UPB Discussion

In case you haven’t yet you may want to read my summary of UPB before delving into the discussion below.

A few comments I have on David Gordon’s arguments against UPB:

The heart of the disagreement between Molyneux and me concerns his conception of universality for moral rules. He holds that all such rules must refer to all human beings without reference to particular times or places. He says in his response that he has argued for this requirement, but in fact he hasn’t. He has simply repeated his requirement a number of times.

UPB is the examination of all those theories that propose universal behavioral rules, independent of time and place, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t see why scoping out the subject matter at hand would be something to argue about.

It would be kind of like me saying that I disagree that biology is the examination of theories regarding organic matter. It would be a mere disagreement on preferences about what I think certain words ought to mean, void of any logical or empirical inquiry.

Yet if I were to shoot down every biological theory that the other person proposes on the grounds that it doesn’t also apply to rocks, we will never be able to have a constructive debate. Keep this comparison in mind now as we move forward to examine David’s core objections.

Rape cannot be UPB because sexual penetration is only rape if it is unwanted — thus one man must
want to rape, while the other man must desperately not want to be raped, which means that both of them cannot simultaneously value rape as universally preferable behavior.

Suppose that A is trying to rape B. A wants to rape B but B does not want to be raped. This is entirely consistent with both A’s and B’s thinking that A is morally obligated to rape B. It isn’t a requirement of logic that B want A to do whatever A is morally obligated to do.

First of all, if a theory says person A is obligated to rape person B and thus introduces specific individuals, then it has already stepped outside the bounds of universality, and thus fails to qualify as a UPB rule to begin with. The writer confuses Stefan’s hypothetical test scenario of two people in a room, merely a tool to examine moral theories more closely, with an actual moral (=universal) theory.

Secondly, Stef said in his paragraph that sexual penetration is only rape if it is unwanted by one while wanted by the other party. In other words the term rape by definition requires that one person prefer the act in question and another not prefer it. Thus the theory that rape can be preferred by everybody is in itself a logical contradiction because it uses a word that by definition rules out universal preference. David, in his criticism, switches from “wanted” to “obligated” which changes the intended meaning of the original paragraph and thus leads to confusion.

Thirdly, let’s take aside my above argument and assume the theory in question was a universal theory and the “obligated” vs “wanted” switch didn’t matter: It is still completely immaterial to the validity of a moral theory whether or not A and B both have the ability to believe that it is valid during the act of rape. The entire world could believe that it is a valid moral theory, the truth or falsehood of a theory of universally preferable human behavior depends first and foremost on its internal consistency, not on whether or not everyone could potentially hold it to be valid in their own minds. What Stef was pointing out was a logical contradiction that is implied in the theory in question in and of itself, a contradiction that arises out of the meaning behind the word rape, that is unwanted sexual penetration.

The argument against rape that I found the most philosophically interesting in his book is a different, though related, one. If rape is morally required, then acting against rape is evil, i.e., as Molyneux defines this, morally proscribed. But in order for rape to occur, the victim must resist the rapist. If the victim does not resist, then rape has not taken place. Thus a moral rule that required rape could be put into practice only if evil behavior, i.e., resisting rape, takes place. The purported rule, then, is inconsistent with everyone’s acting as morality dictates.

This argument depends on a questionable premise. If you are obligated to do something, then, plausibly, you can’t also be obligated not to do it. (Some philosophers think that people can sometimes have inconsistent obligations, but I don’t want to appeal to that view here.) But it doesn’t follow from this that everyone else is obligated not to resist what you are doing. Suppose that you are obligated to take care of your child, who needs a medication that only I have on hand. I’m not obligated to give it to you or to sell it to you: perhaps, e.g., someone else also needs the medication. If I do not let you have the medication, I’m not by that fact alone engaging in morally proscribed behavior.

The above confuses the nature of coercive vs. non-coercive behavior. David’s sample theory implies no occupation of anyone’s body against his will (=force). When a theory proposes that a certain behavior is universally preferable and the behavior in question by definition requires that another person not perform that very behavior, or even resist it, then the theory faces a logical contradiction. (I do agree, by the way, with David’s footnote that rape doesn’t necessarily require resistance on the part of the victim since he may acquiesce out of fear or be unconscious/asleep, but I don’t think it poses any problem to the validity the methodology of UPB). Taking care of my child involves no forceful infliction of any behavior upon another passive 3rd party on the receiving end and thus doesn’t qua definition require that another person, say, not take care of his child.

Molyneux says, “This is one of a few arguments against ‘theft as UPB’ in the book — a thief is both violating and affirming property rights when he steals, which is a logical contradiction.”

This argument doesn’t work. A thief is someone who takes what doesn’t belong to him. He wants what he steals, but this does not entail that he thinks he is the legitimate owner of the pilfered goods. To take something is not to make a moral claim to own it. Sometimes people do what they acknowledge that they ought not to do. The thief, one presumes, would not want someone else to take from him what he has stolen; but that does not entail that he would deem someone who did this a violator of his property rights.

Again, this switches the focus from the theory in question itself onto what may or may not go on in the mind of an actor who performs the act that the theory claims universal preference for. What the thief thinks is completely irrelevant! The fact of the matter is that a thief asserts and then retains physical control over an item, combatting potential force in the process and thereafter with force in turn. But the theory of property rights says just that: that it is proper to retain your physical control over things by means of force if necessary.

So if a theory says that theft is universally preferable then it favors the perpetrator of theft by granting him permission to act in opposition to the victim’s property rights, precisely by applying the very concept of property rights in the process. This is the logical contradiction that Stef was referring to above from what I understand.

Since we own our bodies, we also inevitably own the effects of our actions, be they good or bad. If we own the effects of our actions, then clearly we own that which we produce, whether what we produce is a bow, or a book — or a murder.

I am surprised that Molyneux calls attention to a sentence that is evidence of a gross confusion on his part. You cause the effects of your actions and are responsible for them, but it does not follow from this that you “own,” in the moral or legal sense, these effects. What does it mean to “own” a murder?

I’m not sure if David is here asking a genuine question, but in case he is I would like to answer it: Ownership means direct or indirect control over the location of certain matter in space. In the case of a murder this would mean the control over all the relevant tools needed in the process, the coordination of accomplices or the hitman, the slain body, etc.

Again, he may have a different, namely legal, definition in mind but I see no point in getting into a debate about the practicability of terms, unless he thinks that terms were being blatantly misused to manipulate language. In my opinion, from the context, it is clear to me that Stefan is referring to the factual ownership over things, that is the exercise of physical control over matter in space.

The term ownership here is thus of purely observational praxeological nature. Mises has actually done a lot to distinguish the praxeological from the legal meaning of the word “ownership”.

Well, since property rights are a subset of ethics, they must be universal — if universalizing 50% ownership causes ever-declining ownership, clearly the theory has some problems, to say the least. The fact that 50% ownership cannot be rationally sustained is entirely my point. His issue here seems to be with mathematics, not my book.

But, whether rightly or wrongly, I denied that universalizing 50 percent ownership has this consequence. The 50 percent rule is that if I acquire an object, I own half of it. This rule does not prescribe that this half share may be reduced by another half, this quarter share by another half, etc. That is another rule. Molyneux ignores my objection and repeats what he said in his book. One can only echo one of his followers. “Well done, Stef.”

This is a strange argument indeed, and one of us must be missing something very obvious here. I’m saying it’s strange because to me the flaw in David’s line of reasoning seems so crystal clear that I may very well be missing something here.

Stefan said very clearly that UPB examines rules that apply to all people at all times and all places. The conflicting theories that he compares here are:

  • Everyone who obtains a new piece of property should own 100% of that property.
  • Everyone who obtains a new piece of property should own x% of that property, x being anything less than 100.

Using the example of x=50 he explains how this latter rule would create a practical challenge, because every time someone obtains a new piece of property, someone else obtains 50% of that, but then that means that someone else obtains 50% of that particular item, and so on and so forth. This is not necessarily a logical refutation of the theory (it may very well be), but at the very least it is a pretty important practical challenge in for sure!

As far as the origination of ownership, I actually believe that UPB provides a neat framework to establish valid theories in that field. For example, a short version of my approach to that would be:

  • A human being can initially only have gained control over things by means of homesteading land supplied by nature
  • A human being can consciously and willingly surrender control over said property, making it available to other humans
  • A particular version of such a surrender would be a mutual swap of different items amongst two different human beings, also known as exchange
  • All human beings at all times and all places are allowed to retain control over their (homesteaded or exchanged) things by means of force.

The final bold point would be the theory that could be examined and compared to all conflicting theories as to its logical consistency and also empirical prevalence in moral systems and beliefs in general.

You may also be interested in what I wrote in The Ethics of Voluntaryism – An 8 Step “Cross Examination under #5 where I delve into more detail on this.

In any case, I hope that this helps shed some light on what my take on the recent UPB discussion is and of course as always I am open to feedback and correction.

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