Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

Sloppiness won’t save civilization

October 29 2017

The following is an Amazon review of Stefan Molyneux’s The Art of the Argument.


Taking Molyneux at his word that he is sincerely seeking truth, the truth is that he needs to pay much closer attention to his critics. Indeed, sitting down with them one-on-one, and outside of the “win the audience over” podcast format he so excels at could do him a great deal of good, if he did it with the right attitude. Would he bring the right attitude? With remarks like this, I don’t know:

Now, if you tell someone that you notice that more people carry umbrellas on cloudy days, and he replies that he never carries an umbrella, he is simply removing himself from realm of rational argument and revealing himself to be either an idiot, or ridiculously overemotional (two sides of the same coin). Heave a sigh, give him some edible glue, and move on.

To dismiss someone because of a singular perceived logical blunder is usually grossly unfair, arrogant, and self-destructive. (Keep in mind here that Molyneux’s main audience is young males.) I say “perceived” because it may be that the person wasn’t actually being illogical, but rather that they were in a chatty mood and just intending to talk with Molyneux about a related experience.

Civilized people do not dismiss one another because of a single logical blunder. What they do is inquire and correct each other. I am not even saying we ought to be perfectly polite – a “WTF?” may well be in order. If we find someone who is unwilling to answer inquiries or to correct themselves (ahem…), then we dismiss that person intellectually – they’re indeed an uncivilized barbarian. But to be civilized is to recognize that we are human, that we all make mistakes, and that we should give each other opportunities to self-correct.

I am not going to analyze the many mistakes Molyneux makes ad nauseam, but since I have a particular interest in metaethics I will analyze this bit (p. 30):

Also, considering Hume’s argument that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”, we can easily see that the mirror of The Argument destroys The Argument. (1) If we cannot get an “ought” from an “is”, then anyone who tries to argue that we can is wrong. (2) In other words, we (3) “ought not” get an “ought” from an “is”.

(The numbering was added by me for ease of reference.)

This argument is a “nice try, but no cigar.”

If you think that what Hume meant regarding is vs. ought was that you can’t rationally derive an “oughts” at all, then this misunderstanding of Hume’s position might drive you to attempt the absurd and thus fall into such mistaken reasoning as the above, as opposed to finding other actually valid techniques of rationally deriving “oughts.”

(1) is true, of course, but contrary to (2), (3) is not merely another way of stating (1): that we “ought not” argue for what is false (in this case), is an additional premise not contained in (1). (I say “in this case”, because sometimes arguing for what is false is morally permissible – such as if the Nazis are arguing about whether there are Jews in your basement.) In this (1) (2) (3) sequence, Molyneux very ironically retraces precisely the fallacy Hume had warned us of:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality …”

All Hume is indicating here is the humble request: “’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained.” But an observation and explanation is precisely what Molyneux has not given. Instead, (1) underscores a certain contradiction, and then he relies on something implicit and unstated in order to leap to (3). Explicitly naming what this implicit and unstated thing is is precisely the “is-ought problem.” In other words, Molyneux has done nothing here but to turn Hume into a straw man and then skip over the real problem.

In spite of his failure, I think Molyneux’s general approach is vaguely (emphasis on “vaguely”) in the right direction. In this regard it is not unique: others, including myself, have argued similarly. What would be unique is if his argument withstood technical scrutiny. And, for one who claims to be pro-logic, that really matters, because either the argument is sound or it isn’t. If it isn’t technically sound, then it is a failure. Failures can be steps forward, of course, but only if we are willing to learn from them.