Below is a partial transcript of my discussion of UPB with Stefan Molyneux, from FDR2549, Evil is a Confession of Inadequacy, recorded December 6, 2013. The discussion starts at about 55 minutes into the show. I have taken some liberties in transcribing, leaving out some conversational hemming and hawing, and removing some digressions.
I still don't have a solid grip on Stef's ideas. I hope to blog more about it later, and once those entries exist, you should be able to find that page by clicking on this search which shows all my blog entries labelled "UPB." There are already numerous hits, but those are all based on my reading of the book. When I add new entries, the search will find them too.
D: Hello. I want to talk about UPB.
S: Alright, let's do it brother.
D: Okay, I was hoping to get your elevator pitch for UPB, the quick and dirty, short and sweet version. Because I have trouble summarizing it for myself. But I just found something great on page 100, that I think is a good starting place. It says, "The UPB framework validates moral propositions by demanding that they be internally consistent and universal in terms of time, place, and individuals."
S: Yeah I'll give you the elevator pitch. All moral claims claim universality. All moral propositions claim universality. Whether it's explicit or implicit, they differ from aesthetics in the universality of the claim. And the claim is universally preferable behavior. It distinguishes itself from physics. And physics is universally measurable behavior or universally detectable behavior, something like that. Physics theory is universal by nature, if it's not universal it's not physics. For moral propositions, universally preferable behavior is proposed. UPB focuses on that and says if you make a claim of universally preferable behavior, we must test whether it is universally preferable behavior. In other words, whether the behavior can be enacted universally, by all people at all times (who are moral agents, you know fetuses there is some gray area). But basically, if you're going to make a moral claim, then it has to be universal. It has to be preferable universally and it has to be behavior not thought, for reasons I sort of go into in the book. So if you say, "thou shalt steal," it cannot be validated, according to universally preferable behavior. It cannot be universally preferable behavior for everyone to steal, because stealing is the act of taking someone's property who doesn't want you to take it. In other words, it's asymmetric. Someone has to want your iPad, and you have to not want them to take your iPad, in order for the theft to have occurred. And therefore universality is broken, in that with regards to the iPad, two people have opposite moral desires or opposite preferences. One is to keep, one is to steal. And the stealing can only be achieved, if the person wants to keep. If you want to give it away, it's charity or something like that. So "thou shalt steal" cannot be sustained in terms of universality. It's logically completely impossible. "Thou shalt rape", rape is unwanted, therefore it cannot be universalized to all people. "Thou shalt murder", murder is unwanted, cannot be universalized to all people. "Thou shalt assault," cannot be universalized, since assault is something definitely not wanted, which is why we don't charge people in a boxing ring with assault, because they're there voluntarily and it's not unwanted. You may want to win but you can't charge someone with assault, that's implicit. So all moral propositions claim universality, all moral propositions which failed the test of universality cannot be moral propositions at all. The moment your moral proposition fails the test of universality, it is no longer in the realm of ethics, it is no longer a moral proposition. It's exactly the same in physics, if you say "The law of gravity is universal except for these three rocks" then it's no longer a physics theory. Then it's madness. All UPB does is say if you're making a moral claim it has to be universal, if it fails the universality test, it's an invalid moral theory. Does that help at all?
D: Yes to some extent. I think it's also interesting though that the realm of property, at the high level of abstraction we can say okay stealing is bad, but the universality breaks down as in okay this is my car it's okay for me to drive it, sorry you can't drive it you don't own it. So it would be wrong...
S: Hang on. You got to be precise. I just gave you a whole description here and you went back into random land when it came to your language. "Stealing is bad" , that's not moral language. That's like naughty child language. That's not philosophical language. It's like me saying I refuted Einstein's theory of relativity because relativity is bad. You wouldn't get far in a physics paper with that as your sole argument. It's not "stealing is bad," it's that violations of property rights cannot be universalized. And therefore all moral theories which are predicated on violations of property rights are invalid.
D: The universality is at a different level. It's sort of like saying, rocks behave differently on the surface of the earth then they would out in outerspace, but still there's one theory of Gravity that explains everything in a universal way.
S: Yeah, if I make a claim in physics that my theory applies to all matter, then I cannot simultaneously exclude certain matter. [... 1:03:10.]
D: I had another point, I should've made notes.
S: No, listen, this is horribly difficult stuff. I've had 30 years and it still makes my brain fart fairly regularly. It is challenging stuff.
D: The thing that was always throwing me off, was that it wasn't like here are the assumptions, here's the logic, and here's the conclusion. It's more like this is a process, there are moral propositions, we apply the process to the moral proposition to say it fails or it passes, ...
S: Hang on a sec. To sort of explain the challenge, for those who are less familiar with it, morality is owned by religion and consequentialism, and both of those are two sides of the same coin. So religion says do this or God throws you in hell and if you do this God puts you in heaven. I mean that's just fundamentally consequentialism. That's not a rational argument, it's not reason and evidence, it's just Pascal's wager. Some seriously eternally bad shit's going to happen to you if you don't do X. And in the secular world...
D: Trust me I'm God, I'm smart, I know what you should be doing.
S: We'll, yes, except, ...
D: Just do what I say, don't think about it.
S: Which is why you get shunning in religious communities. That's just the mark of a bad argument. "I'm shunning you for disagreeing with me." That's one form of consequentialism. Consequentialism also transfers itself to the secular world. Where you say, taxation is the initiation of force. If there's no taxation the poor will starve, the sick will die in the streets, and there will be no roads. Roads are built by companies hired by governments and no one else can hire them, right? So this is just consequentialism. And consequentialism has no place in philosophy. It's really hard for us to get that in terms of ethics because all we ever hear about is consequentialism, do this or I'll spank you, do this, be nice or we're going home. Kids, stop fighting with each other or I'm turning this car around and I'm driving it home. Finish your homework or you'll get a detention, pass this test or you don't get to the next grade. [...] and to understand that you just need to understand the argument that says that the very of relativity is incorrect because it might lead to an atomic bomb. Well that may or may not be true but it has no bearing on whether the theory of relativity is correct or incorrect. Newtonian physics is incorrect because it allows people to sail over to the new world where they kill the Incas. No. Consequentialism has no bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsehood of a proposition. And because we are so mired in consequentialism which is the opposite of philosophy ( religion and statism are both the opposites of philosophy because one relies on lies and the other relies on force, both of which are the opposite of philosophy) and so it's very hard for us to think of ethics outside of consequentialism. It's really hard for philosophy to rise up from its 3000 year grave, and attempt to take back ethics into the realm of reason. Because it's all just consequentialism, nightmare scenarios, catastrophe scenarios, massive bribery scenarios, you'll go to jail, you'll go to heaven, you'll burn in hell, it's all just emotional aggression and manipulation that is in the realm of ethics so that simply returning it to the realm of reason and evidence is really really hard for us. I just really wanted some point that out.
D: Okay, but the theory itself doesn't really generate propositions that are candidates for being universally preferable, there are ideas out there in the culture and then it says "yes this one passes" or "this one fails." Am I correct?
S: I'm sorry I don't understand what you just said. [...]
D: Stealing is not universally preferred.
S: No again you have to get used to describing it in the right way. Stealing could be universally preferred. In other words, everyone in the world could wake up tomorrow and just decide to become a thief. It's not likely, but it's possible. But I'm saying is that stealing cannot be universally preferable. Stealing cannot be university preferable, and it is not consequentialist, it's not because well if everyone steals nobody will produce anything and we will all starve to death. That's maybe true but it's irrelevant to the falsehood of the proposition that stealing is universally preferable. Stealing cannot be universally preferable because in order for it to be stealing somebody has to not want to be stolen from. Therefore it breaks the test of universality. Stealing cannot be universally preferable and therefore we should steal or stealing is good or stealing is universally preferable is false. It cannot work logically, it doesn't work logically, and it doesn't really take that long to figure that out. It's just that, again, we have so much noise from the consequentialists and the fear-mongers about ethics.
D: My question is about where do the universally preferable propositions, propositions about universally preferable behavior come from? They're not sort of springing from the theory. You find a statement lying around in culture and you apply the method to them and method says oh, this one passes and it's true or it fails it's false. Is that anywhere near?
S: Yeah, thou shalt not steal, stealing cannot be universally preferable behavior. The 10 Commandments, thou shalt not kill, murder cannot be universally preferable behavior. You can universally respect property rights, everyone can do that because that doesn't require a contradiction like stealing that's one person respecting one person violating for it to occur. Therefore the person who's violating can't be respecting and the person who's respecting can't be violating. Respect for property rights, the inviolability of another person's chosen physical boundaries, rape, punching, stabbing, murder or whatever, respect for persons and property can be universally achieved. Not in practice, but the proposition works logically. Respect property, everyone can achieve that. Guy in a coma can achieve that, he's not stealing from anyone.
D: I was just using that as an example. So there are a certain number of these propositions that would pass and be considered true by the method. Do we know the complete set of those?
S: I don't know for sure but I that we have enough of a set for about five generations of hard work. And that's enough for me. You know it's like saying do we have enough bricks to build 10 cities? Well, we have enough bricks to build eight cities so let's get going.
D: Okay I was just curious.
S: That's a fine point and if we get to where we discover semi sentient crystals living on Betelgeuse's planets, whatever, but we've got enough to do at the moment with spanking and the Federal Reserve and national debts and taxes and wars and military and police and the war on drugs we've got enough to keep us busy for a couple of generations at least. Maybe there's more, but to keep looking rather than to act is not that responsible.
D: I missed it if it was in your version of the elevator pitch but, the idea that if you disprove UPB with logic, that is self-detonating, because somehow logic presupposes UPB.
S: Well to disprove is to use universality. I can't prove that one jazz player is "better than" another. And I can't prove that one song is "better than" another. You might appeal to popularity and so on. You can prove or disprove mathematical and physics theories, and rational proofs. So if somebody uses the word "proof," then they're talking about universal absolutes. Proof. Boom! Universal absolutes. Not "I like John Coletrane better than Eddie Winter" or whatever, to mix my genres. Somebody says proof, bang, universality, logic, rigor, absolutes they're right there. They are not talking about pistachio versus rocky road ice cream. And so when somebody says, I am disproving UPB, which requires universality, what they're saying is, it is universally preferable behavior to reject universally preferable behavior, which is a complete logic fail. [1:14:04 long digression on childhood trauma 1:18:00]
D: So, the universality of the logic is sort of okay here's the syllogism here's the logic, it works the same way for everybody no one's going to say "This step doesn't work for me because I have a different logic."
S: The moment they say different logic then it is no longer ethical. It's no longer a moral thing. As soon as someone says that ethics is relative, they're saying science is subjective. It's a contradiction. Ethics is not subjective. Taste is subjective. [digress on tv 1:19:50 ] So the moment somebody says I have a different logic or it's subjective or whatever it's relativistic or its cultural, they don't know what ethics is.
Ethics is universal. And if you're saying it's subjective or relative or cultural, it's just wrong. It's like saying that math is a personal preference. It's not. Once you say math it's not a personal preference. [...]