(Part One: Introduction and Ironic Metaphysical Roots) The Multitudinous Problems with Secular Ethics: A critique of Universally Preferable Behavior

There’s no short way of doing this. At least not one that I prefer (see what I did there?), so I will just get to it. A while ago I was introduced to something called Universally Preferable Behavior (UPB). This, I understand, is more or less a formal apologetic of what is termed “secular ethics”. Which really is simply an Ethic derived from the metaphysics of Atheism (which are the metaphysics more or less of Aristotle…more on that later). There is no God to declare what is good behavior and what is evil behavior. Without such an arbiter of morality, it is assumed, there is no anchor for moral behavior.   Enter UPB stage left. UPB purports to fill the role of Arbiter, and hence the term “universal”. Which is an odd term when coupled with “preferable”. I understand that in the handbook of UPB some attempt is made to address this oxymoron, but the explanation left me pretty unsatisfied. It qualifies itself by claiming that behavior is only universal once a given objective has been defined. Like, IF I want to get to work on time, it is preferable that I drive, not walk. And within that context, it is universally preferable to drive and not walk. Of course the inconsistency is clear. Since the preferable behavior is contextual, it isn’t universal. It is only contextually universal…which is a contradiction in terms.

Here are some links that you can examine to give you some reference for this article. The first is the handbook for UPB (you may have to copy and paste this link into your search bar), by Stefan Molyneux, who purports to be the progenitor of UPB…I have some doubt about this, however. I think most of his apologetic for secular ethics has been around for some time. I could be wrong, and ultimately I don’t really care. Perhaps he coined the phrase and then added his own spin. Whatever. He can have the credit. It’s okay by me. The second source is a very condensed version of the basic assertions and conclusions of UPB. It gives you a good summary of what secular ethics is all about.

http://cdn.media.freedomainradio.com/feed/books/UPB/Universally_Preferable_Behaviour_UPB_by_Stefan_Molyneux_PDF.pdf

https://rudd-o.com/archives/the-twelve-principles-of-universally-preferable-behavior

I was tempted to ask my readers if they could spot the big problem right off the bat, but the more I examined UPB the more I realized that it was so terribly fraught with inconsistencies that this amounted to a trick question. It also makes it difficult, at least for my scatter-brain, to know where or how to begin, so I apologize in advance if this article seems somewhate disconnected. The more I wrote, the more I had to go back and add things to the margins of my notebook. So…I’m going to start and hope that some semblance of order reveals itself. In any case, all my points will here, somewhere. 🙂

*

One of the first problems I noticed with UPB was that it doesn’t explain why preferential behavior is good behavior. That is, it doesn’t provide a convenient moral reference. This is a troubling and stark omission for a behavioral code which claims to be a universal Ethic. But I think I understand why the omission is there. A. Because it presumes “Objective Reality” as an ipso facto epistemological primary (that empiricism is proof of itself…which is a contradiction); and B. Because to include it highlights some serious inconsistencies with “Objective Reality”, which atheists and others, like those with Objectivist sympathies, don’t want to discuss (though they love to rant) and never resolve. Ever. And C. Because Atheism simply has no place for Good. It has an Ethic, but this is not the same thing. Behaving ethically does not necessarily equal behaving morally. And that’s the whole disaster of secular ethics in a nutshell. Not that religious ethics are any better. It’s just that they aren’t worse.

We understand that an Ethic gets its moral value from its foundational Metaphysic–metaphysics being the nature of what exists, and ethics being behavior that is ultimately consistent with the metaphysical primary, what I simply call the Metaphysic…and in between them is epistemology, which answers the question “What is Truth?” where Truth must be a necessary and ipso facto derivative of the the given Metaphysic. For example, Aristotelian philosophy essentially assumes that the Metaphysic is Existence, and its Epistemology thus is Objective Reality; it’s Ethic then is behavior which affirms the existence of Objective Reality–and of course one very common behavior is known as “being atheist”…and “being smug” is usually a corollary to this.  Unfortunately Aristotelian philosophy implies that Objective Reality is utterly empirical, which it’s not, and cannot be–which is why I respectfully reject Aristotle’s philosophy–and this presents a big problem for UPB because it implicitly relies upon the Aristotelian Metaphysic for its apologetics.

UPB seems pretty clearly to imply that the individual is the moral reference. That is, that UPB is “good”, or really, ethical, because it serves and affirms the individual. Unfortunately, while this sounds “so far so good”, this is as far as any semblance of rational consistency goes…at least for anyone who then has the intellectual foresight to ask the question thus begged: What is the individual? Or asked another way, what is the root nature of an individual’s “individual–ness”? (What is the nature of “I”?) This question naturally brings us to metaphysics, where atheism–remember, UPB’s roots are fundamentally atheistic–relies upon “Objective Reality”, which itself relies upon Scientific Determinism…which ends up being what is really meant by “Existence”. Scientific Determinism is the causal Platonic offspring of Science…the “why” to science’s “how”. Which is pretty ironic given how atheists love to name drop Aristotle as the philosophical father of their ideology. Ever since science decided to masquerade as philosophy and people decided to worship at the feet of lab-coated priests, we’ve gotten Scientific Deteminism as the Great Transcedant Cause in the Sky. Which is exactly like Divine Determinism. Oh, how the rivers of irony flow deep and thick and wide ’round here.

Part two real soon.

 

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14 thoughts on “(Part One: Introduction and Ironic Metaphysical Roots) The Multitudinous Problems with Secular Ethics: A critique of Universally Preferable Behavior

  1. From the link you provided:
    https://rudd-o.com/archives/the-twelve-principles-of-universally-preferable-behavior

    2 “Logic” is the set of objective and consistent rules derived from the consistency of reality.
    3 Those theories that conform to logic are called “valid.”
    4 Those theories that are confirmed by empirical testing are called “accurate.”
    5 Those theories that are both valid and accurate are called “true.”

    The flaw I see immediately is that it neglects to account for faulty premises. A theory can be valid and accurate and still be false if the beginning premise is wrong. In other words, you can follow a valid logical progression and end up with a faulty conclusion.

    Furthermore, how can you use the term “preferences” and then claim objectivity? The very nature of a “preference” suggests that it is SUBjective.

  2. Right on both counts. To your first point, it’s like you can have ethical behavior, but ethical behavior is not necessarily GOOD behavior. And this is a real problem because it ultimately undermines the whole point of UPB.

    Your second point I also address in the other parts of the article. You are right: preferential behavior is in fact subjective. But “universal subjectivity” is a contradiction in terms.

    Like I said, lots of problems.

  3. In any given metaphysic you will have a set of behaviors that are the logical outworking of those assumptions; ethics if you will. Those ethics then are appropriate to that metaphysic. It is how you can get men to slaughter 6 million Jews and not bat an eyelash. While such behavior is evil, it is appropriate given the assumptions that produced that behavior. This is why I say that ethics and morality are not the same thing. In fact, I would assert that morality stands outside of metaphysics.

  4. I think morality is in fact moral IF the Metaphysic is rational. Otherwise, you are right. It’s outside of metaphysics, and thus outside of ethics. It’s why I make the distinction in my article.

    Well said.

  5. Let’s try to build a little solid semantic grounding here. The “meta-ethics” of ethics is morality.

    “Morality” seeks the best possible good and least possible harm for everyone.

    We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    Our “real needs”, at least at the most basic levels, can be “objectively” determined by a biologist. The biologist, for example, can tell you that you are more likely to survive and thrive by eating these foods over here, and more likely to die if you eat plants known to be poisonous. And so on, for all the basic needs of our species.

    “Ethics” are a set of rules that intend to serve morality. (Agriculture also serves morality. That’s why we refer to baskets of wheat and corn as “goods”). The ideal set of rules will objectively produce the best good and least harm for everyone. And this is how we ultimately judge all of our ethical rules.

    As we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from the less physical and to the more situational, it becomes a lot less obvious what is a “real need” and what is a “false desire”.

    Regarding contextuality: Principles are general rule statements that are easily committed to memory, like “thou shalt not kill”. But these presume a general set of contextual scenarios. As soon as we try to apply them in different contexts, we find that some no longer hold as true, as in when is it okay to assist someone in dying, or what about killing in self-defense, and on an on.

    The truth is that the only way to establish a context-free rule is by writing out in advance every possible context that may arise and providing a rule to cover it.

    In summary, rules serve a natural purpose, and by that purpose they can be objectively judged as being better or worse than a competing rule, according to how well they achieve the best good and least harm for everyone.

  6. Thanks, Marvin. That’s all very helpful, and I understand that line of reasoning. Unfortunately, you failed to address the primary issue that I am submitting (admitting that my presentation here is a little muddy, so it’s possible that I haven’t been entirely clear): What is the moral reference for UPB outside itself? You claim that rules that serve the “good” of the individual, the species, or society are moral? But A. The individual is not an existential corollary to the collective. In fact, the individual is its complete opposite; unless you appeal to biology, in which case you are in fact appealing to biological determinism, which renders choice merely an illusion and therefore “preferable behavior” becomes impossible, which nullifies UPB, obviously. And B. If rules get their morality and relevancy from the individual, then how can the individual rationally be obligated to them? Rules serve man…which makes them voluntary, which means they aren’t rules. And C. If UPB are rules, then preference has nothing to do with them. And if they are not then they have no authority, including moral authority, which means they don’t really have anything to do with ethics. Which begs the question: why are they preferable? Answer: they aren’t.

    UPB fails the ethical smell test entirely. It wants to be a set of voluntary rules…which is impossibly irrational because it’s a contradiction.

  7. I did get around to reading the Rudd UPB, after my comment, and I found if off target. You have to have a definition of “good” before you can claim, for example, that “Truth is better than falsehood”. And if either of those sites had a place for comments, I could have fixed it there. But, things are as they are.

    Why is “truth better than falsehood”? Because it meets the biological need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Lacking truth, we walk off cliffs. The value of truth is that we have to know reality in order to deal with it effectively.

    And the effect we’re going for here is a “good life”, which is another way of saying “surviving and thriving”.

    “Universal” requires some means of acquiring, and sharing, sufficient objective truth that can convince everyone to reach agreement upon a compatible set of rules.

    And what is the only thing that everyone can agree upon? It is this simple objective or goal of morality: to achieve the best good and least harm for everyone.

    So that becomes the fall back rule for all moral judgments. Or, if I may provide a humanist rephrasing of what Jesus suggested in Matthew 22:35-40, “Seek Good. And seek Good for others as you seek it for yourself. ALL other rules are derived from these two.”

    So, we have a basis for a Universal Ethic, or a Universal Preferences for Behavior, if you wish.

    You seem to be posing a number of riddles. I’ll try to address them next.

    1) “What is the moral reference for UPB outside itself?” – Answer: The moral reference for any given species is the best good and least harm for all individuals, for the societies they form (to secure social goods), and for the species itself (to avoid extinction). As to what the “outside” vs the “inside” may be, I don’t know. But the criteria, based upon an objective goal, provides the possibilities for objective comparisons.

    2) “The individual is not an existential corollary to the collective.” – Answer: There are trade-offs between individual, social, and species interests. A threat to the species would take precedence over a threat to the society or the individual. A threat to the society may take precedence over a threat to the individual, unless the society itself is a greater threat and we need a better society.

    3) “unless you appeal to biology, in which case you are in fact appealing to biological determinism, which renders choice merely an illusion and therefore “preferable behavior” becomes impossible, which nullifies UPB, obviously. ” – Answer: Nothing seems to hang together there. The fact of biological drives does not negate the fact of rational, calculated choices as to the best way to satisfy those drives. So there seems to be some imaginary conflict that we can dismiss.

    4) “If rules get their morality and relevancy from the individual, then how can the individual rationally be obligated to them?” – Answer: The rule is not decided by any individual, but rather by an objective judgment as to what is good or bad for the individual. The biologist, for example, can tell you objectively what soil, moisture, and sun exposure is good for plants of “this” species but bad for plants of “that” species.

    5) “If UPB are rules, then preference has nothing to do with them.” – Answer: Correct. However, there may be universal agreement on a more general statement of the rule, but disagreement over the specific application in specific contexts.

    6) “And if they are not then they have no authority, including moral authority, which means they don’t really have anything to do with ethics.” – Answer: Rules possess no intrinsic authority other than their ability to command others to enforce them. The authority of all practical rules/rights arise from the consensus of the people to adopt and enforce them. (Which again requires a criteria that everyone can agree with, such as the best good and least harm for all).

  8. “Why is “truth better than falsehood”? Because it meets the biological need to survive, thrive, and reproduce.”

    What’s the objective difference between biological survival and demise ? Is not the death of things also a function of Objective Reality? Of science? Do not the laws of nature produce death in equal measure as life? Life and death as a function of biology are both True. And death is no less objectively real then than life. Your use of “need” here is not rational. “Necessity” is a value judgement, not a de facto aspect of “Objective Reality”. There is no more need to survive than not to survive, since both are products of the same empirical laws.

    “Lacking truth, we walk off cliffs.”

    So what? How is walking off a cliff a fraudulent representation of reality while avoiding the cliff is not? Are not both acts objectively real? Are not both governed by the same physical and natural laws? Are not both then a manifestation of Objective Truth? To value one over the other presumes that it is possible to judge “Objective Reality” and “biology” as you have define it. And if it is the individual who judges then the tacit admission is that the individual is not obligated to biology or “Objective Reality”. Or said another way, “biology” and “Objective Reality” are not in fact actual or causal or efficacious at all. They are merely false concepts. Which they are. At least as you understand them.

    “And the effect we’re going for here is a “good life”, which is another way of saying “surviving and thriving”.”

    See previous comments.

    ““Universal” requires some means of acquiring, and sharing, sufficient objective truth that can convince everyone to reach agreement upon a compatible set of rules.”

    If everyone is in agreement why do we need rules? Rules imply forced compliance, not agreement. Your version of consensus is that the majority shall force the compliance of the minority. This is not consensus at all. It’s tyranny. The “common good” as an ethical primary destroys the individual by definition and always leads to a collapse of civilization.

    “There are trade-offs between individual, social, and species interests.A threat to the species would take precedence over a threat to the society or the individual.”

    No. Any collection of humanity is purely abstract. The individual is real…categories of individuals are simply conceptual tools individual’s use to organize their environments in the interest of individual desires. This being the case, there can be no threat to groups of individuals, there are only threats to individuals.

    “The fact of biological drives does not negate the fact of rational, calculated choices as to the best way to satisfy those drives. So there seems to be some imaginary conflict that we can dismiss.”

    Well, if you don’t mind contradiction masquerading as truth then you’re right, the conflict is imaginary. What you mean by “biological drives” are the “laws” of biology together with other “laws” which are said to govern the interaction of matter…that is, of all that is said to exist. But “Choice” by definition MUST contradict such “law”. So unless you can show me me where biology ends and choice begins in an “objective reality” wholly governed by scientific Law, you’d be wise not to dismiss the conflict as “imaginary”. I surmise that best you can do is cite “epiphenomenom”, which is just a fancy way of punting the issue into the infinite abyss of cosmic mystery. Which is just what religious apologists do.

    “The biologist, for example, can tell you objectively what soil, moisture, and sun exposure is good for plants of “this” species but bad for plants of “that” species.”

    “Good” and “bad” here are merely subjective ways of morally qualifying two contexts that are both EQUAL functions of the same biological laws. If biology is objective, and if biology governs both contexts, then it specificalky precludes any objective moral judgment between them. Only the observer can pass moral judgement, and ONLY if the observer is at his root then NOT a function of the very biological laws which govern what he is observing. To be an observer of a thing specifically and necessarily means that one cannot also be a direct and utter function of that thing.

    These arguments sufficiently answer the remainder of your points.

  9. Argo: “What’s the objective difference between biological survival and demise ? Is not the death of things also a function of Objective Reality?”

    Marvin: No. “Objective Reality” doesn’t “do things”, that is, it performs no functions. We, on the other hand, being “real objects”, living organisms, and intelligent species do all kinds of stuff and perform many functions.

    There are very few species that live forever. This is probably because they would quickly overpopulate their resources and become extinct. So death is part of life. The best we can hope for is a good death at the end of a good life.

    Argo: “There is no more need to survive than not to survive, since both are products of the same empirical laws.”

    Marvin: And, of course, “laws of nature” are not objectively real either. They are a metaphorical way of referring to the reliable behavior of the actual objects and forces that compose the physical universe. The behavior of gravity is so reliable, that it is “AS IF” falling objects were following laws, like the ones that cause us to stop our car at a red light. But, to continue …

    Marvin: We observe that, in nature, living objects behave differently than inanimate matter. If you put a round stone on a slope it always rolls downhill. But if you put a squirrel on that same slope, it will go uphill or down depending upon where it thinks it will find acorns. Thus, we objectively observe the empirical fact that living objects seek food. And, we objectively observe that if they find food they live, and if they no longer find food, they die. Thus, we can make the objective moral judgment that finding adequate food is “good for” that species, and the inability to find adequate food is “bad for” that species.

    Argo: “And if it is the individual who judges then the tacit admission is that the individual is not obligated to …”

    Marvin: The elderly squirrel, we presume, will suffer if he starves to death. And we may refer to that suffering as “subjective”. However, the biologist is not the dying squirrel. The biologist is an objective observer, who empirically observes that (a) the squirrel seeks to live and (b) the lack of sufficient food is “bad” for the squirrel (and pretty much every other life form as well). And the same applies to walking off cliffs for most animals (on the other hand, an apple falling off a cliff is good for the apple tree, because it may take root in the valley below, thus “good” and “bad” are objectively species specific).

    Argo: “Any collection of humanity is purely abstract.”

    Marvin: Nope. There are survival benefits to working together in groups. This appears in many different living species. In fact, instinctive group behaviors seem to emerge when the number reaches a given point in termites. Termites build mounds, bees build hives, people build cities. These collections are not abstractions, they are empirical reality. And the benefits of being a member of the group are objectively real as well. Thus the interest of the individual is vested in the interest of the group.

    Argo: “But “Choice” by definition MUST contradict such “law”.”

    Marvin: That would be irrational. Choice REQUIRES reliable behavior. In order for a choice, say between options A and B, to make a difference, it must be possible to reliably cause A and to reliably cause B. Therefore, it cannot be true that choice requires the absence of reliable causation. Since it cannot, it does not. Case closed.

    Argo: “So unless you can show me me where biology ends and choice begins in an “objective reality” wholly governed by scientific Law…”

    Marvin: “Choosing” is a mental process that inputs multiple options, applies some evaluative criteria, and outputs a single choice. That is how we know that the event called “choosing” has actually occurred. In living organisms, this requires sufficient neurological evolution to support imagination, evaluation, and choosing. No laws are broken during this process. However, you will not find these laws described by physicists, because they only observe the behavior of inanimate matter. For example:

    Marvin: Physics cannot explain why a car stops at a red traffic light. This is because the laws governing that event are created by society. The red light is physical. The foot pressing the brake pedal is physical. But between these two physical events we find the biological need for survival and the calculation that the best way to survive is to stop at the red light.

    Argo: ” “Good” and “bad” here are merely subjective ways of morally qualifying two contexts that are both EQUAL functions of the same biological laws. ”

    Marvin: No, because the “biological law” is that life seeks to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Therefore, that which supports this biological goal is “good” and that which frustrates this goal is “bad”. Sorry to pull you over son, but “that’s the law”.

  10. Objective reality doesn’t do? Then “cause and effect” isn’t objectively real. So how can you appeal then to cause and effect as an objective means of ascertaining reliable information about the environment in order to make a moral choice? You cannot separate what IS from what IS DOES. Also, how does man get a pass on the absolute consistency of Cause and effect which, despite your opinion, is a function of objective reality and therefore must adhere to the objective laws which govern behavior in that reality? There is no frame of reference for choice in such a context. Even supposing we could put man’s consciousness on a shelf in your universe, that which man could observe would follow inexorable laws of cause and effect. This includes his own body. Since causality then is absolute there could be no choice…the body, like everything else could only act in accordance with laws of causality. It would necessarily be determined to act ONLY in accordance with the laws which govern it. Choice then is impossible. If there’s only one option and one outcome, there’s no choice.

    You want to smuggle choice into a context that completely excludes it. You pay lip service to unpredictability but make it a product of objective determinism. You pretend that life is preferable to death, but then you admit that both death and life are equal products of biological law, making any moral value judgements entirely subjective and irrelevant. You claim that groups act to survive even though the members of that group inevitably die. That life of the group is predicated upon the death of its members…the abstract, like “species”, is infinite while the individual is merely a finite resource meant to feed it. You want to have your cake and to eat it, too. But “it’s both yes and no” is not an argument. It’s rhetoric. And human beings are not colonies of ants or gaggles of geese. Your ideas are the soul of every despotism that has ever darkened earth’s door.

    Thanks for the debate, Marvin. I appreciate it. But I’m going to move on now.

  11. Moving on is fine. But don’t you think it’s a bit much to dump all that crap on me as you conveniently leave the room? To leave you with something a little more helpful, please consider that the burden of proof falls on the one making an extraordinary claim, such as “choice is impossible”. It’s something we do every day, so your claim is extraordinary.

    Thanks for the discussion. Perhaps we’ll run into each other again. Oh, by the way, I do have a blog where I get into the details of determinism and free will. If you’re curious, it is at https://marvinedwards.me/2017/08/19/determinism-whats-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/ .

    Best wishes,

    Marvin

  12. Marvin, no crap-dumping intended. Sorry my comment seemed that way. My affect here is a work in progress. It’s just that we’ve both made our positions pretty clear here wrt this article, and I’m moving on to the next. But please feel free to take issue with forthcoming articles. I appreciate your input and your time.

  13. Thanks. If the article is tagged with “determinism” I’ll probably run across it. The key issue was resolved for me by a simple insight, back when I was a teenager reading about determinism in the public library. Causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. It is nothing that anyone can or needs to be free of. But we’ll probably get into that again later.

    Finding an objective basis for morality became important to me after I stopped believing in the supernatural. I believe I’ve resolved that issue as well. But, it remains difficult for people to see something simple when they are invested in complexity.

    Anyway, see you next time. Or, as the dolphins would say, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

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