Growing up as an undiagnosed Aspie, I found it interesting to see how things worked. This meant systems, patterns of behavior, and so on. Eventually this got me into archaeology and then history. More recently this has morphed into philosophy, neurology, and psychology too though I remain an amateur in all fields.

One thing which has struck me as odd; especially when considering an MA in anthropology, is how many people attempt to create universal theories to explain human behavior. Or worse attempt to create ones to control others. However, I’ve always felt there ought to be basic, common morals and ethics we can all agree on.

Universally preferable behavior (UPB) was created by Stefan Molyneux in order to find an all encompassing secular and logical ethical system. It seeks to prove that theft, assault, murder, and rape are always morally wrong, and why it is universally preferable to not do them. 

Stefan Molyneux is a Canadian philosopher of mixed Irish and German heritage who spent time in the UK before moving to Canada as a child. He has a long running YouTube philosophy channel and the Free Domain Radio website. 

Molyneux believes in logic, truth and reason, and the freedom of people to associate as they wish and to be free of government coercion. This places him beyond libertarianism on the political and philosophical compass. 

  1. Summary

What is universally preferable behavior in a nutshell?

Universally preferable behavior is an attempt by Molyneux to create an objective, rational, scientific, and secular ethical system. In this sense it is an attempt to move beyond religious systems and a rebuttal to postmodern nihilism.

At the end of his book, Molyneux defines UPB in a 12 point list. Here it is:

  1. Reality is consistent and also objective.
  2. Logic is defined as consistent and objective rules derived from reality.
  3. A valid theory conforms to logic.
  4. An accurate theory is confirmed via empirical testing.
  5. A true theory is both valid and accurate.
  6. Life, thought, language, and debating require preferences.
  7. All those in a debate must accept the truth to be universally preferable.
  8. Entering a debate means accepting UPB.
  9. UPB theories must be both logically consistent and empirically verifiable.
  10. Enforceable behavior within UPB is known as morality.
  11. No moral theory is true unless it is logically consistent and empirically verifiable.
  12. All moral theories unsupported by logic and evidence are false.

That’s a lot to get through and to discuss. Each one requires testing and understanding, and any failure would undermine the whole system as they progress rather than stand independently of one another.

  1. Testable Ethics and Ground Rules

Aristotle’s maxim on good ethical systems

According to Stefan Molyneux (I cannot find an exact quote at the moment), Aristotle stated that anyone is welcome to create their own ethical system. However, any ethical system which features rape, theft, assault, and murder is a deficient one. 

Is this correct? Are these 4 things absolute ethical red lines? In my mind, yes. Is my mind correct in believing so? Do they therefore apply to humanity or are they something which I apply to myself (or which others might apply to all)?

These are natural questions to consider and are ones to ask of any ethical position. Are they objectively ethically wrong or is it subjectively ethically wrong? As in, are they matters of fact or matters of opinion?

Therefore an ethical system – here we’ll apply it to Molyneux’s, must not only restate that these things are universally wrong, but must also prove it too.

Molyneux’s ground rules for an ethical system

I’m now going to attempt to quickly summarize his basic philosophical ground rules. Each idea of which could be their own multi-thousand word article. I’m going to attempt to be rather pithy here:

  1. Molyneux accepts Hume’s idea that just because something is does not mean that it ought to be. Therefore preferring something does not automatically make it ethical.
  2. What is subjectively good for one man or for human progress as a whole does not make something ethical.
  3. Ethics cannot be held in a different world or plane beyond rational testing. Therefore there cannot be a higher derivation of ethical values.
  4. Putting the greater good for the majority first is not an indication of ethical behavior. Just as science is absolute according to the scientific method, so should ethics.
  5. Laws cannot automatically reflect absolute ethics and morals. Laws are subjective, varying, and subject to change.
  6. There may be no such thing as ethics or morality. It is possible they are merely instruments of control as insisted upon by Nietzsche.
  7. Respect for human instincts. Most societies and ethical systems among humans are against theft, rape, assault, and murder. As noted above, Aristotle believed no system could promote them, so Molyneux tested his UPB against these.
  8. Respect for the reader means not using patronizing words.
  9. An ethical theory should verify or disprove ethical positions rather than merely restate them.

How do these ground rules work for you? They appear valid to me. Most of them rule out elements and motivations which would lead an ethical system to be subjective or design to benefit those making the system.

It therefore seeks to ensure that if a universal ethical system exists, that it is objective in nature even if not everyone wishes to adhere to it. I like the idea of preferability – something is objectively moral but someone may prefer not to do it or may prefer to do something objectively amoral.

However, there is one caveat I’d add here. Perhaps a 10th ground rule:

  1. Accept that biological malformation or damage may remove a person’s choice when it comes to making ethical decisions. Ethics can exist despite it being impossible for some people to adhere to them.

III. Terms and Premises

I’ve seen enough Stefan Molyneux debates and other debates on YouTube to know that an agreed definition of terms is important. I’m going to attempt to run through some of them now, in order to help understand UPB (of course that includes those three words):

Universal: Applicable to all cases, people, or things in the world.

Preferable: More suitable or desirable. It is impossible to debate the existence of preferences without accepting that preferences exist.

Behavior: How one being acts on its own and towards others.

Objective: Assessment or judgement of something unhindered by personal feelings and opinions. Fact-based research, analysis, and conclusion.

Subjective: Basing assessments and judgements on personal feelings and opinions.

Reality: State of things as they actually exist.

Consistent: Unchanging and reliable. 

Truth: That which is in accordance with reality.

Falsehood: The state of being untrue.

Therefore, from pure definitions, universally preferable behavior is a pattern of actions to the self and to others which is suitable to all humans (and possibly other beings too). It is fairly assessed based on facts and is in accordance with the state of things as they exist.

The 8 premises of universally preferable behavior

Right, we now move on to Molyneux’s 8 premises for debates. I did not define it above, so I will now – a debate is a discussion about a particular subject where arguments are put forward, rebutted, amended, and considered. 

In themselves, debates are not set up to be situations where both sides agree to tell the truth or to seek it. They are arguments over the subject where good behavior is implicit, but which are often subject to bad behavior.

I will agree with Stefan Molyneux that a debate should be based on mutually agreed sets of behavior. However, is this a universally preferable behavior in itself? 

He stated above that any entering into a debate is an acceptance of UPB, but is this true? 

Different people enter debates for different reasons and come armed with separate histories, motivations, emotional states, ideologies, definitions, and so on. We’re unique individuals – even those subservient to external ideologies.

Just because they do does not mean they should – we’re not deriving the ought from the is after all. Accepting that Humean point, we can say that if the truth is universally preferable then seeking the truth in a debate is also universally preferable. Thus we get Molyneux’s premises:

  1. We both exist
  2. The senses can be accurate
  3. Language can have meaning
  4. Correction requires universal preferences
  5. You can objectively separate truth and falsehood
  6. Truth is preferable to falsehood
  7. Pure conversation is best for resolving disputes
  8. Individuals are responsible for their actions

These are good premises to build a debate on. Accepting existence means accepting humanity and thus garners respect. We also then agree on the role of the senses and the meanings of words.

The universal preferences set out in No.4 rest on the idea of No.6 – truth being preferable to falsehood. It also means that correcting a false statement (intended or not) accepts that there is an objective standard and that it is preferable to find it.

Again, I’m trying to think, on the fly, as to any missing premises. If two people were to sit down to a debate and agree premises beforehand, what else might they agree to in a universal manner?

Perhaps that while the truth exists, it may not be possible in the debate to find the truth or to objectively prove it. There is a truth regarding the existence of a God or of Gods, but that truth cannot be proven whether it is positive or negative.

There may be different reasons for this inability to prove or demonstrate a truth. This may be due to a lack of technology, a lack of evidence, or the very fact that an absent of a positive is not an absence of the truth. Furthermore that a negative relies on there being no evidence, but a lack of evidence is not evidence of a negative.

Quick Aside: are the UPB premises found in my Runari philosophy?

Many of these premises are directly related to ideas I’ve formed myself as part of my Runari philosophy. This is why I’ve changed “peaceful debate” to “pure conversation” above. It’s interesting to look at how these principles combine within these premises. 

In terms of the principles of Runari, Molyneux’s UPB premises arise in:

  1. Responsibility
  2. Logic
  3. Truth
  4. Pure conversation

The third premise can also be found within one of the ways of the Runari – the 12 means to developing a better life. This is the Way of the Word. In developing a relationship to words one better understands their meanings, origins, and their usage.

Pure conversation means that any two or more people can discuss any subject in any manner so long as the topic is tackled and not the person. 

  1. Universally Preferable Behavior

Now let’s get to the meat of the subject, finally. Are there behaviors which are universally preferable across humanity? This does not mean they are always kept to, but that it is preferred.

The existence of preferences is universal throughout life. A bold statement? Try arguing that preferences don’t exist. In trying to have the argument you are accepting that preferences exist even if you prefer that they don’t.

Therefore, if preference as a concept is universal, can some preferences be universal?

To determine that, the preference would need to be objectively preferable. 


  1. Theft as an example of UPB


First, we must define theft. In short, theft is the taking of property from one person by another without their permission or without an agreed exchange. In this sense, as Aristotle might say, theft is a negative word and is always so.

Theft in relation to universally preferable behavior

Stefan Molyneux, in a short introduction to UPB, 

Is voluntary injustice possible?

The idea of voluntary injustice is that a person willingly has unjustness done to them. This is different to the idea that they believe an objectively unjust action is good for them. The idea is that they understand it to be unjust but want to receive it.

What does Aristotle say on voluntary injustice? In The Nicomachean Ethics (book 5, 11.6) he states a person cannot be adulterous with their own partner nor can they steal their own property. Therefore, a person cannot voluntarily suffer injustice because if it is voluntary it’s not unjust.

This makes sense and fits with Molyneux’s idea of UPB. 

On the other side we have voluntary or involuntary administering of injustice. It is possible for someone to choose to be unjust but also possible to accidentally be unjust to another. Both are covered by personal responsibility however, even if the former is worse than the latter.

Is universally preferable behavior validated by uniformity?

UPB is an ideal – it’s not broken by people choosing to reject the principles. 

UPB and its relationship to hypocrisy

This reminds me of a common misconception about hypocrisy. It’s often stated as someone saying you must do something – getting drunk for example, only then to go get drunk. 

A person who is against getting drunk in principle, but who is an alcoholic is a flawed human. They understand the principle but are unable to live to it. We are, to varying extents, prisoners to our biology and especially neurology.

In fact, a hypocrite is someone who states a moral is for thee, but not for me. For example, if a politician wants the freedom to say what they want about anyone, but enacts laws to curtail the ability of anyone else to criticise them, is a hypocrite.