours, such as rape and the resistance to rape. I grant that this would indeed be contradictory based on Mr. Molyneux's definition of 'moral' behaviour. However, I have argued that Mr. Molyneux has failed to prove rape could not fall into one of the previous categories. Furthermore, he has still nowhere proven that there is such a thing as moral behaviour or UPB that ought to be enforced. Nor has he proven that the initiation of force is always evil to any mildly sceptical enquirer, - he has basically just assumed it - as I have already explained. Actually, it seems that 'universally preferable behaviour' is a highly misleading term, because Mr. Molyneux means by it not what is really universally preferable, but what people 'ought' to prefer, (despite his arguments for it only supporting the former, as I have already shown). This 'ought' is totally abstracted from any context that might give it meaning, and is not rationally binding except in Mr. Molyneux's own twisted logical realms. In truth, universal humanity is not an organic whole - it has no reason of its own - only the reason of its individual members. Thus, if one is going to find universal values, real 'universally preferable behaviour', a universal 'ought' or Good that holds true for all mankind, one will have to do it by examining each individual's own Good, and finding what they all have in common. That universal goal common to all mankind, as Aristotle argued, is happiness or eudaimonia. However, what constitutes happiness for one human being may mean dire misery for another. Thus, there are never going to be any logical manoeuvrers one can do, no matter how acrobatic, that can prove there are rationally binding rules for human interaction whereby each subjugate one's own happiness, in whatever degree, to the happiness of others. Thus, while the proposition 'it is moral (rational) to take one's own pleasure, regardless of the displeasure of others', is impossible to enforce multi-laterally, as Mr. Molyneux pointed out, but the problem is, Mr. Molyneux has not proven that it is rational to enforce (or how it would be done) or follow any moral rule, any rule that abstracts from the primacy of one's own personal experience in view of a consideration of how it impacts upon all human beings, particularly if one can enforce one's own personal pleasure. Despite all his pretensions to scientific rationality, Mr. Molyneux's adoption of a 'God's-eye' perspective in an attempt to define rationally binding preferences which exclude the initiation of violence abstracts from the most central feature and presupposition of reality itself, the Ego or individual consciousness. In my opinion, without facing this central thorn head on, one is condemned to mere sophistic trickery and willful delusion, with little or no hope for alleviating its repugnant consequences in our own lives or those of our species as a whole. It is not when we trick ourselves and each other into believing in illusory moral/legal absolutes, but when we learn to see both the whole in ourselves, and ourselves in the whole, that true charity begins. This takes a different kind of moral discipline, based not in abstract logical procedures but the kind of empathetic expansiveness of spirit that Mr. Molyneux at times can be so adept at. I personally wish there was less of the 'logician' and more of that side of his character in this particular book.
As I see it, there remains an even more central flaw in Mr. Molyneux's theory. That is, his very definition of 'the good' is circular. He defines the morally good, the 'ought; by 'universally preferable and enforceable through violence'; but he also defines 'universally preferable' by 'that which universally ought to be preferred', as well as defining 'enforceable' by 'what ought to be enforced'. Thus, all he is doing here is making the questionable and undemonstrated assertion that moral rules must be universal to all human beings, but nowhere does he define what he means by 'ought', nor does he demonstrate it to be rationally binding, or even rationally significant. In fact, it seems the way he is using it is not in terms of the rational 'ought', as in, 'If I want X, I ought to do such and such in order to obtain it', but merely as a form of sanctimonious moral exhortation. Unless Mr. Molyneux can clearly express what he means by this 'ought' in a way that identifies some objective facts, it must be assumed that he is simply making the category error of conflating facts and injunctions abstracted from the individual souls which either make those injunctions or give them some validity. In other words, it might sound good to be able to 'prove' that one 'ought not to rape, murder, steal, etc' in the abstract, and be a little chastening to some who are easily impressed by such things, but since the 'ought' here is not defined in terms of anything actually existing in reality, or anything else that seems to warrant any rational consideration whatever, it appears to be nothing more than Mr. Molyneux's own somewhat imposing personal injunction passed off as existing 'in reality' itself, when the only 'injunctions' that reality gives, at least that I'm aware of, are our own impulses, which Mr. Molyneux should take as his premise in the demonstration, but instead ignores in favour of proving 'logical contradictions' (which turn out not to be contradictions at all) in the acts under question. In the section on rape, Mr. Molyneux argued that rape couldn't be morally neutral because it was enforced by violence; however, Mr. Molyneux merely assumed that force was objectively immoral if not used to enforce 'the good'. Admittedly, if we grant him this one assumption, he may be able to hoodwink us into quite a lot, but my wager is that he will never be able to prove that anything is objectively immoral or moral, in a rationally binding and non-trivial sense (as well as its rationally binding sense, 'immoral' and other value-laden words also have a factual sense of 'that which is generally considered immoral' – but that does not give rational legitimacy to the general view, it merely multiples and complicates the definitions of the words), except that which is detrimental or conducive to our own happiness – since that is the true rational basis or refutation of our preferences. If Mr. Molyneux believes that reality gives other kinds of injunctions of its own, surely he should explain how it does so and what their nature is before he attempts to define what they order us to do and not do, in the same way that if we were wise we would want to know what a legal code is and how or whether it is enforced before we moved onto learning specific laws that we were expected to obey and how they came into operation.
If one turns to Mr. Molyneux's discussion of murder, we see that his arguments are mostly analogous to the case of rape and so dubious for the same reasons. One point that I could still make, is that in his discussion of whether an opposite moral rule could apply to a man who was asleep, i.e. 'I can shoot a man in his sleep anytime I want.' During this discussion, he says this is absurd because 'a man's nature does not fundamentally alter when he naps'. I would just like to say here that there are, however, cases when certain states of being may indeed call for opposite moral rules (although 'sleeping' hardly seems to be one of them). For instance, if I have murdered someone else, the arguably 'murdering' or executing me could be justified, even though my 'nature', at least biologically speaking, is still largely the same. In this case, my status is not really 'naturally' different, but artificially so – i.e. as a result of human (my own) actions. Another example would be if my tribe is at war with another tribe, I may be able to justify putting to death my enemies although the difference is not based on nature but on society. In other words, reversing moral rules, at least in some circumstances, is not really the obvious 'logical impossibility' that Mr. Molyneux maintains, but a procedure that is probably necessary to most, if not all, moral theories.
Let us now discuss Mr. Molyneux's approach to the topic of theft, which is important to understand as from his arguments here he goes on to make very bold assertions regarding the immoral nature of government taxation, that make up a large part of his practical philosophy. He begins by trying to demonstrate that we are own our own bodies and, in general, are responsible for their effects. He says that 'the very act of controlling my body to produce speech demands the acceptance of my ability to control my speech – an implicit affirmation of my ownership over my own body'. But as he points out himself in the next paragraph, this control may be by a 'demon' or some other agent. In other words, one might say the agent which controls the body, may not be the same one who experiences pleasure and pain within it and so bears the brunt of the 'justice' inflicted upon it. Logically, one has need to enforce justice on the demon, not on the person the demon is possessing; how that can be achieved seems highly uncertain, though. He goes on to say that 'rejecting ownership of the body is to reject all morality, which as we have seen above, is utterly impossible', then using the same argument as his very first one for UPB, i.e. that 'to reject morality is to say that it is universally preferable to believe that there is no such thing as universal preferences'. Firstly, one should point out here that Mr. Molyneux has already seemed to admit in the previous paragraph that a person can be insane, or theoretically demonically possessed, in which case they cannot be held morally responsible. Rather than saying that this leads to the absurdity, if generalized, that there is no morality, to be consistent he should simply accept the fact that if one allows of it in specific cases there is no ostensible reason why it cannot be generalized, and thus ownership of the body and morality remain moot. If he still wanted to affirm ownership of the body and morality, he would have to do it on an empirical rather than a logical basis, inferring their responsibility not from their speech acts, which may or may not be controlled by demons, but from his own inner experience of control of his own body and extrapolation to others. Going back to the second stage of his argument here, as I have already argued, one is not necessarily asserting 'that it is universally preferable to believe that there is no such thing as universal preferences', but merely that oneself has this preference.
Mr. Molyneux argues that unless there is a right to exclusive self-ownership of one's body and ownership of the effects one's body, in effect other people have a right to our organs. Although this idea is repugnant to most of us, it is neither the only way to interpret the negation such a right (it could be that other people have a lesser right to our organs, for instance in harvesting them after we die) , nor in itself necessarily absurd. The next section is where Mr. Molyneux brings in his view that mentally deficient people cannot be considered equally responsible to the more able, which, as I have already argued, seems to conflict with his seemingly dubious insistence on universality. Next he argues that saying men have less than 100% property rights involves an infinite regress, 'wherein everybody ends up with infinitely small ownership rights over pretty much everything'. Clearly, saying 'one owns 50% of what they own', does involve such a regress. But, that just seems like sophistry to me, since one can logically maintain that 'one only owns 50% the body one has direct use of', or 'one only owns 50% of the speech utterances that come out of “one”s mouth', or 'one only owns 50% of “one”'s monetary takings in the last fiscal year'. In fact, given the fact that all these things, particularly the latter two, are partly caused by social factors, i.e. the actions of 'others' - not merely our own volition - there is prima face a rather good reason for saying such things. Which is not to say that Mr. Molyneux doesn't have some strong practical arguments against such policies, but as far as I can see, you won't find them in this book. Another point I would like to make is, that if we are 100% responsible for and possess total ownership of the effects of our bodies, that would seem to imply that children are the property of their parents, which needless to say, seems a rather repugnant and practically indefensible view. In the next sections, Mr. Molyneux repeats some similar arguments as for rape, saying in this case that theft 'both affirms and denies the existence of property rights', since the thief necessarily wants to hold onto what he has stolen. This argument seems sound enough, although it appears the 'thief' may have different notions of what constitutes property than Mr. Molyneux, which may in his own mind, and even according to UPB, legitimate his own 'reallocation' (for instance, I cannot see a logical contradiction in the Marxism dictum 'to each according to his need, from each according to his capacity').
We will briefly look at Mr. Molyneux's argument against the initiation of violence, and in favour of self-defence. Once again he says that if the initiation of violence is moral, it requires 'that he resist virtue to enable virtue, which is self-contradictory'. As we have already seen, this is far from a water tight argument. When Mr. Molyneux does try to prove the right of self-defence, his first and second arguments are by analogies, saying it would be 'akin to a medical theory that said that illness is bad, but that it is evil to attempt to prevent or cure it' – since this is merely an analogy, it lacks any rigorous binding force, but, if one does try to take it seriously, one may well opine that often the best way to 'treat' an illness is not to engage in any dramatic procedures, any dramatic 'self-defence' that might make the ailment worse, but merely to carry on in a good-natured and stoical way. Next Mr. Molyneux argues that if one tries to place self-defence in any category other than moral or immoral, it 'is to say that violence cannot be inflicted on others – but the very nature of violence is that it is inflicted on others'. This seems like a confusion between the violence of justice enforcement and the violence of the act itself, which for clear understanding are important to differentiate. Just because the act itself is violent, that doesn't automatically mean that violence is justified in resisting it, which seems to be what Mr. Molyneux is saying by lumping it in his 'immoral' category: as moral philosophers, that is something that we have to try to demonstrate, not assume. Anyhow, as far as I can see, Mr. Molyneux has nowhere given any good reasons to think that all violence is either moral or immoral, he has merely built it into his definitions. I think this all relates to the above where it was insufficiently demonstrated that rape, or other forms of violence, could not fall into 'personally positive' or 'personally negative' categories of behaviour. Mr. Molyneux's assertion that 'self-defence cannot be required behaviour, since required behaviour can be enforced through violence, which would mean that anyone failing to violently defend himself could be legitimately aggressed against. However, someone failing to defend himself is already being aggressed against, and so we end up in a circular situation where everyone can legitimately act violently against a person who is not defending himself, which is not only illogical, but morally abhorrent.' doesn't seem strictly correct, because it is quite possible for the powers that be to enforce such required behaviour, for instance, a child who is bullied at school may be punished further by his parents for not standing up for himself (although obviously I am not recommending this, but it is not strictly 'illogical').
One of the weirdest sections in the book is entitled 'Don't eat fish'. Here Mr. Molyneux argues that 'fish' is too specific a word to be part of a moral rule, rather 'eating is either moral, immoral, or morally neutral.' Suffice to say, when your moral theory entails that devouring whole living human beings is morally indifferentiable from munching on a carrot, it may be a good time to pause and reflect if you might have gone awry somewhere...
In the next section, on 'Animal Rights', Mr. Molyneux makes some interesting assertions but doesn't really come to any conclusions. When he says that 'No human being can exist without killing other organisms such as viruses, plants or perhaps animals. Thus “Human life” is defined as “evil.” But if human life is defined as evil, then it cannot be evil, since avoidance becomes impossible.', this is a fallacious argument, because human life itself is avoidable - for instance by not eating. Again, when he says the proposition 'it is evil to kill people' doesn't make sharks evil, because they can't avoid it, this is faulty logic. Presumably, what he means to say here is that it is NOT always evil to kill people, just as he has just argued that it is not always evil to kill fish, for the reason that some non-human organisms simply can't avoid it. He goes on to opine that rational consciousness is a necessary distinction to a moral theory, which I would agree with, but I would argue that there are probably quite a lot of other relevant distinctions which Mr. Molyneux overlooks for the misguided pursuit of 'universality', which, as we have just seen in his 'Don't eat fish' section, leads to him coming sadly acropper in some areas.
The next section of the book concerns the practical implications of the theory, where we can clearly see the nature of Mr. Molyneux's own reformist agenda, as present in his other books such as 'Practical Anarchy' and 'Everyday Anarchy'. Here he argues, in effect, that soldiers cannot legitimately kill, because all that differentiates them from civilians in a costume. This is, in my opinion, a rather rhetorical and facetious, a 'straw-man' argument, since few people have seriously argued such a thing. While perhaps Mr. Molyneux has come cause to be contemptuous of such official stamps of approval, (in view of the way many armies have historically conducted themselves) it would be sophistical to deny that the 'costume' is merely part of the paraphernalia that tends to come with job, which gains any legitimacy it may have from the selection process and military policy, ultimately derivable from the consent and approval of some high ranking sectors, if not most or even all sectors, of the nation - often in view of that nation's self-defence, which Mr. Molyneux has already argued is a legitimate concern. Furthermore, even soldiers – whatever costume they are wearing - are rarely allowed to kill indiscriminately, away from the field of combat. But, the point here I would like to make is that there are other factors which legitimate or incriminate particular actions than mere biological factors - in this case, it would be something like 'the consent of the governed', just as consent of a woman is relevant to whether or not sexual activity is classed as love-making or rape.
Next Mr. Molyneux presents his view that the government uses violence to exact obedience, in the form of taxation, etc. This is an important insight, but he stretches it a bit far by arguing there is no distinction to be made between this kind of violence and more vigilante attacks, and by saying that there is 'no social contract' at all. As Socrates argued in Plato's Crito, there does exist some kind of tacit contract between the individual and society if he has in some sense chosen to live there - just as Mr. Molyneux believes there is a tacit contract of parents to care for their children, since they have chosen to have them. While the contract may not be as strong as in this latter case, (given the relative difficulty in today's society of living anywhere else but the society one happens to be born a citizen of), and I think Mr. Molyneux is hitting at a very important point in view of his total philosophy, which in my opinion presents a possibly far better way of doing things ( I urge everyone to read 'Practical Anarchy' and 'Everyday Anarchy' before beginning to form an opinion of this matter), I might argue that is is still a bit wrong to over-look the aspects of consent which are involved in such things as armies and taxation, relative to brute vigilante activity, and reduce it to purely a kind of 'alternate universe' thinking where up becomes down, and down becomes up – although I must admit there is an element of that in it which people would do well to take on board (and of course, the fact that citizens have a duty to obey the laws of society doesn't relieve the law-givers of the duty to make just laws which don't stifle the economy or overly restrict human freedom). The other point that I would like to make, is that since Mr. Molyneux has failed, (or so it seems to me), in arguing for the strictly immoral nature of all murder and theft, even if armies and taxation are examples of these his argument is not totally conclusive that these are necessarily immoral or negative. The reason why a policeman can only do his job with a 'uniform' on is clearly so that other people are aware the source of his (however alleged, in Mr. Molyneux's view) authority, and do not feel that they can call on the defence of the (however alleged) authorities in resisting it, which, (even if you don't think this authority is ultimately valid), would most likely breed all kinds of mayhem and unnecessary devastation.
Mr. Molyneux makes a good argument about the irrationality of signing over one's rights to others, i.e., that if one is not competent to make decisions oneself, one is doubtless even less competent to sign over one's entire fate to supposed 'experts'. However this may be, that doesn't seem to address whether or not it is rational to arrogate the right to make decisions about other people's lives to oneself. If one really is able to make better decisions for others than they are, that may well be a good reason, based upon benevolence, to arrogate such decisions. However, suffice to say, there are good arguments against this as a general social policy, at least in practice, one of which is the one Mr. Molyneux makes here, and others which are dealt with rather well in Mr. Molyneux's other books. The next section makes a number of good arguments about the problematic nature of centralized monopoly of violence (i.e. 'government'), although for more detail I recommend the aforementioned two books on anarchy. I must admit, I'm not sure that Mr. Molyneux has totally dispatched the notion that a break-down in such a centralized 'authority' may result in civil war, at least if the transition wasn't very wisely handled, but he has certainly made an encouraging and powerful contribution to clarifying this topic. Next Mr. Molyneux makes some interesting points about religion, and more points about government. But we will move onto his assertions regarding the 'majority', which he basically asserts, on my interpretation, is an artificial category that cannot have attributes lacking in its individual members. While I think what he says has some validity, and I would by no means rush to enshrine the holy sanction of any majority decision in society or among other groups, I would still tend to take issue with it on the basis that, just as a group of atoms can make up something larger than its parts (for instance, a biological cell), so a majority is not just the sum of its individual members but has a significance and power of its own, by virtue of its collective force. In social terms, I am imaging this means, for instance, that the majority has a basic power to inflict its will on the rest of society, which if they fail to submit to the society will tend to disintegrate into civil war. Thus it is useful to enshrine majority rule as a value to prevent anarchy (in a more negative sense). Another example would be the hand, which is commonly composed of five fingers. For this hand to be effective, it is necessary for all 5 fingers to work together, even if I am only 51% certain of the goal which I am operating towards. Thus a kind of 'majority rule' ideally operates in that realm, too. Having said this, I think there are other, often much more important values than majority rule which also need to be very much taken into consideration.
Mr. Molyneux closes the book with some more sections of a society run according to UPB, which would be free of the harmful myths of religion and the State. These are rousing and still valid in their way, but unfortunately the UPB framework that was supposed to buttress them here seems faulty. To my mind, there is also somewhat of a lack of connections drawn between the UPB framework, even if it was valid, and the better society they are intended to create. I just cannot see how the supposed 'logical' contradictions in a Statist regime necessarily lead to its failure, which seems to be far more a result the other considerations – for instance the inherent problem with public property, for which no-one has any direct incentive to keep in good condition, as explained in 'Practical Anarchy' – than the 'violations' of UPB argued for here. While he does make some excellent general points, (for instance the way in which a society founded on a false, Statist morality will draw morality itself into discredit), I think Mr. Molyneux could conceivably have done a better job of joining the dots for us, although, given the problems with the alleged proofs in the book there is probably not that much point until a wholesale re-think of the theory has been achieved. My own view is that most of the proposals for society, such as a reduced State, are far better argued for on a practical basis as Stefan has done in his other books. As far as morality goes, I would sooner base it on a combination of natural selfishness, agnosticism or tentative faith as regards religion and good conscience, i.e. on the desire and the nihilism-vanquishing reflection that all individuals rationally and objectively prefer to attain happiness, and how for all we know there may yet be some kind of mysterious, unseen Oneness to humanity or the Universe, some karmic law and divine plan which hasn't yet been discovered, the mere possibility of which makes in advisable, on a Pascalian like wager, to behave beneficently towards others for the sake of one's own soul in this life and the next. Along with that, one should of course add and expatiate upon that fact that one the best ways to attain happiness, even in this life, in any functioning society is to contribute positively towards the lives of others with as much empathy and kindness as possible,to contribute magnanimously to society, which is the very 'ship of fools', the precious life-raft that we are all sailing on - which is one the most inspiring and motivating aims in life, that, for socio biological reasons if nothing else, fills one with a momentous pathos, impetus and energy, of which Stefan Molyneux's heroic project to save the dying Western world through the battle of ideas is undoubtedly a remarkable example and model for our times.
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