A Critique of “Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics” by Stefan Molyneux

in philosophy •  11 months ago


Stefan Molyneux, atheist and anarcho-capitalist (yet increasingly nationalist) host of Freedomain Radio, “the most popular philosophy show on the Internet,” wrote a book called Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. As a Christian libertarian amateur philosopher, I will be reviewing and critiquing his book.

The book is available on Molyneux’s website, for free: https://freedomainradio.com/free/#upb


Molyneux’s purpose in writing UPB is twofold:

  1. To prove that moral rules/duties can exist without God (and, he adds, without being rooted in the state). This is his metaethics.

  2. To develop a moral system (mainly to confirm his political philosophy, I think, though it really should be done the other way around). This is his normative ethics.

(Note that Molyneux doesn’t use the terms metaethics and normative ethics himself, though these form the basic divisions of his book.)


Metaethics is the study of the fundamental nature of morality: what is it? Where does it come from? How do we know about it? Etc.

I’ll evaluate how well Molyneux’s theory fares in metaethics by how well it answers three questions:

QUESTION I: What is the source (or ontology) of morality?

A Christian Divine Command Theorist might come at this question in one of three ways: Morality is rooted in necessary aspects of God (i.e., his necessary nature), Morality is rooted in contingent aspects of God (i.e., his will/commands), or Morality is made up of metaphysical objects exterior to God, (i.e., abstract objects) but this is only a plausible option because a necessary agent exists.

Molyneux has none of these options. For now, I like the third option best, but I think all three are plausible, while I think any option I’ve seen so far that is not one of these three is rather implausible.

Molyneux might instead try to root morality in abstract objects (without a necessary agent), human invention, human nature, or something else. Still, I think the best options are taken.

QUESTION II: Why ought we to do or not do certain things?

That is, why are there oughts at all? We must take into account Hume’s is-ought problem: an ought cannot be derived from an is. An ought cannot be derived from a simple fact—that is, unless we take a moral fact as another premise, which defeats the whole purpose.

There are four potential ways of overcoming the problem:
A. Denying there are "ought"s
B. Denying the is-ought problem
C. Affirming fundamental "ought"s
D. Making "ought"s into "ought if"s

Since the very point of the book is to demonstrate that morality can be rationally proven, Molyneux cannot go to (A).

For (C), by “fundamental ‘ought’s” I mean that moral rules are fundamental aspects of reality, and one simply should follow them for no other reason than that one should. In this view (which I adhere to), ‘oughts’ are just as real as ‘is’s.

(D) is just a principle of wisdom. It says: one ought to x if one wants y. For example:

One ought to not smoke if one wants not to get lung cancer. One ought to get a haircut if one wants not to have long hair. One ought to eat if one wants to live.

A secular ethic based on (D) might go something like: one ought to be a nice person if one wants to be liked.

I see three problems with ethics like this. First, it isn’t intuitive since we often don’t think of consequences when we act morally; we only think that we ought to act morally. Second, such a system reduces morality to the same unspecial level as getting a haircut to have short hair. Third, it isn’t universal—there will always be individual instances where the potential consequences don’t apply, and thus there is no reason to be moral. This moral system means that it’s okay to be immoral if you can get away with it, or if you prefer the benefits of immorality to the benefits of morality.

A theistic “ought if” system is more plausible (though I still don’t advocate it) since the judgements of God are universal and terrible—the benefits of immorality never outweigh the benefits of morality (like not going to Hell), and nobody can get away with immorality without facing the consequences.

QUESTION III: How do we know of morality?

Given atheism, what reason do we have of supposing that our minds have access to knowledge of this morality, whatever it is?

Molyneux would apparently have to restrict morality to something in the natural world, or to human convention, to account for this.

He could say evolution put knowledge of morality in us, but that wouldn’t work because natural selection would select for things like rape and polygamy.

He could try to say that we learn morality from social convention, but that wouldn’t work either: we feel that we know morality a priori, we’re able to distinguish between morality and social convention, and groups all over the world with the same morality have different conventions.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the creation of a moral system, like utilitarianism and systems of deontological ethics.

I’ll consider Molyneux’s system possible if:

CHARACTERISTIC 1: It always matches our clear intuitive moral judgements.

Things like, “murder is wrong.”

CHARACTERISTIC 2: It is consistent with his metaethics.

CHARACTERISTIC 3: It is internally consistent.

CHARACTERISTIC 4: It is possible, if following this system, to know what moral actions should be done in a given circumstance.

Consequentialist theories like utilitarianism violate this, since they require that a person know the future in order to make a correct choice. (They must know the consequences of their actions.)

CHARACTERISTIC 5: It results in no absurdities.

In order to consider Molyneux’s normative ethics probable, it helps to meet the following:

CHARACTERISTIC 6: It matches our intuitive moral judgements better than most or every other system.

CHARACTERISTIC 7: It has some external validation.

His 9 “Ground Rules”

He lists 9 "Ground rules," which I'll hold him to:

  1. I fully accept the Humean distinction between “is” and “ought.” Valid moral rules cannot be directly derived from the existence of anything in reality. The fact that human beings in general prefer to live, and must successfully interact with reality in order to do so, cannot be the basis for any valid theory of ethics. Some people clearly do not prefer to live, and steadfastly reject reality, so this definition of ethics remains subjective and conditional. [p. 9]

That eliminates option B from question II.

2.Ethics cannot be objectively defined as “that which is good for man’s survival.” Certain individuals can survive very well by preying on others, so this definition of ethics does not overcome the problem of subjectivism. In biological terms, this would be analogous to describing evolutionary tendencies as “that which is good for life’s survival” – this would make no sense. Human society is an ecosystem of competing interests, just as the rainforest is, and what is “good” for one man so often comes at the expense of another.

He’s not very clear here. He first says “man’s survival,” as if he’s talking about the human species, then acts as if he said “men’s survival,” like individuals. Whatever. I’ll go along with it.

3.I do not believe in any “higher realm” of Ideal Forms. Morality cannot be conceived of as existing in any “other universe,” either material or immaterial. If morality exists in some “other realm,” it cannot then be subjected to a rigorous rational or empirical analysis – and, as Plato himself noted in “The Republic,” society would thus require an elite cadre of Philosopher-Kings to communicate – or, more accurately, enforce – the incomprehensible edicts of this “other realm” upon everyone else. This also does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since that which is inaccessible to reason and evidence is by definition subjective.

I take it Molyneux is no expert on metaphysics. Nobody, I think, believes in Forms anymore, as Plato described them. Forms have been replaced by universals, a similar concept well accepted among medieval philosophers, but also many after. Their greatest defender was probably John Duns Scotus (battling against Ockham, of Ockham’s razor fame), and belief in them was held in recent times notably by Bertrand Russell (and I think Gottlob Frege, who invented formal logic and philosophy of mathematics, but I’m not sure, so don’t quote me; I’m too lazy to look it up).

Molyneux is correct in saying such things couldn’t be empirically analyzed, but wrong about them being subject of rational analysis. In fact, they are the things primarily subject of rational analysis. What do you think math and logic are?We reasonably consider abstract objects (like the numbers 7 and 92, and shapes like triangles) all the time. Molyneux can’t be saying that mathematics uses no reason?

He also gets the definition of “subjective” wrong. “Subjective” means based on human opinion, and has no relation whatsoever to our epistemic access to a thing.

Also, it isn’t another universe at all. It’s the same universe, but a different substance. If Molyneux lived underwater, he’s insist air is a logical impossibility.

4.I do not believe that morality can be defined or determined with reference to “arguments from effect,” or the predicted consequences of ethical propositions. Utilitarianism, or “the greatest good for the greatest number,” does not solve the problem of subjectivism, since the odds of any central planner knowing what is objectively good for everyone else are about the same as any central economic planner knowing how to efficiently allocate resources in the absence of price – effectively zero. Also, that which is considered “the greatest good for the greatest number” changes according to culture, knowledge, time and circumstances, which also fails to overcome the problem of subjectivism. We do not judge the value of scientific experiments according to some Platonic higher realm, or some utilitarian optimisation – they are judged in accordance with the scientific method. I will take the same approach in this book. [pp. 9-10]

Okay. I think he may have been confusing, using the term “central planner” when, I think, he means just any person making a moral decision, but that first argument is still good.

His second argument, about the greatest good being different for different cultures, etc., is a bad one. Obviously, the moral system could and would have an objective definition of “good” built into it.

5.I also refuse to define ethics as a “positive law doctrine.” Although it is generally accepted that legal systems are founded upon systems of ethics, no one could argue that every law within every legal system is a perfect reflection of an ideal morality. Laws cannot directly mirror any objective theory of ethics, since laws are in a continual state of flux, constantly being overturned, abandoned and invented – and legal systems the world over are often in direct opposition to one another, even at the theoretical level. Sharia law is often directly opposed to Anglo-Saxon common-law, and the modern democratic “mob rule” process often seems more akin to a Mafia shootout than a sober implementation of ethical ideals. [p. 10]

Fair enough.

6.I am fully open to the proposition that there is no such thing as ethics at all, and that all systems of “morality” are mere instruments of control, as Nietzsche argued so insistently. In this book, I start from the assumption that there is no such thing as ethics, and build a framework from there.

If he’s fully open to such a possibility, that kind of defeats the whole purpose of the book.

Anyway, it just goes to show that atheism gives a weak moral foundation.

7.I do have great respect for the ethical instincts of mankind. The near-universal social prohibitions on murder, rape, assault and theft are facts that any rational ethicist discards at his peril. Aristotle argued that any ethical theory that can be used to prove that rape is moral must have something wrong with it, to say the least. Thus, after I have developed a framework for validating ethical theories, I run these generally accepted moral premises through that framework, to see whether or not they hold true.

Thus, he basically accepts characteristic 1 of my qualifications.

8.I respect your intelligence enough to refrain from defining words like “reality,” “reason,” “integrity” and so on. We have enough work to do without having to reinvent the wheel.

I just hope he defines when it is necessary.

9.Finally, I believe that any theory – especially one as fundamental as a theory of ethics – does little good if it merely confirms what everybody already knows instinctively. I have not spent years of my life working on a theory of ethics in order to run around proving that “murder is wrong.” In my view, the best theories are those which verify the truths that we all intuitively understand – and then use those principles to reveal new truths that may be completely counterintuitive.

Indeed, I think ethics should help us resolve those more obscure moral questions. Like whether you can cause deaths to save lives. Still, we should remember characteristics 1 & 6.


Next, Molyneux says that we take small truths (like ‘things fall’) and generalize them into big truths (gravity), but sometimes have a “null zone” in the middle, where the big truth doesn’t apply.

However, there exists in our minds an imaginary entity called “God,” and this entity is considered perfectly moral. Unfortunately, this entity continually and grossly violates the edict that “violence is wrong” by drowning the world, consigning souls to hell despite a perfect foreknowledge of their “decisions,” sanctioning rape, murder, theft, assault and other actions that we would condemn as utterly evil in any individual.

Thus we have the little truth (don’t punch) and the great truth (violence is wrong) but in the middle, we have this “null zone” where the complete opposite of both our little truths and our great truths is considered perfectly true. [emphasis his] [p. 14]

Molyneux errs in generalizing the principle "violence is wrong" from "don't punch." Infinite alternate principles could be generalized from "don't punch" instead. The truth is something closer to: "It is immoral for a human to initiate violence unless by right dispensed from God."

As for drowning the world: that’s justice, not immorality. Hell despite foreknowledge: foreknowledge is not predestination. Sanctioning rape: what are you even talking about? As for murder: not all killing is murder. Theft, assault, etc: Nope.

No sane man experiences God directly. In his daily life, he fully accepts that that which cannot be perceived does not exist. No reasonable man flinches every time he takes a step, fearing an invisible wall that might be barring his way. The greatest abstractions of science support his approach. [p. 14]

This principle of Molyneux, "that which cannot be perceived does not exist," is absurd and baseless. He made the same point in Against the Gods?

What is this, Berkeley’s esse est percepi? And Berkeley used that to argue for God.

Why should reality conform to our perceptual abilities? And though a person does not expect an invisible wall in front of them from experience, there is no impossibility about an invisible wall being there.


Alleged Proofs of UPB

It’s hard to understand why Molyneux thinks his metaethics establishes a rational atheist morality.

He appears to take option (D): making oughts into ought-ifs. He says that there are certain things we ought to do if we want to accomplish certain goals. A common ought behaviour could be established if there were certain ifs common to all people—that is, if all people had certain common personal goals.

So he calls his ethics Universally Preferable Behaviour: behaviour that is preferred (in order to accomplish goals) universally (because the goals are universal). The big problem for Molyneux is going to be proving that such universal goals exist, and that they imply a tolerable normative ethics.

He explains:

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.
Ethics as a discipline can be defined as any theory regarding preferable human behaviour that is universal, objective, consistent – and binding.

Naturally, preferential behaviour can only be binding if the goal is desired. If I say that it is preferable for human beings to exercise and eat well, I am not saying that human beings must not sit on the couch and eat potato chips. What I am saying is that if you want to be healthy, you should exercise and eat well.

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.

Similarly, there is no such thing as a universally “better” direction – it all depends upon the preferred destination. If I want to drive to New York from San Francisco, I “ought” to drive east. If I want to drive into the ocean from San Francisco, I “ought” to drive west. Neither “east” nor “west” can be considered universally “better.” [p. 30]

He supplies several “proofs:”

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.

Syllogistically, this is:

1.The proposition is: the concept “universally preferable behaviour” must be valid.

2.Arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour demonstrates universally preferable behaviour.

3.Therefore no argument against the validity of universally preferable behaviour can be valid.

We all know that there are subjective preferences, such as liking ice cream or jazz, which are not considered binding upon other people. On the other hand, there are other preferences, such as rape and murder, which clearly are inflicted on others. There are also preferences for logic, truth and evidence, which are also binding upon others (although they are not usually violently inflicted) insofar as we all accept that an illogical proposition must be false or invalid.
Those preferences which can be considered binding upon others can be termed “universal preferences,” or “moral rules.” [p. 40]

First of all, if I’m not mistaken, this isn’t a syllogism at all. And premise 1 isn’t even a premise.

Premise 2 is mistaken: arguing against the validity of universally preferable behaviour does not mean UPB exists. For one thing, I could decide not to argue against UPB, and thus not be subject to the argument.

Second, it could just mean that some arguing individual is a hypocrite. A contradiction between a statement and action isn’t a logical error, it’s hypocrisy.

Third, I may not be making any moral claim by arguing against UPB. I wouldn’t be arguing that saying falsehood is morally wrong, or that it’s universally preferable to be correct, but only that I personally want truth, at least in this instance.

Fourth and most importantly, if sound the argument would only establish morality, not universal preferences as Molyneux needs.

His next argument:

For instance, all matter is subject to physical rules – and everything that lives is in addition subject to certain requirements, and thus, if it is alive, must have followed universally preferred behaviours. Life, for instance, requires fuel and oxygen. Any living mind, of course, is an organic part of the physical world, and so is subject to physical laws and must have followed universally preferred behaviours – to argue otherwise would require proof that consciousness is not composed of matter, and is not organic – an impossibility, since it has mass, energy, and life. Arguing that consciousness is subject to neither physical rules nor universally preferred behaviours would be like arguing that human beings are immune to gravity, and can flourish without eating.

Thus it is impossible that anyone can logically argue against universally preferable behaviour, since if he is alive to argue, he must have followed universally preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and drinking.

Syllogistically, this is:

  1. All organisms require universally preferred behaviour to live.

2.Man is a living organism.

3.Therefore all living men are alive due to the practice of universally preferred behaviour.

4.Therefore any argument against universally preferable behaviour requires an acceptance and practice of universally preferred behaviour.

5.Therefore no argument against the existence of universally preferable behaviour can be valid. [p. 41]

Here to his credit, Molyneux does actually attempt to establish the existence of some universal preferences (“breathing, eating and drinking”—that which is required to live). Molyneux’s attempt is unsuccessful in my judgement.

I don’t like premise 1. Yes, all organisms require certain kinds of behaviour to live, but can we yet call this behaviour universally preferable? Not unless you begin by assuming that everyone prefers to live, which isn’t the case.

I also think the rest of the premises suffer most of the same problems as the first argument.

His third argument:

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.


1.For a scientific theory to be valid, it must be supported by empirical observation.

2.If the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is valid, then mankind should believe in universally preferable behaviour.

3.All men believe in universally preferable behaviour.

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. [pp. 41-42]

If we all already believe in morality, as he says, why is he trying to prove morality exists? It doesn’t support his specific theory of morality (except by equivocation, if that’s what he intended).

Also, Molyneux should really work on his formal argumentation. The informal argument here is fine (though for generic morality, rather than for his specific ethical theory), but the formal version is really bad. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, and it uses the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

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.


1.Choices are almost infinite.

2.Most human beings make very similar choices.

3.Therefore not all choices can be equal.

4.Therefore universally preferable choices must be valid. [p. 42]

Like in his second argument, Molyneux here actually argues for universal preferences, rather than just general morality. Has he succeeded?

Neither 3 nor 4 follows from previous propositions. We could make a smilar argument in better form as follows:

One problem with Molyneux’s argument is that he seems to be arguing that certain choices are preferable because they are near unanimously prefered, which doesn’t follow.

Another problem is that Molyneux admits that not quite everyone has these same priorities, which means they aren’t universal after all.

I also think that following these common goals would not lead to a system close enough to true morality.

The fifth argument for the validity of universally preferable behaviour is evolutionary.

Since all organic life requires preferential behaviour to survive, we can assume that those organisms which make the most successful choices are the ones most often selected for survival.

Since man is the most successful species, and man’s most distinctive organ is his mind, it must be man’s mind that has aided him the most in making successful choices. The mind itself, then, has been selected as successful by its very ability to make successful choices. Since the human mind only exists as a result of choosing universally preferable behaviour, universally preferable behaviour must be a valid concept.


1.Organisms succeed by acting upon universally preferable behaviour.

2.Man is the most successful organism.

3.Therefore man must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.

4.Man’s mind is his most distinctive organ.

5.Therefore man’s mind must have acted most successfully on the basis of universally preferable behaviour.

6.Therefore universally preferable behaviour must be valid. [pp. 42-43]

Such question begging—UPB is assumed in the very first premise. I need not raise further objections.

The fatal flaw

When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. If I were to argue that breathing is an objective preference, I could be easily countered by the example of those who commit suicide by hanging themselves. If I were to argue that eating is an objective preference, my argument could be countered with examples of hunger strikes and anorexia.

Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer. To use a scientific analogy, to truly understand the universe, people should use the scientific method – this does not mean that they always do so, since clearly billions of people consult ancient fairy tales rather than modern science for “answers.” There is no way to achieve truth about the universe without science, but people are perfectly free to redefine “truth” as “error,” and content themselves with mystical nonsense. [pp. 33-34]

If you caught it, here is a fatal flaw in Molyneux’s reasoning. These universal preferences, universal ends, universal “ifs,” aren’t so at all. They are things that “should” be every person’s preferences, ends, and ifs.

This ruins the whole theory, because it includes a “should” in the reason people “should” do certain things.

This second degree “should,” is it based on another “if?” Is it fundamental? We’re never told, and whichever we choose would seem to ruin Molyneux’s theory.


Molyneux’s metaethics stated that certain behaviour should be followed by everyone, because it is necessary in order to reach certain goals held by everyone.

And then he forgets this completely in his normative ethics.

Instead he bases his normative ethics on proving that logical contradictions result from assigning moral statements to the wrong categories.

You may be thinking, “That sounds highly implausible. And even if successful, it wouldn’t at all follow that we should do or not do an action because of logical contradictions.”

And you’d be right.

But Molyneux didn’t have that same thought.

When we analyze a principle such as the NAP [Non-Aggression Principle], there are really only seven possibilities: three in the negative, three in the positive, and one neutral:

1.The initiation of the use of force is always morally wrong.

2.The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally wrong.

3.The initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong.

4.The initiation of the use of force has no moral content.

5.The initiation of the use of force is never morally right.

6.The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally right.

7.The initiation of the use of force is always morally right.

As we have seen above, however, UPB is an “all or nothing” framework. If an action is universally preferable, then it cannot be limited by individual, geography, time etc. If it is wrong to murder in Algiers, then it is also wrong to murder in Belgium, the United States, at the North Pole and on the moon. If it is wrong to murder yesterday, then it cannot be right to murder tomorrow. If it is wrong for Bob to murder, then it must also be wrong for Doug to murder.
Uniting the NAP with UPB, thus allows us to whittle these seven statements down to three:

1.It is universally preferable to initiate the use of force.

2.It is universally preferable to not initiate the use of force.

3.The initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences.

This is the natural result of applying the requirement of rational consistency to ethical propositions. A rational theory cannot validly propose that opposite results can occur from the same circumstances. A scientific theory cannot argue that one rock must fall down, but another rock must fall up. Einstein did not argue that E=MC2 on a Thursday, but that E=MC3 on a Friday, or on Mars, or during a blue moon. The law of conservation – that matter can be neither created nor destroyed – does not hold true only when you really, really want it to, or if you pay a guy to make it so, or when a black cat crosses your path. The laws of physics are not subject to time, geography, opinion or acts of Congress. [p. 54]

Here is one of the central points in his theory. It’s one which is highly problematic, and which Molyneux violates even in the above quote where he explains it.

The point I’m referring to is that moral rules never make distinctions.

The very notion of such a wide notion in ethics is untenable from the start—at the very least, moral rules must distinguish between kinds of actions. They must distinguish between murder and charity, and between human sacrifice and volunteer work. There are also more subtle distinctions, like between murder and self defence. Molyneux makes such a distinction above when he speaks of initiation of force, rather than all use of force, since he would be forced to become a pacifist if he used his thoery consistently.

The truth is that moral rules don’t make arbitrary distinctions.

The only evidence Molyneux gives for his principle of non-differentiation is comparison with physical laws, even though morality is nothing like a physical law, or even (according to Molyneux) not an actual aspect of reality.

These physical laws do make differentiation. While it’s true that rocks don’t fall up, rocks do fall with different accelerations on different planets.

Furthermore, this is something we really wouldn’t expect to be true given Molyneux’s metaethic. Surely different situations would provide different means for reaching common ends.

Molyneux gives 7 categories into which moral claims might fall.

These seven categories are:

1.It is good (universally preferable and enforceable through violence, such as “don’t murder”).

2.It is aesthetically positive (universally preferable but not enforceable through violence, such as “politeness” and “being on time”).

3.It is personally positive (neither universally preferable nor enforceable, such a predilection for eating ice cream).

4.It is neutral, or has no ethical or aesthetic content, such as running for a bus.

5.It is personally negative (predilection for not eating ice cream).

6.It is aesthetically negative (“rudeness” and “being late”).

7.It is evil (universally proscribed) (“rape”). [p. 64]

Molyneux’s use of “moral,” “good,” “evil,” and “aesthetic” are strange and confusing. My assumption throughout the book was that he was using the term “morality” in a conventional sense, but now he defines morality as only covering actions that involve force. And he uses “aesthetics” (which normally has to do with looks or with art) to cover the parts of what we would call morality that don’t involve force.

To test his system, Molyneux tests whether logical contradiction arises when murder, rape, and some other things are put in the wrong categories.

I’m not going to go through these tests, but know that he doesn’t at all succeed.

On another note, Molyneux includes discussion of avoidability and initiation in his normative ethics. I don’t agree with him, and I think considering these things contradicts his principle of universality, but I applaud these as plausible and original ethical theories. (Initiation was probably borrowed from libertarian political philosophy, but I hadn’t seen it applied to pure ethics.)


Here I assess how well Molyneux did.


Question 1: The source and ontology of morality.
According to UPB, morality is rooted in the common goals of every individual. However, not every individual has these popular goals. Some prefer to starve, some are suicidal, etc. It was also not demonstrated that a moral system close to our intuitive moral knowledge follows from these goals.

Question 2: Why ought we to do certain things?
Molyneux takes an “ought ... if ...” approach at first, but later abandons it when actually trying to determine what is moral. He does not overcome the problems of this approach noted in the Preliminaries.

Question 3: How do we know morality?
Although conceiding that a moral system must match our moral intuitions, Molyneux provides no account of where these moral intuitions came from, or why we should trust them.

Normative Ethics

Molyneux only clearly succeeds in characteristic 4, which was included because of the epistemological problems of consequentialism.

If we were to accept Molyneux’s reasoning, characteristic 1 would be a success and characteristic 6 would remain unknown. Since I think Molyneux’s reasoning in finding logical contradictions in false moral statements terrible, I find him unsuccessful in both.

Characteristics 2, 3, and 7 are easily failed, and I bet 5 would also fail if we applied Molyneux’s reasoning to diverse moral claims.

In conclusion, Universally Preferable Behaviour does not work as a theory of ethics. It has not succeeded in demonstrating that morality can exist in the absence of a deity, or even in providing a competent theory of normative ethics.

**To read my critique of Stefan Molyneux’s other atheist book, Against the Gods?: https://steemit.com/philosophy/@benlabelle/a-critique-of-molyneux-s-against-the-gods

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