A Critique Of Molyneuvian Ethics (‘universally preferable behavior’)



Universally Preferable Behaviour — A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007:

“As Hume famously pointed out, it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ [..] 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.”


Agreed. Value is subjective.

“‘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.”


Either Molyneux is aiming to discuss the science of economics (starting with subjective values and then discovering how to arrive at them) or he just contradicted himself.

“[..] Thus in ethics, just as in science, mathematics, engineering and all other disciplines that compare theories to reality, valid theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable.”

“[..] There are only two possibilities when it comes to moral rules, just as there are in any logical science. Either universal moral rules are valid, or they are not.”


What is a ‘moral theory’? Values are not subjective? Is Molyneux not an Austrian?

This is sounding familiar. Hans Hoppe has argued the same, namely that he wanted to turn ethics into a science, contra Mises. See my critique here: [1].

Universally Preferable Behaviour — A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, 2007 (continuing):

“‘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 …”


Truth is not a behavior.

“… – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak falsely.”


That’s a categorical statement. Preferring to speak up against one case of a perceived falsehood doesn’t mean one universally (always and everywhere) prefers to do so. 

“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.”


As above.

This is a variation of Hoppe’s argumentation ethics, and makes the same mistake of substitution. [1]

“How else can we know that the concept of ‘moral rules’ is valid?

We can examine the question biologically as well as syllogistically.

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.”


People who are alive value breathing as a means to their ends, except during underwater contests. What does that have to do with moral rules?

I’ll stop here with the proofs.

Students For Liberty Q&A with Stefan Molyneux - Porcfest 2011 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZTuqdqWyao#t=30m17s ):

“The argument from personal well-being leads to statism. Because.. how well did Bill Clinton do from being president? How well is Barack Obama’s income and stature, and retirement…? [..] So in terms of personal well-being, people on the dark side of state power do fantastically. [..] ..the idea of individual benefit leads to the state and leads to people using the state and leads to long-term destruction. Now they would say: ‘But we don’t want that long term destruction’. But human beings don’t think three generations down the road. [..] There is no argument to be made for individual benefit; that’s just pure pragmatism, and utilitarianism… [..] You can’t ask people to sacrifice immediate gain for the sake of long-term costs to strangers they will never meet.”


Hoppe has made the same argument. [1]

The first thing to point out is: If you have nothing to offer a person from which they can perceive to gain in personal well-being (meaning in terms of their personal subjective values, which includes their time-preference), then you are asking them to live a sacrificial life.

Furthermore: if the society I live in would turn free market, that would give me a tremendous opportunity to fulfill my personal values. That is what Austrian economics informs us. Compared with the many dangers to the integrity of society that exist today, and we see that the stakes are huge.

As I said in my critique of Hoppe’s ethics: it’s possible for a person to understand economics and still have such a high time preference to not support free markets, from his own point of view. But there are many people out there for whom the promises of a free market vastly outweigh the benefits of any subsidy. Molyneux mentions effects three generations later, and people they will never meet. But economics operates much faster than that, and effects everybody. And even if most people supported libertarianism for others and subsidies for themselves, that would still lead to a free market.




[1] http://nielsio.tumblr.com/post/16528520459/a-critique-of-hoppean-ethics-argumentation-ethics

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