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Mr. Molyneux Responds

Tags Free MarketsPhilosophy and Methodology

07/11/2012David Gordon

In an article published last week, I reviewed, in not altogether favorable terms, Stefan Molyneux's book Universally Preferable Behavior.

This review has aroused many of the author's numerous admirers to sound and fury: never in my long experience as a reviewer have I encountered anything to match it. Molyneux has now himself joined the fray. He has been good enough to take notice of my article and has offered a detailed response.

With characteristic stubbornness, I remain largely unrepentant and find rather in the author's comments additional support for the criticisms that I directed at his book in my review.

Before turning to his remarks, I ought to clarify one misunderstanding. It is one that has ensnared several of the commenters on my review, and, judging from his remarks at the end of his response, possibly Molyneux himself. It was never my purpose to deny that there are universally binding norms — far from it. Instead, what I tried to do in the review was to examine whether Molyneux has successfully arrived at a way of establishing these moral requirements. I regret, by the way, that I did not accurately state his distinction between "moral rules" and "ethics," though fortunately for me this mistake leaves intact my arguments against him.

Thus, when, at the end of his response, Molyneux avers in evident triumph and to the applause of his admirers that my article was based on accepting UPB (universally preferable behavior), I have no wish to deny this. Once more, what concerns me is the success of Molyneux's arguments: I am not a moral skeptic.

The heart of the disagreement between Molyneux and me concerns his conception of universality for moral rules. He holds that all such rules must refer to all human beings without reference to particular times or places. He says in his response that he has argued for this requirement, but in fact he hasn't. He has simply repeated his requirement a number of times.

He is quite right that moral rules cannot make arbitrary distinctions; but it does not follow that any mention of a particular class of people or circumstances is arbitrary from the moral point of view. I suspect that Molyneux thinks that it does follow because he has not taken note of an equivocation. If moral rules are objectively true, then they are the same for everybody, i.e., everyone who reasons correctly ought to arrive at the same set of rules. It cannot be, if rules are objectively true, that "theft is wrong" is a claim that I ought to recognize as true but you ought to think is false. But the objectivity of truth, taken this way, does not imply that the content of the rule can make no reference to particular classes.

How then do we discover what is an arbitrary distinction? This, I suggest, requires that we assess proposed rules case by case. "It is permissible to kill redheads" makes an arbitrary distinction; but "one ought to be grateful to those who have conferred benefits on us" does not. Another nonarbitrary moral rule that I commend to Molyneux's attention is "one ought to respect one's parents."

Though to my mind universality is the fundamental point at issue between us, Molyneux says a number of other things that I shall endeavor to answer. He objects to my saying that he has made a "claim" and to my speaking of "his sense" and "his strictures" about various things that he said. These expressions, he says, wrongly imply that he is talking about his subjective preferences: he is in fact arguing for what is objectively true.

When I spoke of his "claim," I meant only that this was a statement he had made that I wished to examine. In my language, use of the word "claim" leaves open whether what is being claimed is objectively true: it is not intended to suggest that we are in the realm of mere subjective preferences. The language that I'm using is called "English."

Molyneux objects to my speaking of someone who wants to discover the truth, instead of someone who is arguing: again, the former expression is subjective, he says. I don't agree, but I am happy to speak of arguing for the truth, as my criticism of him remains the same. The criticism, which he ignores, is this. If you are trying through argument to discover the truth, you need not be engaged in a debate with an actual opponent, who holds mistaken views that you prefer to correct. You can argue entirely alone, by trying to find out the consequences of premises that you think are true. The search for truth, then, need not commit you to an objective preference to correct mistaken views of others.

He says,

Rape cannot be UPB because sexual penetration is only rape if it is unwanted — thus one man must want to rape, while the other man must desperately not want to be raped, which means that both of them cannot simultaneously value rape as universally preferable behavior.

Suppose that A is trying to rape B. A wants to rape B but B does not want to be raped. This is entirely consistent with both A's and B's thinking that A is morally obligated to rape B. It isn't a requirement of logic that B want A to do whatever A is morally obligated to do.

The argument against rape that I found the most philosophically interesting in his book is a different, though related, one. If rape is morally required, then acting against rape is evil, i.e., as Molyneux defines this, morally proscribed. But in order for rape to occur, the victim must resist the rapist. If the victim does not resist, then rape has not taken place.1 Thus a moral rule that required rape could be put into practice only if evil behavior, i.e., resisting rape, takes place. The purported rule, then, is inconsistent with everyone's acting as morality dictates.

This argument depends on a questionable premise. If you are obligated to do something, then, plausibly, you can't also be obligated not to do it. (Some philosophers think that people can sometimes have inconsistent obligations, but I don't want to appeal to that view here.) But it doesn't follow from this that everyone else is obligated not to resist what you are doing. Suppose that you are obligated to take care of your child, who needs a medication that only I have on hand. I'm not obligated to give it to you or to sell it to you: perhaps, e.g., someone else also needs the medication. If I do not let you have the medication, I'm not by that fact alone engaging in morally proscribed behavior.

Molyneux says, "This is one of a few arguments against 'theft as UPB' in the book — a thief is both violating and affirming property rights when he steals, which is a logical contradiction."

This argument doesn't work. A thief is someone who takes what doesn't belong to him. He wants what he steals, but this does not entail that he thinks he is the legitimate owner of the pilfered goods. To take something is not to make a moral claim to own it. Sometimes people do what they acknowledge that they ought not to do. The thief, one presumes, would not want someone else to take from him what he has stolen; but that does not entail that he would deem someone who did this a violator of his property rights.

Against my assertion that he offers no account of how we gain title to external physical objects, he says that I have ignored this:

Since we own our bodies, we also inevitably own the effects of our actions, be they good or bad. If we own the effects of our actions, then clearly we own that which we produce, whether what we produce is a bow, or a book — or a murder.

I am surprised that Molyneux calls attention to a sentence that is evidence of a gross confusion on his part. You cause the effects of your actions and are responsible for them, but it does not follow from this that you "own," in the moral or legal sense, these effects. What does it mean to "own" a murder? Molyneux also confuses a causal and a moral statement when he says that my article accepts that "I [Molyneux] exercise 100% property rights over the creation of the book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics (he refers to it as my book, and my arguments etc.)." Certainly Molyneux wrote the book; but that by itself implies nothing about who ought to have property rights in it.

Sometimes Molyneux seems not to grasp that an objection has been raised to him. In response to my challenge to what he said about a 50 percent property rule, he says,

Well, since property rights are a subset of ethics, they must be universal — if universalizing 50% ownership causes ever-declining ownership, clearly the theory has some problems, to say the least. The fact that 50% ownership cannot be rationally sustained is entirely my point. His issue here seems to be with mathematics, not my book.

But, whether rightly or wrongly, I denied that universalizing 50 percent ownership has this consequence. The 50 percent rule is that if I acquire an object, I own half of it. This rule does not prescribe that this half share may be reduced by another half, this quarter share by another half, etc. That is another rule. Molyneux ignores my objection and repeats what he said in his book. One can only echo one of his followers. "Well done, Stef."

I regret that I misunderstood what Molyneux meant by "forced association" in reference to public schools. He says that he meant people are forced to pay for public schools, not that students are forced to attend them. I of course withdraw my criticism.

In my review, I made many harsh statements about Molyneux. (By the way, the title, "The Molyneux Problem," was not a contemptuous reference to Molyneux and his work. It was a joking reference to a famous philosophical problem, much discussed in the 18th century.) Why did I do this, he asks, rather than confine myself to his arguments? Was I trying to "poison the well"?

I do not think so. My remarks were simply an evaluation of his book; for better or worse, I try in my reviews to assess the quality of the book I'm considering. My comments were not based on personal animus toward Molyneux. I'd heard of him; but before I read his book, I didn't know his work. I suspect that had I been complimentary to the book, he would not have complained that I had "perfumed the abattoir."

  • 1. This need not be true: the victim might be asleep or unconscious.

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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.