Universally Preferable Behaviour – A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio is, next to Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, probably the most remarkable book on morality that I have ever read.
Rothbard heavily relied on the conclusions of Natural Law philosophers as a basis to mount his framework upon and derives ethical rules, an “ought”, from man’s nature, an “is”.
Stefan Molyneux completely rejects this approach. Instead he points out that there is in the realm of human behaviour really no such thing as absolute, unconditional and universal “oughts”. There is nothing in the pure nature of humans that requires that they be peaceful and good to each other, in the sense that there are indeed physical laws that require that, say, a rock fall down to earth.
One more important thing he points out is this: The main task we need to surmount in terms of establishing a scientific moral framework, is not to evaluate individual actions per se. What we need to evaluate is rather rules regarding actions. The problems of this world are not the petty burglar or killer. Virtually everyone understands the immorality in their acts intuitively. The most dangerous thing are rather ideas about behavioural rules held in people’s minds, general concepts that justify hugely immoral acts under the cloak of morality.
Thus, Universally Preferable Behaviour (UPB) is not a framework for evaluating specific actions, but rather one for evaluating behavioural rules.
Understanding Universally Preferable Behaviour
Here is how I understood the chain of reasoning. I am mostly taking this from the book, and injecting my own thoughts where I deem appropriate:
- Reality is composed of objects in the universe, all of which have certain natures, meaning certain specific, and delimitable inputs on them and certain interactions between them yield certain specific, and delimitable outputs (events). These events are, all other things being equal, reproducible or consistent.
- Logic is the set of objective and consistent rules derived from the consistency of reality:
Identity: A = A – An object/event is that object/event and not another object/event. A rock on earth is that rock on earth, and not a tree at the same time.
Non-Contradiction: A AND non-A is false – A proposition that states that something is a thing/event and not that thing/event at the same time is always false. A thing can’t be a tree and not a tree at the same time. An apple can’t fall downward and upward at the same time.
Excluded middle: A OR non-A is true – A proposition about a thing/event is either true or false. A thing is either an apple or not an apple. An apple either falls down or doesn’t fall down. There is nothing in-between.
- Validity: A human’s statement about objective reality is a theory. A theory that complies with the 3 laws of logic is valid.
- Accuracy: A theory that is confirmed by observable evidence in reality is considered accurate.
- Truth: A theory that is both valid and accurate is true.
- Preference is the level at which a human being places the desire to perform an action in relation to the desire to perform other actions at any given moment in time. For example at nighttime one prefers sleeping over running. But on the next morning one may prefer running to sleeping. Preferences only exist in people’s minds, meaning they are subjective. Observable human actions, however, are the objective manifestations of subjective preferences. When someone can be observed running then he is showing by his very action that he set out to run because he preferred the act to that of sleeping.
- Preferable Behaviour: When somebody says that some other human being should prefer one thing over another he is making a statement about preferable behaviour.
- Universally Preferable Behaviour: When somebody says that all people at all times and at all places should prefer one thing over another, then he is making a statement about universally preferable behaviour (UPB). In short: UPB is any behaviour that all humans at all times and at all places should follow. Arguing against the conceptual existence of UPB requires engaging in a debate. But once someone engages in a debate to convince another person, he inevitably implies that all people at all times and at all places should rather prefer truth to falsehood. Once he starts advancing arguments and reasons as to why he is right, then on top of that he affirms that everyone should base his beliefs on universal standards of validity and accuracy. He also affirms that using the same language as your conversation partner is universally preferable. It is impossible to attempt to refute UPB without affirming it in the process. Thus the act of debating and arguing implicitly and inevitably affirms the conceptual existence of UPB.
(I would actually suggest that the commonly known term “Ethics” is a good substitute for the word “UPB”. Molyneux, meanwhile, equates “Ethics” to “Morality”. This is just about semantics, but it does seem to make sense to me and it helps put existing terminologies into context with this new approach.)
- Morality is defined as all rules about universally preferable behaviour where avoidance of the inflicted effects of at least one of the choices would require the use of violence or considerable effort, for example “It is universally preferable to refrain from murder.”
- Aesthetics is defined as all rules about universally preferable behaviour where the inflicted effects of all presented choices can be avoided without the use of violence and without considerable effort, for example “It is universally preferable to be on time.”
- The UPB Framework is the process of examining the truth (validity+accuracy) of moral and aesthetic rules. This means that, just as physical or mathematical theories, any true ethical theory needs to be logically consistent (valid) and empirically verifiable (accurate).
Application of Universally Preferable Behaviour
Thus there are in general 3 categories that statements about preferable behaviour may fall into: morality, aesthetics, or other (all those statements that do not refer to universal, but rather personal preferences). We are here not concerned with those statements that fall in the category other, but mostly interested in morality and to a lesser degree aesthetics, where we have to keep in mind that the differences between the two may not always be black and white, but rather on a fading scale.
Rape: Rape clearly involves the use of violence. Thus any statement about universally preferable behaviour involving rape falls into the category of morality. The statement “It is universally preferable to rape.” fails the test of logical consistency. If there are two persons in a room, the statement can’t apply to both people at the same time. One person needs to do the raping, the other needs to be raped. But then the person who is being raped can’t himself rape the other person. Thus the only valid moral statement regarding rape is “It is universally preferable NOT to rape.” or put differently “Rape is immoral.”
Murder: Murder clearly involves the use of violence. Thus any statement about universally preferable behaviour involving murder falls into the category of morality. The statement “It is universally preferable to murder.” already fails the test of logical consistency. If there are two persons in a room, the statement can’t apply to both people at the same time. One person needs to do the murdering, the other needs to be murdered. But then the person who is being murdered can’t himself murder the other person. Thus the only valid moral statement regarding murder is “It is universally preferable NOT to murder.” or put differently “Murder is immoral.”
Theft: Theft involves the use of violence. Thus any statement about universally preferable behaviour involving theft falls into the category of morality. The statement “It is universally preferable to steal.” again fails the test of logical consistency. If there are two persons in a room, the statement can’t apply to both people at the same time. One person needs to do the stealing, the other needs to be stolen from . But then the person who is being stolen from can’t himself steal from the other person. Theft also implies the theory that property rights are invalid. But if property ownership rights are invalid it is logically inconsistent to prefer to violently obtain ownership over property, since it is supposedly invalid. Thus the only valid moral statement regarding theft is “It is universally preferable NOT to steal.” or put differently “Theft is immoral.”
In the same manner, many other behavioural theories can be examined using the UPB framework.
Moral conclusions regarding Universally Preferable Behaviour
The book concludes via this analysis that our political institutions are founded upon inherently and blatantly immoral premises. The idea that “A government is a moral or necessary institution.” by necessity implies that theft is a fundamentally moral action which, as we all know, simply cannot hold.
The military, a group of people sent to another country in green costumes to murder individuals who never attacked them, is of course also an institution founded upon blatantly immoral ideas that are riddled with logical inconsistencies.
The conclusion that I and many other people like Molyneux himself have thus come to is of course that the only moral system is that of voluntaryism.
I believe that that the genius in the UPB framework lies in that it fundamentally and flawlessly explains our natural appreciation for the inherently reciprocal nature of the relation between all elements in the universe, and humans in particular. Logical consistency demands the acknowledgment of this relation. We feel emotionally repulsed against theories about human behaviour that fail to recognize this reciprocity, but have been struggling for millennia to explain precisely why that is so.
The UPB framework beautifully integrates the economic concept of value preference into ethics. As far as I know it was the Austrian school’s accomplishment to fully recognize and consistently integrate the notion that value is never an objective or absolute measure, but rather a subjective and ordinal scale where the differentiating operator is simply “better” or “worse”, but nothing like “good” or “bad” or “+/- 100 happiness points”, etc. In that same fashion Molyneux looks at human behaviour as nothing but a choice of one action over multiple other actions, and establishes that moral rules are not behavioural absolutes, but rather optional statements about preferable choices, the validity of which, however, remains absolute subject to the laws of logic and proof.
It is my opinion that in this first version, formally and aesthetically Molyneux has unfortunately failed to make this book a pleasant read, in particular for newcomers. The amount of terminological confusions and inconsistencies, the abundance of repetitive metaphors, the unnecessary repetition of certain established proofs, and the seeming lack of a consistent and traceable thread at times, really made this relatively short book a tough read for me. To put things into context: This is coming from a guy (me) who enjoyed reading Mises’ Human Action, Socialism, and Theory of Money and Credit with great pleasure! I listened to the audio book twice and read the PDF again before I even remotely felt like I was able to ask qualified and helpful questions.
You will find a lot of criticisms of this book on the net that were written by people who clearly had no real interest in the subject and who deem it necessary to immediately jump on all the terminological weaknesses and inconsistencies that this book is riddled with, rather than being curious and looking beneath the surface. Then there are other criticisms by people who were absolutely and 100% dedicated to understanding the book, but who, in my humble opinion, missed the core aspect of UPB: That it is, just like the scientific method, a scientific framework to examine the validity and accuracy of theories, not of actions, for the simple reason that it is impossible to examine the validity of an individual action.
I think that the actual content, the idea, and the conclusions, when properly understood and connected, are revolutionary, groundbreaking, eye-opening and ingenious. Anybody who is interested in the field of ethics should read this book very carefully and not despair if it doesn’t all get to him as easily as baking pie right away.
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