Stephan Molyneux and UPB

0. Introduction

Stephan Mulyneux is a YouTuber with a large following. He has been described as part of the ‘alt-right’, and defends a libertarian political view. He is also associated with the men’s rights movement. On his channel he has interviews on the main page with Paul Joseph Watson, Sargon of Akkad (or ‘Carl Benjamin’), Jordan Peterson and Katie Hopkins. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

In addition to riffing on things like politics, Molyneux also publishes books on ethics, such as this one: ‘Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics‘.

There are lots of good analyses of this book, such as this one by philosopher Dan Shahar. I’m not going to provide anything like a long, detailed look at the book. What I am going to do is highlight one issue that jumped out at me as I casually read parts of it.

  1. Speech acts

Take the following quote, from page 25 of the book:

If I say, “I do not exist,” that is an example of an idea that is inconsistent with itself, since I must exist in order to utter the sentence.

There is something wrong with saying “I do not exist”. That is due to the fact that saying something is a type of action, something that you do. As such, it is the sort of thing that is located at a particular time and place, and is done by a particular person in a specific context. The conflict is between this set of background presuppositions (one of which is that the person doing the saying exists in a specific context) and the content of the sentence itself, which is a denial of the existence of the speaker of the sentence. That is the sense of contradiction here: the content of the sentence conflicts with one of the presuppositions of the sentence. Other examples might be things like

a) ‘You are not awake’, or

b) ‘You are not reading this’, etc.

These sentences also conflict with aspects of the context that we often do not state explicitly, i.e. presuppositions.

However, there is another way to think about these where the conflict seems not so pressing. Consider b). A few minutes prior to reading b) it was true that you were not reading the sentence. So there is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of you not reading that sentence. The conflict only appears when you actually are reading it; there is only a conflict with the presupposition of action, not with the idea expressed by the sentence itself. And when I am not performing the action of reading the sentence, there is no conflict with the content of the sentence.

This is in contrast with sentences like ‘This is both an apple and not an apple’. In this case, the sentence is internally contradictory; it expresses both p and not-p explicitly. It doesn’t matter if you say it out loud, or if we merely consider the idea expressed by the sentence. The conflict is not between the content of the sentence and some aspect of the context of the saying of the sentence. And this makes it different to the other examples.

This brings us to Molyneux’s example. It is true that I must exist in order to utter the sentence “I do not exist” (indeed to utter any sentence). But, just as with b), there is nothing inherently inconsistent with the idea of me not existing. At some point I did not exist, and at some point I will not exist. Unfortunately for me, the idea of me not existing is not internally inconsistent. The only inconsistency is between the idea of me not existing on the one hand, and the concrete situation of me saying the sentence to you at a particular place and time on the other. Another way of saying the same thing: if uttered, then the content of the sentence is in conflict with an aspect of the context of use (i.e. my existence); but the content of the sentence itself, considered independently from any context, is not inconsistent (i.e. my non-existence is not itself an inconsistent idea).

Things are a little more complicated than that even. Not all contexts are created equal. Most of the time, if I say that I do not exist, then I run into trouble (because such a saying is an action that I do at some particular place and time). But I could leave such a statement in a will, or, like a suicide bomber, record a message only to be heard after my death (“If you are watching this, then I do not exist”, etc). The idea expressed in such a situation by that sentence is perfectly intelligible. As such, Molyneux’s sentence is only in conflict with aspects of what we might call ‘standard’ contexts of use. ‘Non-standard’ contexts like the reading of wills, or the playing back of messages intended to be heard after the speaker’s death, complicate the analysis. That they are intelligible though shows that they are not inconsistent.

The fact that Molyneux says that this is “an example of an idea that is inconsistent with itself”, rather than ‘an example of a speech act that is inconsistent with some aspect of its (normal) context of use’, shows that he is not sensitive to the idea of the presuppositions involved when making speech acts. (For some further reading around speech acts and the notion of linguistic presupposition, try these links: here and here.) 

2. Premise 6

This is interesting, because it sheds some light into Molyneux’s premise 4 and 6 of his argument. He wants to argue that these premises are true because their negation would involve some kind of inconsistency with something that they presuppose, such as the example of “I do not exist” above. Thus, without using the term (or being aware of it) he is offering a sort of ‘transcendental’ argument for some of his premises.

Premise 6 is clearer than premise 4, so I will quote that here:

Premise 6: Truth is better than falsehood

If I tell you that the world is flat, and you reply that the world is not flat, but round, then you are implicitly accepting the axiom that truth and falsehood both exist objectively, and that truth is better than falsehood.

If I tell you that I like chocolate ice cream, and you tell me that you like vanilla, it is impossible to “prove” that vanilla is objectively better than chocolate. The moment that you correct me with reference to objective facts, you are accepting that objective facts exist, and that objective truth is universally preferable to subjective error. (p. 35, emphasis mine)

Molyneux is saying that if we have a disagreement about something, then I am “implicitly accepting … that truth is better than falsehood”, and that “truth is universally preferable to subjective error”.

I think that Molyneux is saying that if you argue that p is true, you are showing a preference for truth over falsity. And whatever that means to ‘prefer truth over falsity’, you have to believe that p is true for your arguing that p is true to imply that you prefer truth over falsity. Yet, it can in fact be very reasonably questioned whether arguing that p is true implies that you even believe that p is true, let alone prefer truth over falsity.

Consider the phrase ‘for the sake of the argument’, or the synonymous Latin phrase ‘arguendo’. The function of these phrases is to indicate that something is being postulated provisionally, for the purposes of exploring the implications that come with it. Its function is to indicate explicitly that there is no presupposition that what is being argued for is true. Yet it is being argued for nonetheless.

Consider debate competitions, where the debaters are given topics that they have to come up with a good line of argument for. In such an activity, the purpose of the argument is to perfect the skill of arguing, not for pursuing the truth. It is rather like exercising in a gym, rather than playing a sport. One can become good at running without running any races. Similarly, one can meaningfully engage in debate without thereby presupposing that one believes in what one argues for (or presupposing that one ‘values truth’).

As a additional few examples, consider:

  • A lawyer who argues on behalf of her client because she gets paid to do so
  • A politician who argues what he believes his constituents want to hear
  • An internet troll who argues what she believes will irritate her audience the most
  • An undergraduate who argues what he believes will impress the girl he fancies

What these examples show is that the action of engaging in argument does not need to imply that the arguer believes the propositions for which they argue in favour. They could hold a mercenary-like attitude towards truth-telling, only ever saying what they believe will increase their power with those around them. Who is to say that this isn’t in fact the most common form of arguing?

All of these are examples where the person arguing need not also hold the attitude of ‘valuing truth over falsity’.

3. Conclusion

Unlike other cases of linguistic presupposition, Molyneux’s example isn’t a clear case where it has the presupposition he needs it to have for the transcendental argument to be plausible. Consider a plausible case from the Standford page on presupposition:

  1. The dude released this video before he went on a killing spree
  2. Therefore, the dude went on a killing spree

In contrast, Molyneux’s argument is something like this:

  1. You say (as part of an argument) that the world is not flat, but round
  2. Therefore, you believe that the world is not flat, but round

Or possibly:

  1. You make an argument
  2. Therefore, you value truth over falsity.

Yet, all of the examples of contexts given above show that this does not follow. Thus, the implicit transcendental argument contained in Molyneux’s argument here is invalid. Making an argument does not automatically validate the ‘universally preferable behaviour’ of valuing truth over falsity.