The Promise and Failure of UPB–The Inside Story (Pt. 1)

At war with the academics

Stefan Molyneux wrote a book.

It was supposed to be his crowning achievement, THE definitive answer to “what is moral behavior?” The world’s first top-to-bottom system of philosophy, something philosophers have been unable to even attempt for the last 6,000 years.

More important, it was suppose to establish Molyneux in the pantheon of thinkers he had studied in college. A position he might have established years earlier, if academia had not blindly rejected him.

But all didn’t go according to plan. In fact, of all Molyneux enterprises, it might be said that UPB has had the least impact. Today, with his followers typically unable to explain what UPB is , even Molyneux is not able to respond in writing to inquiries on the subject. Recently, when someone asked for clarification on his forum, he gave the curt reply, “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…

So what happened? How did the book that was intended to be the most clarifying writing on ethics in thousands of years become the book Molyneux himself can no longer write about with any clarity?

This is the story.

Molyneux self-published his masterwork, Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, in October 2007. However, he had already been openly discussing the principles for two years.

Few things were more important to him than UPB, quite likely because—for the first time—it was all his own idea. You see, Molyneux established his reputation as a great explainer of ideas. Up to this point, Molyneux either preached the ideas of others or co-opted them. The closest he got to originality was his concept of a DRO (Dispute Resolution Organization), which was actually a somewhat refined version of the already existing PDA (Private Defense Agency) concept.

But this was all his. And it was big.

The parting of the ways

From the beginning, Molyneux has always hungered to change the world with his words. His first attempts were, à la Rand, in fiction. However, he was unsuccessful in finding a publisher to accept his novels, which, like his books on philosophy, he eventually self-published.

In the “Libertarian Bulletin, the Newsletter of the Ontario Libertarian Party Spring 2003,” Molyneux announced the release of his fiction novel “Revolutions.”

“‘Revolutions’ came about in 1991, because I felt angry, and helpless. I had just graduated from University, into the depths of a recession, and I couldn’t find a job in my field or any other. I ended up doing odd jobs weeding gardens and moving office furniture on odd occasions. I had been a Libertarian for a few years, and really felt the need to do something for the movement. I wrote a Manifesto, ran an advertisement, and started organizing meetings. Fellow discontents and I would go to Pizza Hut and fix the world over a pitcher of Pepsi.

I enjoyed that, but as I tried to bring the movement to the world, I felt my anger beginning to slide into helplessness. There was the small group of people who I agreed with and then there was the rest of the world, a world that seemed to me to be sliding into disaster in utter ignorance.

So very early on, Molyneux’s vision of his “calling” was established. Most of the world was ignorant and he was going to educate them.

But how?

When it came to his own education, there were problems. Molyneux eventually achieved an MA in history but he was not accepted as a PhD candidate. It appeared to be a bitter parting of the ways between himself and the academic career he sought—perhaps one he has never fully gotten over.

We get our first glimpse of that disappointment in the podcast #1019 (originally released as premium podcast #79), “We Are Full of Treasure” (Timecodes are included in my podcast transcriptions):

44:50—“And I had to get over a lot of that, too, shit knows. I mean, look, I tried for fucking 20 years to get published, you know, I got no, no interest in me in graduate school, had my company ripped out from under me and sold, undervalued, I had a lot resentment, family betrayals, violence and all this. I had a lot of resentment.”

Clearly, the resentment of being unpublished and unaccepted in the academic world he once cherished has never left him.

Molyneux once offered his interpretation why his original thinking was rejected by academia in podcast #1039, “Intellectual Entrapment”:

29:26—“Every article that you ever write in academics, every paper, carries within it a number of assumptions—it has to be—you can’t prove everything from the ground up, right? And within academia, certain assumptions are taken for granted, right? There’s an efficiency principle in academia as well, right?”

30:20—“And this of course is one reason why academics tends to reproduce the same goddamn thing over and over again, because everyone takes stuff for granted and anybody who questions it has a massive burden of proof. But everybody who parrots the party line is going to get his stuff across—it’s much more efficient, right? You just accept it.

And so the principle of efficiency is, if you want to be creative, you either have to strike off in a completely new direction which is massively uphill and you’ll face enormous opposition. Or, you just build on the bullshit that everybody already believes and it’s, you know, hugely efficient because you’re appealing to people’s prejudices, right?

[changes voice to emulate academic] ‘Oh, government’s needed for, to supply certain goods and services that can’t be covered by the free market because of market failure, but as it regards to the problem of commons—and everybody is like yeah, yeah, don’t even need to say it right? Don’t. Even. Need. To. Say. It.’

And so what will happen is—if you take this approach—you start to question the ethics of those who work for these corrupt organizations. What’s going to happen is, that when you start to submit papers, nobody’s going to accept the implicit premises in your argument—they’re going to ask you to spell them out. All right, so you’re not going to be given any free passes in terms of your assumptions. This is a mean and effective way of keeping anybody out of academics whose ideas you don’t like. Is you just have to say, ‘well—I mean you say the government is necessary in this area because of the problem of the commons, but I don’t think you’ve established that beyond a shadow of a doubt?’

Right, and, of course if they like you, they’ll let that go and say ‘well, of course, that’s accepted by everyone.’ But if they don’t like you, they’ll say ‘well, you haven’t made that case.’ Right? And then when you try to make that case they’ll say ‘Oh, well, that’s a whole different article and this is too long and you haven’t made that case.’ So, you’re stuff will get bounced, right? Your stuff will get rejected. And then you’ll be tempted to submit stuff anonymously and this that and the other. But there will be this problem—word will get around. Right? I mean, there’s no such thing as anonymous in academic circles when you get right down to it.

I mean how did everyone wind up with the same goddamn opinions if stuff was truly anonymous? Well, of course there’s a huge weeding-out process in the beginning as well, right?”

This passage is fascinating. Molyneux’s argument is that he was rejected in two ways. His ideas were rejected by academia because they were too original and he was personally rejected by academia because they didn’t like him. Small wonder he still speaks of it with great emotion some 20 years later.

In the war with academia, UPB would be the ultimate weapon. Not only would Molyneux’s ideas be accepted—he would outdo them all.

The birth of UPB

Two years earlier, before the publication of UPB, it was almost impossible for Molyneux to overstate the important role that rational ethics should play in the libertarian movement. Molyneux has long believed that it is absolutely essential for libertarians—atheist AnCaps, especially—to establish an independent proven system of ethics. Among the religious, whatever God they worship is the ultimate moral authority. Cannot atheists produce their own Ultimate Moral Authority?

In an article published at Lew Rockwell on December 12, 2005, Molyneux wrote:

“Until moral rules can be subjected to the same rigour and logic as any other propositions, we will forever be stymied by subjectivism, political prejudices and the argument from effect. Why is this approach so important? Why bother with the grueling task of building a logical framework for the examination of moral rules – and the even more grueling task of communicating that framework to others? Well, as I have argued in previous articles, the freedom movement has made remarkably little progress throughout history….In my view, the reason for this is simple: libertarians have never won the argument from morality.”

In that article (Proving Libertarian Morality: Reclaiming the High Ground), Molyneux laid out the argument that there must be a way—without gods, but through reason, logic, and science—to develop “preferred behavior” for humanity and begins to suggest a methodology for doing so.

Molyneux refined his idea of “Universally Preferred Behavior” (UPB) throughout 2006. During a December 2006 conversation on the FDR board, a forum member named Danny Shahar (posting under the name DonnyWithAnA), introduced himself to the FDR board with some skepticism about UPB: “To be clear,” Shahar stated, “I’m a libertarian myself, and nothing would please me more than being able to prove morality. I just don’t think it can be done.”

During that initial conversation, Shahar pointed out the semantic problem with the word “Preferred” as opposed to “Preferable.” (Universally Preferred Behavior is behavior that everyone around the world agrees is “good.”—a nearly impossible feat to accomplish or measure. Universally Preferable Behavior refers to moral statements that can logically be shown to be preferable in any situation.) During that conversation, Molyneux stated he himself had actually recognized the problem and had formally changed the name to “Preferable” a month earlier.

Well…not exactly. Up to that point (and in that thread) Molyneux actually used the words interchangeably. He announced the formal name a month after that conversation with Shahar in his Lew Rockwell article Universal Morality: A Proposition on January 26, 2007. That article was deleted on Rockwell after this post, but can still be found on Molyneux’s blog.

It seems like a trivial thing to note but it was 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.

But we’ll come back to that later.

For now, consider how the stage had been set for the publication of UPB. Molyneux, who admittedly had failed as a novelist, academic, and businessman had managed to come up with the answer. The answer that would save the libertarian community. The answer that he began seeking years earlier as he sat with his friends at Pizza Hut.

The answer that would save the world from its own ignorance.

How important was it?

The podcast “We Are Full of Treasure” (#1019, formerly FDR Premium 79), recorded before the publication of UPB, reveals much about Molyneux, his view of his place in the world, and the importance of UPB. The podcast is a conference call between Molyneux and two of his closest followers and is focused on the problem one of them brings to the table. The follower had attempted to join a bike ride with people he didn’t know very well. (by their own admission, Molyneux’s followers are often unable to associate with anyone outside of FDR). It was a dissatisfying adventure because he was mostly ignored by the other riders and was disappointed they didn’t have more curiosity about him.

Molyneux tries to teach his follower about salesmanship—the vital importance of projecting a happy personality—and confesses that is the main technique he uses to win people over to his philosophy.

The following is a lengthy excerpt, but—more important than Molyneux’s “projected personality” sales technique—you see an extraordinary picture emerge of Molyneux’s perceived self-importance and his belief that, through UPB, he has discovered the secret of true happiness that mankind has been searching for.

(In the podcast, the “treasure” of course, is UPB.)

1:03:32—…You are full of treasure…you have this incredible knowledge…

…you’re one of the 5,000 people on the world that have a proof for ethics. You are full of treasure, which people desperately need. That’s just a fact. The world runs on ethics. Everybody desperately needs ethics. And ethics for the most people is manipulative bullshit, right? You’ve got the cure for cancer!

1:11:34—Everybody wants to be happy, and when they see somebody who’s happy they’re like—gotta get me some of that. Whether they like it or not. That’s the irresistible gravity well of FDR. I know that the gravity well for human beings is happiness. And so I’ve just been relentlessly fucking happy—and honestly so—from the beginning. And I know that no matter how much people hate what I’m talking about, they are irresistibly drawn back because it’s what they want.

1:16:01—I realized, when I got the DRO thing, I knew that was some pretty good shit. When I got Universally Preferable Behavior, I knew that was some pretty good shit. That’s treasure—that’s gold, right? Because of that—because I was sure it was really, really great stuff, people wanted to know about it.

1:18:03—There is nothing that I could conceivably imagine putting my intellectual energies toward that would be better or more important than this. And I don’t mean this even subjectively. Right? Cause like if you’re a great jazz pianist and you love to play jazz, that’s the best thing for you. I don’t think this is the best for me—I think it’s the best thing.

So, I’m not full of treasure like I’m good at jazz, I’m full of treasure, like, for everyone! Because everybody wants to be happy and I think we’ve got the way to do it.

1:19:01—See, we don’t just believe that we’ve got treasure because we will it, or because we’ve got big teeth and firm handshakes, or whatever, right? We’ve proven it—from the ground fucking up!

[follower] We just have to be willing to speak up and talk about it.!

Well, to accept the empirical reality of what we as a community as developed, which is the very first, top-to-bottom, proven system of philosophy.

[follower] Right! Right! I mean it’s huge!

It’s huge!

[follower] I mean, the last time that was even tried was 6,000 years ago!

IT’S HUGE. It’s huge. It’s huge. It’s huge. And it blows everything out of the water. And we’re not saying anything to people that they don’t already accept and that’s why it gets people so screwed up, right?

And, I genuinely believe—like, I know I put lots of caveats out there and so on, but that’s just so I can get people to read my stuff, right?

Here you go—so I can get the people who want to find nit-pick and fault—I want to get those people, too, right?

1:20:55—It is the proof that human beings have been waiting for thousands of years. I believe it is the proof. And it’s held up pretty hard to some pretty hard knocks.

1:23:21—This is a real singularity point of incredible glory in my opinion, right? And if you’re not full of that possibility and power, then you need to meditate on that to fill yourself up with it and if you can’t do that here—and I don’t think there’s any other place to do it—but if it turns out you want to be a jazz musician and that gives you that sense of power and glory then that’s what you should do.

1:41:27—I’m not asking you to will anything, I’m just asking you to accept a reality that what we’ve got is proven, syllogistically, experientially, scientifically, empirically..It’s proven..

[follower] I DO accept that…

No, you don’t! Because if you did accept it, then you would accept that you are full of the most amazing knowledge on the planet at the moment.

If you really got that, if you really got that, the way that you interact with people would just change completely. And, I don’t know what that would look like. Right? But if you just…accepted that as something that’s not willed but understood and proven, see what it’s like.

Just accept that and wake up every morning and put it on… “We are full of the most amazing knowledge in the world, at the moment, perhaps ever—I’m going to try to remember that for the next week”—and that’s all that you need to do.

And there it stood. On the eve of the publication of UPB, Molyneux knew he had done nothing less than replace God as the final authority on morality. Where philosophers had failed for thousands of years, he would succeed. Out of nowhere, a small band of believers led by a Canadian philosopher stood ready to lead humanity, finally, to happiness.

And it all fell apart when Molyneux made a $50 bet with Danny Shahar.

Next: Part 2—The rise and fall of Danny.

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