Thursday, May 1, 2014


I started this project determined to understand UPB as Stef understands it, give a better explanation of it, and fix its problems if I could or point out the problems if I couldn't. I don't think I can do it yet, so this FAQ is still incomplete. My understanding has gaps and even the parts that I've made sense of may not match Stef's ideas. Feel free to comment.

What does the UPB jargon mean?

When he discusses UPB, Stef uses a number of words in a surprising way, distinct from common usage: ethics, morality, universality, inflicted, avoidable, aesthetic, binding, enforceable, preference and evil are important examples. I posted a UPB jargon blog entry trying to point out what you need to notice when he uses these words. Ethics and morality are used interchangeably, and the boundary between ethics (enforceable) and aesthetics (not enforceable) is marked by avoidability. All moral propositions must be universal in the sense that they apply to all moral agents at all times and places. All morality is interpersonal, as in, if your actions have no impact at all on another person, or the impact is avoidable, then ethics says nothing about them.

What is UPB?

UPB stands for universally preferable behaviour. It is a framework used for testing moral propositions. That means, you find a moral proposition and you subject it to tests. Those that fail are false, those that pass are true. True means enforceable, though Stef has left the details of enforcement vague.
The main requirement for moral propositions to pass the tests is universality. The proposition must apply to all moral agents at all times and places. Stef uses universality to argue for the coma test and the 2 guys in a room test. Moral agents must also have free choice, in the sense that no one is explicitly coercing them. That is, if I hold a gun to your head and threaten to kill you if you disobey me, I have nullified your responsibility for your actions, according to Stef.
The coma test claims that, due to universality, no one is obligated to do anything that a person in a coma is not also obligated to do. Since a coma victim can't do anything but lie there and breathe, no one is required to do more.
The 2 guys in a room test investigates whether 2 persons can be moral at the same time and place. If a moral proposition excludes this possibility, it fails the test. 
If you forget everything else, UPB is about condemning hypocrisy.

How does Stef argue for the ideas of UPB? 

He uses the idea of a performative contradiction to derive some fundamental norms and principles, such as universality, that cannot be denied by persons using fair argument. Using those principles as a basis, he derives the concepts and tests that he calls UPB. Then he subjects various moral propositions to the tests.

What is a performative contradiction?

In order to disprove UPB, you must engage in argument. But the activity of argument itself presupposes certain norms and premises. Anyone who rejects those norms and premises cannot engage in argument and remain consistent. Their activity depends on claims that they deny, and hence their denial calls their own conclusions into question. 
A simple example of this would be for me to say out loud, "I am dead." Because the dead do not speak, the way that I made my claim contradicts its content. Similarly, any argument that used logic to conclude "therefore logic is worthless" qualifies as a performative contradiction. If you use a typewriter to type out the message, "I can't type," you contradict yourself in the act of expressing your idea. 
Hoppe and Habermas have used the performative contradiction in a similar way previously.

What are some of the norms and premises of argument that Stef derived?

  • "You should correct your opinion if it is objectively incorrect."
  • "objective facts exist, and that objective truth is universally preferable to subjective error."
  • Morality is a valid concept.
  • Moral rules must be consistent for all mankind.
  • The validity of a moral theory is judged by its consistency.
  • universality: A rule that applies to our debate, here, today must apply to any debate, anywhere, any time.
  • Entering into any debate requires an acceptance of the realities of choice, values and personal responsibility.
  • Etc. There are more.

How does Stef derive the tests and jargon from the norms and premises?

He gets the two tests from universality. I have a blog entry where I try to reconstruct how he got the idea of strong universality from the performative contradiction. I am curious how his other jargon connects to his basic derivation. For example, Stef draws the line between ethics and aesthetics using the concept of avoidability, but I am not sure really what that means or how it relates back to the performative contradiction or some other derivation. Consent seems to draw a clearer line for me, that is, I think involuntary interaction covers the same territory that Stef uses unavoidability for. If you're speaking and I don't consent to listen, I can leave. If you stab me without my consent, I can't avoid the injury.

How does Stef solve the is/ought problem and bring normative content into his system?

Here's a list of possibilities that occurred to me. I am not sure whether Stef accepts any of these, or all.
  • UPB does not derive the moral propositions it tests. It just tests them for logical consistency and universality. They begin the process with moral content, so if is/ought causes problems,  the problems concern the moral propositions, not UPB.
  • Stef's performative contradiction move derives norms of debate from the act of debate. By choosing to engage in debate, the debater endorses the norms of debate and so cannot consistently make arguments that deny these norms. It forms a hypothetical imperative: if you want to argue, you must accept the norms of argument, at least while you're arguing. Then argue for universality, that accepting the norms during argument implies accepting them in general.
  • By their actions, persons opt in or opt out of moral agency. Persons who opt out or deny UPB or claim that morals are subjective effectively assert that force requires no justification. By their actions they deny that any reason exists not to treat them like infants or animals. 

Who does UPB apply to? 

Here also I have some possibilities and confusion:
  • those who make moral arguments
  • those who make arguments
  • Those who choose moral agency
  • Those who choose to live in society
  • Everything

What are some criticisms and critics of UPB?

Most of the criticisms are shallow, in the sense that, even if true, the criticism does not seriously damage the basic idea, as opposed to a deep criticism, which if true, would defeat the basic purpose of UPB. For instance, many critics have attacked the 5 syllogisms in the section beginning on page 40 for basic logical errors such as non sequitur. I agree that this section seems to have been written carelessly and contains numerous errors. But this is not a grade school math assignment, where we can find a mistake and mark it with a big red "x". The serious critic must try to see past any superficial errors to find out whether the basic idea works or not. The ideal critic would first understand UPB, then restate it with error removed, if possible, and then point to any problems.
Critics seem to misunderstand the performative contradiction step, or ignore it, rather than arguing against it. If any of them understood it, they must disagree with about its importance, because none of them mentioned it in a serious way.
Noesis gave two notable criticisms of UPB on the FDR forum. First, can moral nihilism pass the UPB tests? Second, does the definition of UPB beg the question? 
Noesis claimed that a version of moral nihilism can pass the UPB coma test and 2 guys test. In effect, she accepts, for the sake of argument, the basic ideas of UPB but proposes that nothing is prohibited, no enforcement is justified. Here is my response. She wants the set of enforceable prohibitions to remain empty, so she cannot propose that enforcement be prohibited, just that there is no objective justification for it. But UPB collects and evaluates any and all moral propositions. If a moral proposition is not universal, or is logically contradictory, it is discarded. But otherwise, it may add to the set of enforceable propositions. So Noesis' proposition adds nothing to the set of prohibitions, but it cannot prevent other propositions from passing the tests and adding content to the set of prohibitions. Her proposition would need to show that all other moral propositions should fail the test. But this is a claim about moral claims, not a moral claim, so it does not qualify for the test. Noesis would perhaps reply that the set of propositions that pass the UPB tests would not be logically consistent, because her proposition says it is okay to do anything, which contradicts the other propositions which all prohibit something. I'm not sure whether Stef would mind, so long as the set of prohibitions remains consistent. Or perhaps he would counter that "do whatever you want" is not really a moral proposition. Ultimately, I think this was a cute trick, but what Noesis really wants is a way to deny the entire idea of UPB.
She takes a shot at that by claiming that Stef defines his jargon in a way that sneaks in the concepts and distinctions that he wants, without basing them on logic or the performative contradiction. This is called begging the question, it is a way to sneak the conclusion of the argument into the premises. I'm not sure how Stef should reply. When I first noticed his use of strong universality, I was very confused and could not see how he came up with it. Later, after much struggle, I saw how he might be able to use the performative contradiction to derive strong universality. So I am reluctant to say it can't be done with the other terms and concepts at the foundation of UPB, just that I have not understood how to do it yet.
David Gordon criticized Stef's use of strong universality, but oddly ignored the performative contradiction step. I say oddly, because I associate Gordon in my mind with his Mises Institute colleague, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who uses a similar performative contradiction prominently in his work. Gordon also balks at the idea of biological UPB: Is it not obvious that Molyneux has confused two different senses of "universally preferable behavior"? Biological laws are, as even our author elsewhere realizes, descriptive regularities; Molyneux fails utterly to show that acting in accord with such laws to keep oneself alive has anything to do with moral obligation.
This criticism, though accurate, is shallow. The biological version of the UPB idea is not essential to Stef's project. In fact, I can't understand why he even mentioned it, as Gordon's objection hits the target. But the target is at the periphery, not the center, of Stef's conceptual territory. 
Stef declares that UPB is an "umbrella term" that applies to the scientific method, logic, empiricism, debating, language, and ethics. He gives no explanation of how this works, and fails to include the biological sense mentioned by Gordon, though Stef does use that idea in several places. I am tempted to lump these together as "fields of truth-seeking, using logic and evidence." But then we should subtract language and bio-UPB, and probably add mathematics. And it is clear that Stef's understanding of the scientific method differs from mine.
Regrettably, I have lost the link to the pages that made the following criticisms, so I can't give links or credit. One critic claimed that self defense and property rights break Stef's strong universality. For example, imagine two situations where I have just punched mr. X in the face. In one, he had threatened me and struck me first, and I fought back in self defense. In the other, he did nothing before I attacked him. The critic claimed that if the rule was truly universal, it would not only abstract from persons identities, locations, and times, but also their circumstances. I think the critic used a quote from Stef to support this interpretation of universality, perhaps this one describing theft on page 101: It is morally wrong for all people in all situations at all times and under all circumstances. I disagree that Stef has committed himself to this idea, though I agree that Stef has not made the boundaries of universality clear. Do we know how he determines which aspects are universal (times, places, persons) and which are not (context of previous violence, who owns what, etc.)? 
Universality is based on the nature of argument. If I make a successful argument now, and write the words of the argument down, and someone else repeats the argument later in a different place, how can the argument fail? It can fail in the new context only if the original argument depended somehow on the original context of the argument. 
The next criticism is closely related. This critic accused Stef of using value laden words without justifying them as part of the theory. For instance, murder versus kill, steal vs. take, etc. Killing is a general and value-neutral category, which includes subcategories such as murder (wrongful killing), killing in self-defense, accidental killing, suicide, and mercy killing. So by evaluating propositions such as "murder is not universally preferred behaviour" Stef is stating a tautology. Murder is wrong by definition, but how do we define murder? Given knowledge about a killing, is it murder or not? Stef should have derived this somehow, instead of just assuming it. I think it is safe to approximate Stef's meaning as defining murder as intensional killing, involuntary on the part of the victim. Stef could clarify this, but does it matter? If Stef lets someone else define murder for him, his method lacks the objectivity he seeks.  UPB must give us this answer. Does it?
Opposite vs. negation: More than one critic quibbled about Stef's use of the word "opposite" in the context of the "2 guys in a room" test, claiming he should have used the word "negation" instead. I claim that they should have read with more care and charity. In that case they would realize that Stef has eliminated all possible cases but two: a moral proposition either prohibits something or requires something. When there are only two alternatives, there is no difference between the opposite of a choice or the negation of that choice. Both just mean "the other choice." They may wish to criticize the argument by which Stef eliminated the other possibilities, but it's silly to quibble about his word usage.
I have some criticisms of my own, in a forthcoming blog entry.
FDR user labmath2 provided this criticism: "Punishment and self defense. What counts as self defense? If someone trespasses on my property can I shoot them on sight or am I required to warn them first? Can I shoot someone for breaking a contract in defense of my stolen service or property? What about punishment, can there be punishment that involves initiating violence against someone? If I murder someone, can men with guns come and detain me or is self defense the only allowed form of aggression."

Rule enforcement has similar issues. 

Self-defense also cannot be required behaviour, since required behaviour (“don’t rape”) can be enforced through violence, which would mean that anyone failing to violently defend himself could be legitimately aggressed against. However, someone failing to defend himself is already being aggressed against, and so we end up in a circular situation where everyone can legitimately act violently against a person who is not defending himself, which is not only illogical, but morally abhorrent. (Page 87)

But self-defense is violent, unavoidable from the standpoint of the aggressor being defended against. Therefore it falls in the category of ethics, and is either prohibited or required, according to the argument Stef gives in UPB. So if it is not required, it is prohibited. Or is it special somehow, related to enforcement? In effect, the entire UPB book is a justification of self-defense and rule enforcement. Stef should have made it clear how this works.

Enforcement requires justification, because it takes a different form in ordinary life than it does in debate. In debate, rules are enforced by pointing to infractions. Violations of the rules weaken a debater's case, sometimes demolish it. But enforcement by means of physical punishment is abnormal in the context of debate, if not necessarily nonexistent. Debate is an ideal world of nonviolence. It is not clear how the act of arguing presupposes violent enforcement of rules.

Enforcement is not just a subset of self-defense, it has a special justification. All of UPB aims at justifying it. But UPB says almost nothing about enforcement. We could also see UPB as a metaphysical classification scheme that we can use to label all actions good or bad? (If we lump neutral and good together.) This just means bad = a violation of an enforceable rule, good = not a violation of an enforceable rule. This is peculiar. Maybe UPB is a theory of evil, not a theory of good and evil? Or it is a theory of enforcement.
Here is a summary of UPB critics from a rather biased source. It contains many dead links. I suggest doing a web search of upb and critique, if you are interested.
There is a lot of material in the forum at FDR, but it is not very helpful. I hope this FAQ and my other blog entries help a little. Stef has many videos, but they tend to cover the same things, and would be difficult to organize into a sensible treatment of UPB.


Sage Pearson said...

FDRLiberated is at least honest about their biases towards Molyneux and FDR. Danny Shahar's laborious look at UPB was insightful. But Stefan, rather than deal with critics thoughtfully, just continues to reinforces the weakest parts of his conceptual framework.

David Burns said...

If he was reinforcing the weak parts, that would mean he was trying to make them stronger, which could only happen by him addressing criticisms and clarifying or refining his ideas. From the context, I don't think that is what you meant to say. I wish you would take the time to say something more substantive.