FDR Controversy Part 5: Response to The Promise and Failure of UPB
At last, this is the final part of this series. I am responding to the two part series called “The Promise and Failure of UPB – The Inside Story” from my own perspective on the issues. I am gonna try to summarily address both parts in this article.
In the first section of the first part the author begins by describing what is referred to as the “crowning achievement” of Stefan Molyneux, the “definitive answer to ‘what is moral behavior?’” and “the world’s first top-to-bottom system of philosophy, something philosophers have been unable to even attempt for the last 6,000 years” and goes on to point out how Molyneux’ “plan” apparently failed to materialize.
Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly in the context of his other articles, the author makes suppositions about Molyneux’ motives as part of what appears to be an attempt at exaggeration. In the process of describing the alleged failure he charges Molyneux’ of himself being unable to “respond in writing to inquiries on the subject” citing Molyneux’ as saying: “I have never seen a UPB discussion work out well on a Board, the concepts are too slippery for this format, and everyone always just ends up frustrated. I invite the OP to call into the Sunday show, 4pm EST, to ask these questions directly…
I do not, however, see how this inference follows from what Molyneux said. It simply appears to be an account of past experiences with discussing UPB on a forum followed by an invitation to discuss them in a live call in show. It may also be worth noting that the quoted response is to a thread which was started by a Liberating Minds member “ReIgNoFrAdNeSs” who by his own admission, pretended to be someone else, as pointed out in part 4. This of course doesn’t invalidate the quote, but it sheds some light on the tactics used by the author’s associates (as an active participant LM).
The author continues with an analysis of Molyneux’ motives pointing out his pursuit of originality, a desire to influence the world and a purported roadblock he stumbled on in that path when he was “not accepted as a PhD candidate”. This is characterized as the “bitter parting of the ways between himself and the academic career he sought” with reference to a quote from the podcast #1019 as containing the first glimpse of such disappointment, albeit the quote is inconclusive about whether the resentment was result of being rejected more than of the company being ripped out, sold and undervalued.
Author proceeds to quote from another podcast, #1039 titled “Intellectual Entrapment”, which criticizes the academia for essentially being set in their ways and insufficiently open to ideas which do not carry certain predetermined assumptions resulting in the perpetuation of the same old things. Specifically the ideas in question seem to refer to the necessity of government in certain areas. He also implies a form of impartiality by referring to different reactions depending on whether they “like” him or not.
The author infers from this that Stefan Molyneux was rejected for two reasons; in terms of his ideas and because they didn’t like him, pointing out that this is still an issue for him even after 20 years and that UPB was supposed to be “the ultimate weapon” in this purported war with the academia. The rest of the first part of this article focuses on the nature of the Molyneux’ ideas with respect to the development of UPB, the emergence of skepticism by an academic student of philosophy Danny Shahar and the great importance that Stefan Molyneux assigned to UPB.
In a nutshell the idea was that a rational proof of secular ethics and the necessity to win the argument from morality is absolutely crucial to the advancement of the libertarian movement and the advancement of human thinking on morality beyond the realm of superstition. He was discussing these ideas before the publishing of UPB when Danny Shahar first became involved by expressing skepticism towards the idea that such a proof of morality is even possible.
Danny is also credited for pointing out a ‘semantic problem with the word “Preferred” as opposed to “Preferable”‘ which I assume refers to this post. However Stefan already used the term “preferable” earlier in the thread in this post to which Danny dramatically replied here. So it is in fact Stefan who used the modified term earlier and it is thus not as clear as the author makes it appear to be that it was Danny who realized this distinction first, and in any case this really is a fairly trivial issue.
But it is taken as, in author’s words, “the beginning of a series of errors that Shahar found with Molyneux’s work on UPB that began with correcting Molyneux on a single word and ended less than a year-and-a-half later with Molyneux declaring all of academia, with respect to philosophy, invalid” which is quite a dramatic statement to make.
In the rest of the part 1 the author emphasizes Molyneux’ alleged past failures in contrast to what he hoped to achieve with UPB and proceeds to illustrate the importance which Molyneux assigned to his work on the UPB by referring to the podcast #1019 titled “We Are Full of Treasure”.
What was quoted from that podcast are certain things Molyneux said which reflect a pretty big deal of confidence and enthusiasm. Indeed it does seem like they are full of treasure that they just discovered and wish to share with the world. I personally do not find much to be objectionable about these kinds of statements, even if they are rather grandiose. Regardless of what one might say, if I felt and really believed that I’ve accomplished, after years of work, something so exceptional and historic in a certain area, I might in some instances make similar expressions of enthusiasm.
The author portrays this account with a rather hyperbolic remark, that Molyneux knew he replaced God with himself as the final authority on morality. As someone who readily accuses Molyneux of making grandiose statements, he just made one himself. Hyperbolic statements aside, it may be worth putting the word “god” here into perspective.
In the last century technological evolution has repeatedly given human beings powers which would have earlier been considered as godly. From airplanes, rockets and atomic bombs to such “magical” devices as modern touchscreen smartphones, laptops and instantaneous communication networks that bind them. Technology wasn’t the only area where gods were consistently replaced. Science in its advances has been explaining more and more of what was previously considered as inexplicable and thus evidence for gods intervention.
One only needs to think of certain onward looking thinkers such as the inventor Raymond Kurzweil to observe the emergence of a trend which is, sometimes even quite explicitly, about the evolution of human beings and human understanding to even more “god-like” proportions. And this should not be shocking, at least not to the atheists as those who wont be offended by such notions, for this whole concept of a “god” from a secular perspective appears to be nothing more than a constantly evolving metaphor occasionally applied to the unimaginably great things that humans have the potential of achieving.
My point is that metaphorically putting god into the picture the way the author did in his hyperbole, is in fact far more common than the author and many seem to think. Human beings have been replacing god for a great deal of time now, as a matter of natural course of our evolution. Revolutionary breakthroughs in the field of ethics, as in any field, are thus to be expected, and even if Molyneux didn’t quite achieve it, there is always the next Nth chance for him or somebody else to finally make it. If proof of secular ethics specifically isn’t possible, as Danny seems to think, that still does not mean further revolutionary advances in the field can’t be made.
Let’s move to the part 2 of the article.
“The rise and fall of Danny Shahar”
First of all I will upfront state that I do not have completely sufficient understanding of UPB to be able to make any conclusive and final judgments of it nor to pick a side between Danny Shahar and Stefan Molyneux over it. As Molyneux says himself, UPB is tricky and thus not easy to get at first. I would assume this would increase the chances of people falling into various interpretive traps and whatnot. I’ve read the book once, it made a lot of sense, but I don’t have even close to as much experience with philosophy as Stefan Molyneux and Danny Shahar to quickly judge such a work.
In this part Danny Shahar is venerated as a gracious graduate student in philosophy, “well trained in the language of philosophy, schools of thought, and academic criticism” who has written more than anyone about Molyneux’ work. A contrast is portrayed between Shahar as someone who represents the academic world and has set out to provide a thorough critique of UPB and Molyneux as an independent philosopher convinced that he has made a seminal achievement with UPB.
The article explains the whole chronology from the first thread where Stefan Molyneux posts a link to Shahar’s Molyneux Project to the last thread where Shahar was asked to stop posting. The story is of course (unsurprisingly given the context of other FDRLiberated articles) spiced up with expressions of slanted attitude against Stefan which seems bent on discrediting him as an able philosopher.
I have read through a large part of the conversations in question which go deep into the terminology and concepts regarding UPB which I don’t want to get into here. Large part of the matter of disagreement seems to have revolved around the application of UPB to fringe cases known as flagpole and lifeboat scenarios, effectively involving the moral characterizations of acts of a person who has to violate somebody elses moral right in order to save his own life.
A particular theme of the Shahar’s critiques was that given Molyneux’ big claims about UPB its (purported) inability to cover such fringe cases is unimpressive, but that otherwise it may be a useful theory in the same sense that Rothbards Ethics of Liberty is. Stefan Molyneux apparently disagrees and maintains the original claims for UPB probably dismissing the criticisms as lack of understanding while continuing to be open to live conversations about it where questions, critiques and requests for clarifications can be made.
As I said I cannot conclusively weigh into this disagreement to defend either of the two, however I do wish to express my tendency to agree with the points Stefan Molyneux made in an article, that largely seems to have came out of this controversial discourse, called “Hanging by a thread”.
I have a distinct feeling that most people in fact do know the very basic moral principles, possibly even as a matter of their nature. I am under the impression and even conviction that if one was to ask anyone on this planet if it is as a matter of norm and principle moral to kill, steal or coerce in any way, clearly explaining what such coercion entails, that if they were truly honest they would answer no.
So when philosophers rack their minds and endlessly debate the moral questions it really does sometimes seem like they’re asking for a why to a what they already know. In general, everybody knows it is wrong to kill, we’re just trying to discover why exactly this is so. And as we do this there is a fair point to be made sometimes; why do we spend so much time and effort bickering over the one in a million fringe cases which a moral theory or framework X imperfectly applies to while millions of people die every year from coercion and violence because nobody reached out to them in order to give them too the opportunity to participate in this debate by getting THEM up to speed to the things we have already beyond much doubt concluded as reasonable?
The biggest problem I see in the world is not so much that people do not know what is moral, but that people are not brought to terms with the inconsistent application of their morality. If everyone would only start consistently living as they preach, opening their eyes to the support they have so far been lending to things which are in fact against their morality, whatever bad morality is left in the world, I would think, would be neutralized by itself. Then the only theory really necessary could generally be summed up in a sentence: Be consistent in your application of your moral principles.. Even more generally, however, would in my view pretty much solve all of the worlds problems: “Do not tolerate contradictions. Ever. EVER.”.
If people could only brush up on their logic skills and taken away from such destructive ideas as those espoused under the umbrella of post-modernism (which see contradictions as acceptable), ultimate harmony would emerge by itself, just like a free market tends towards greater value for everyone, because each individual strives to achieve integrity – the state of complete non-contradiction in every aspect of their lives.
Incidentally, this is what UPB seems to be about, but Danny Shahar would state that as a philosophical theory it does not stand up to academic scrutiny, that it falls short on closer inspection etc. yet most people do not give a damn about the exact specifics of relatively obscure moral theories (and even the more famous ones, aside from those based in mythology, are indeed pretty obscure to the general public). What they do understand, however, is common language, the same language Stefan Molyneux, by incident or not, chose to convey his ideas.
That said, I am not in a position to neither agree nor disagree whether UPB truly stands up to academic scrutiny. I am open to both possibilities. I am however, inclined to agree that the realm of academy is not an end all be all of philosophy. While I am not necessarily interested in somehow corrupting the thorough, exact and rigorous nature of philosophy, I think it is about time for the dam to burst. One does not need to be an academic philosopher to think philosophically. By definition, philosophy is about pursuit of wisdom and truth. Every single human being with a healthy mind on this planet is capable of it.
Yet the great majority of them are effectively sitting idle, thinking small talk and small thoughts, jumping from routine to routine, entertainment to entertainment and so on. Philosophy is in popular culture still too often associated with distant introverted bearded and very old men whom utter weird and complicated statements. It is seen as something meant only for a special class of people, as if thinking critically, logically and empirically for yourself was not supposed to be something every human should do. That has to change and I think that regardless of all the accusations, Stefan Molyneux is taking an important step towards that.
To get back to the article, it brings out accounts of some angry sounding statements made by Stefan Molyneux in chatroom and podcasts which apparently refer to Danny. I originally thought of addressing each of them briefly, but then realized there’s no real point to that. What I’m gonna say is that Stefan did seem angry at Shahar and that it was obvious he perceived Shahar as condescending and overall unpleasant, so he expressed that. I can even understand why when I consider Stefan’s obviously negative opinion of the academy (with which I to an extent and for reasons explained above actually agree) and Stefan’s high hopes and confidence over UPB, which Danny boldly criticized.
As for author’s implications regarding Molyneux’ psychological state, if we’re gonna psychoanalyze him and given that I know the author has the negative version, I might as well provide a positive version. Yet both of these are merely speculation and conjecture. If Molyneux isn’t a therapist, me or FDRLiberated author certainly are not. So, the positive possibility is that Molyneux obviously spent a huge deal of time (decades even) essentially trying to accomplish something world changing and that upon rejection by academy and at the outset of formative ideas behind UPB he put a huge amount of hope and conviction behind it, perhaps even too much. Thus this book is “his baby” so to speak and he feels personal about it. Is there any sin in that? Certainly not.
I realize that one might say that this doesn’t become a professional philosopher, but that really depends on what you mean by “professional”. Few would deny that Molyneux is a brilliant philosopher, atypical, controversial, temperamental, but still brilliant and that he has created, at least as far as I know, tremendous value for me and I would argue the libertarian and voluntaryist movement. I think he plays a great role in popularizing philosophy and critical thinking, promoting consistent application of moral principles and spreading and explaining the voluntaryist and anarcho-capitalist ideas. When everything is put into perspective, the controversies are just an imperfection in an otherwise incredible thing.
Finally, all this said, I would be interested in an eventual thorough response to this UPB critique in one convenient article, albeit I realize some of these issues might have already been addressed in various podcasts, conversations, debates and forum threads. If I ever find one I’ll try to remember to link it here.