Stefan Molyneux Vs. The Ant-Men
Updated: Mar 25
(or, Why Stefan Molyneaux Needs Moral Absolutes)
A few days ago Stefan Molyneux debated J. F. Gariepy on the topic of morality. Molyneux argued in favour of Universal Preferable Behaviour (UPB) and J. F. argued in favour of Moral Nihilism.
UPB is an attempt by Molyneux to formulate a system of absolute moral standards built upon a materialist (atheist) foundation. He lays out the reasoning behind UPB in an e-book which is available here. I have not read it, so I cannot claim to fully grasp his reasoning, but as far as I can tell from listening to him on YouTube, he attempts to get around the conventional objections that arise when you try to build absolute moral standards within an atheistic framework by appealing to the concept of “symmetry”, by which I think he may be referring to some form of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. He believes that this “symmetry” makes his moral standards absolute.
J. F. argued in favour of Moral Nihilism, which I would characterize as the belief that in a Godless universe, morality is an illusion, right and wrong do not really exist, and that standards of behaviour can only be described as preferences.
Both Molyneux and J. F. agree that the human mind and the standards of acceptable behaviour adopted by human beings evolved through a process of natural selection.
As a Christian, I was surprised by my own reaction to the debate because although I generally sympathize more with Molyneux and support him financially, I could not identify any flaws in J. F.’s logic. In my opinion, Moral Nihilism is a logical conclusion to reach if God does not exist. Also, I think it is very easy to disprove the possibility of moral absolutes existing in a Godless universe by pointing out that if the human mind and human standards of behaviour are the result of evolution and natural selection, then the way they work is arbitrary---and nothing that is arbitrary can be absolute. Appealing to “symmetry”, whatever Molyneux may mean by the word, does not negate this arbitrariness.
Perhaps I am being unfair. If I read Molyneux’s book, I might have to change my perspective.
If evolution had taken a different path, human beings might have evolved from ants or some other branch on the tree of life, and our conceptions about right and wrong would probably be quite different. Our perceptions of murder, marriage, theft, casual slaughter, personal property, and obedience to authority would doubtlessly be quite different. The primary moral dilemmas facing ant-people might be things that would never occur to us primates. Orson Scott Card speculated about this sort of thing in the Ender's Game novels.
If at some point in the future we encounter aliens who evolved from ant-like ancestors, there would be no way to reconcile our differing concepts of morality. Among the ant-men there would no doubt be an ant-man equivalent to Stefan Molyneux claiming that ant morality is absolute and no compromise is possible. There might be no way for our two races to solve our differences except through the application of force. One side would almost certainly annihilate or subjugate the other.
I believe that this hypothetical situation goes a long way toward explaining why Molyneux is so intent upon formulating moral absolutes despite his atheistic framework. One of Molyneux’s driving principles is the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). He does not believe that anything can be right or true or justifiable if it is based on force. For example, he does not believe that the existence of government is justifiable because government ultimately gets its authority through the threat of force. The hypothetical ant-man confrontation reveals that even his “Universally Preferable Behaviour” ultimately derives its authority from force, which means he would have to reject it. If he had to concede that UPB is not actually universal, and in fact only derives its authority from the willingness of human society to impose it through force, this would devastate his entire worldview.