Friday, May 24, 2013


I hope to update this FAQ soon (2014). I consider this version deprecated. I wouldn't say anything is out and out wrong, but incomplete and maybe misleading. I hope the update will be much better.

I want to explain UPB to you. Unfortunately, I don't claim to understand it myself. Here are some questions and attempts at answers.

1 What is UPB?

UPB stands for universally preferred behavior. Molyneux often uses it to debunk moral claims that somehow fail the criteria. If moral claims are illogical, contradicted by evidence, or fail to apply to all persons at all times in all places, they fail the UPB test. Molyneux frames UPB as a generalization of argument and science to connect to the powerful truth-seeking aspects of those approaches, using this connection to deflect attacks against UPB.

If you remember nothing else about UPB, remember this "bottom line". If someone tries to moralize you into doing something or accepting something on the basis of a rule which does not apply to everyone, that person is a hypocrite and can be ignored. That is UPB in a sentence.

UPB is a general approach, with moral propositions only one application. If you want to understand the world you should use the scientific method. If you want to persuade someone, you must debate. 

Persons who describe themselves as competent moral agents may not actually prefer that which is "universally preferred", but in violating UPB they contradict their claim of moral agency.

1.1 can you explain some of the UPB jargon?
Maybe in 1.0.

2 Why should anyone believe UPB is true?

Molyneux uses something like proof by contradiction to argue for UPB. Here is my sketch of his argument:

1) UPB is a generalization of scientific method and fair argument.
2) Any argument that applies to UPB and disproves it, can also be applied to the process of fair argument and also disproves the ability of argument to establish truth. It also removes the foundation for all scientific claims.
3) Since the argument that disproved UPB also depends on the process of argumentation, and argumentation is a special case of UPB, the foundation for that argument also disappears, and it is at best uncertain.
4) We can summarize this as "any argument against UPB implies that argument in general can never establish the truth of any statement."
5) But we have just established the truth of at least one statement by use of argument, that is, we have established that "argument can never establish the truth of any statement." So, if we are sure that "argument can never establish the truth of any statement" then we cannot be sure that "argument can never establish the truth of any statement."
6) Since we have generated a contradiction, logic says we must have assumed something that was false. So we have 3 options: we can reject the use of logic, evidence, and argument and fall back to grunting or killing those who make statements we disagree with, we can reject the argument "disproving" UPB, or we can reject the assumption that argument is a subset of UPB.

Since the UPB critic used argument to support the anti-UPB proposal, that person can only proceed by denying that whatever argument applies to UPB also applies to the process of argumentation itself. They must show that their argument hinges on a characteristic of UPB that argument does not share. (Note that the conflict does not depend on Molyneux's claim that UPB is more general than pure argument; Molyneux only needs to show that any attack on UPB also applies to pure argument, and his critic must show that the attack leaves pure argument untouched.) I do not recall seeing any criticism of UPB that actually took this approach.

I think Molyneux claims that using fair argument entails a claim of moral agency, so that arguments that deny moral agency generate a contradiction. If I disdain moral agency and defend some form of nihilism, moral agents can ignore my arguments because I am denying the ethics of argument, and therefore denying the efficacy of argument.

 3 How does Molyneux apply UPB

How does Molyneux apply UPB to evaluate statements about morality, and what statements does he reject, what statements does he accept?

I think he accepts the nonaggression principle and property rights, and rejects everything else. He has confusing analyses of murder, theft and rape, but we can derive prohibitions against these from the NAP, which seems simpler to me.

4 Footnotes, Digressions, Quibbles and Confusions

4.1 Sematics

Molyneux's use of the words (universal, universally, prefer, preferred, preferable, preference) confuses me. For instance, Molyneux sometimes uses "objective" in place of "universal": "The challenge arises when we try to define some preferences as objective. The proposition before us is thus: can some preferences be objective, i.e. universal?" (page 33) The concepts of objectivity and universality seem to me to be closely related, but not identical or interchangeable.

In other places, he indicates that a universal rule must apply to all persons (except children and the mentally incompetent) at all times and places, in all circumstances. Rules may apply to persons in three different ways: the observer evaluating the argument, the subject who obeys or disobeys a moral rule, and the object whose rights are violated or not when the subject obeys the rule or not. Does universality require all (or any) of these? Or should we restrict universality to process of evaluating rules? David Gordon's critique mentioned a version of this question.

4.2 Evidence

Molyneux's ideas about what evidence may disprove a moral rule also confuse me. If a moral rule violates our common intuitions, that is sometimes seen by Molyneux as evidence against the rule, but not in all cases. For instance, I think he would reject the moral rule "kill anyone you please when and if you please" on the basis that this violates our moral intuitions. But if we claim to have intuitions about egalitarian distribution of wealth, he would either deny the intuition, or deny its relevance as evidence for or against some moral rule. Our intuitions may contradict each other. How do we choose among them?

4.3 Universality?

On page 73, Molyneux states, "If murder is morally good, then clearly refraining from murder is immoral." Why does Molyneux's conception of universality require these two "opposites" to be the only candidates? Why not "Thou shalt kill only when justified by the following excuses (etc.)?" Presumably, we cannot universalize this statement in Molyneux's sense of the word, but I don't understand what causes the problem. Since Molyneux in other places embraces the use of defensive force in principle, he in fact accepts some form of this rule with the self-defense excuse.

4.4 Consequentialism?

Molyneux argues against consequentialism, yet he connects "is" to "ought" by a sort of consequentialism. Truth seeking in certain domains demands scientific method, in others it demands ethical argument. In the realm of moral rules, truth seeking demands UPB.

4.5 Positive Obligations

Molyneux implicitly argues against the possibility of any moral rule that places a positive obligation upon persons (things we must do, as opposed to things we must not do). If morality obligates us to give to charity, by Molyneux's approach, we must be giving to charity at all times. There is no cut-off where our contributions satisfy the rule and we can take a rest. I sympathize with this view, but I think Molyneux should have made it clear and argued for it more explicitly. Molyneux's point makes some sense if summarized as "any cut-off point for positive obligations is arbitrary." But Molyneux did not clarify why any positive obligation on any person must apply to all persons at all times, despite their circumstances. Like I said, I am on his side, but I don't think he made a good case. (Best I can do is: "rules apply to all people at all times at all places. If you are obligated to do X, that means you are prohibited from not doing X. So you must do X at all times.")

4.6 Classes of Persons

UPB separates persons into 3 groups, those who choose moral agency, those who are incapable of moral agency, and those who choose not to seek moral agency. Molyneux's logic requires that the third group, moral nihilists, in choosing moral nihilism, undercut their ability to make a valid argument. I wish Molyneux would argue this point clearly and explicitly.

4.7 Property

Molyneux favors property in general, but does not endorse a specific set of rules. Within the category of property there is a wide range of possible rules. Do they all satisfy UPB? Can UPB help us choose among them?

4.8 Reference

Nima's article helped me to improve my understanding of UPB. My imperfect grasp of the topic should not be blamed on that person, however.