Choosing the Zero Point

Sum­mary: You can de­cide what state of af­fairs counts as neu­tral, and what counts as pos­i­tive or nega­tive. Bad things hap­pen if hu­mans do that in our nat­u­ral way. It’s more mo­ti­vat­ing and less stress­ful if, when we learn some­thing new, we up­date the neu­tral point to [what we think the world re­ally is like now].

A few years back, I read an es­say by Rob Bens­inger about veg­e­tar­i­anism/​ve­g­anism, and it con­vinced me to at least eat much less meat. This post is not about that topic. It’s about the way that es­say differed, psy­cholog­i­cally, from many oth­ers I’ve seen on the same topic, and the gen­eral im­por­tance of that differ­ence.

Rob’s es­say referred to the same ar­gu­ments I’d pre­vi­ously seen, but while other es­says con­cluded with the im­pli­ca­tion “you’re do­ing great evil by eat­ing meat, and you need to re­al­ize what a mon­ster you’ve been and im­me­di­ately stop”, Rob em­pha­sized the fol­low­ing:

Frame an­i­mal welfare ac­tivism as an as­ton­ish­ingly promis­ing, effi­cient, and un­crowded op­por­tu­nity to do good. Scale back moral con­dem­na­tion and guilt. LessWrong types can be pow­er­ful al­lies, but the way to get them on board is to give them op­por­tu­ni­ties to feel like munchk­ins with rare se­cret in­sights, not like late­com­ers to a not-par­tic­u­larly-fun party who have to play catch-up to avoid get­ting yel­led at. It’s fine to frame helping an­i­mals as challeng­ing, but the challenge should be to ex­cel and do some­thing as­ton­ish­ing, not to meet a bare stan­dard for de­cency.

That shouldn’t have had differ­ent effects on me than other es­says, but damned if it didn’t.


Con­sider a util­i­tar­ian Ur­sula with a util­ity func­tion U. U is defined over all pos­si­ble ways the world could be, and for each of those ways it gives you a num­ber. Ur­sula’s goal is to max­i­mize the ex­pected value of U.

Now con­sider the util­ity func­tion V, where V always equals U + 1. If a util­i­tar­ian Vader with util­ity func­tion V is fac­ing the same choice (in an­other uni­verse) as Ur­sula, then be­cause that +1 ap­plies to ev­ery op­tion equally, the right choice for Vader is the same as the right choice for Ur­sula. The con­stant differ­ence be­tween U and V doesn’t mat­ter for any de­ci­sion what­so­ever!

We rep­re­sent this by say­ing that a util­ity func­tion is only defined up to pos­i­tive af­fine trans­for­ma­tions. (That means you can also mul­ti­ply U by any pos­i­tive num­ber and it still won’t change a util­i­tar­ian’s choices.)

But hu­mans aren’t perfect util­i­tar­i­ans, in many in­ter­est­ing ways. One of these is that our brains have a nat­u­ral no­tion of out­comes that are good and out­comes that are bad, and the neu­tral zero point is more or less “the world I in­ter­act with ev­ery day”.

So if we’re sud­denly told about a nearby bot­tom­less pit of suffer­ing, what hap­pens?

Our brains tend to hear, “In­stead of the zero point where we thought we were, this claim means that we’re re­ally WAY DOWN IN THE NEGATIVE ZONE”.

A few com­mon re­ac­tions to this:

  • De­nial. “Nope nope that ar­gu­ment can’t be true, I’m sure there’s a flaw in it, we’re definitely still in the nor­mal zone”

  • Guilt. “AAAAHHHH I need to drop ev­ery­thing and work su­per hard on this, I can’t al­low my­self any dis­trac­tions or any bit of hap­piness un­til this is com­pletely fixed”

  • De­s­pair. “Oh no, there’s no way I could get things back up to nor­mal from here, I can’t do any­thing, I’ll just sit here and hate my­self”

The thing about Rob’s post is that it sug­gested an al­ter­na­tive. In­stead of keep­ing the pre­vi­ous zero point and defin­ing your­self as now be­ing very far be­low it, you can re­set your­self to take the new way-the-world-is as the zero point.

Again, this doesn’t change any fu­ture choice a util­i­tar­ian you would make! But it does buy hu­man you peace of mind. What is true is already so- the world was like this even when you didn’t be­lieve it.

The psy­cholog­i­cal benefits of this trans­for­ma­tion:

  • Ac­cep­tance. Is it too scary to con­sider the new hy­poth­e­sis? No! If you ac­cept it, you’ll still start at zero, you’ll just have an op­por­tu­nity to do more kinds of good than you pre­vi­ously thought ex­isted.

  • Relief. Must you feel ashamed for not work­ing your fingers to the bone? No! If you’re push­ing the world into the pos­i­tive zone, it feels much more okay to 80-20 your efforts.

  • Hope. Must you de­spair if you can’t reach your old zero? No! Seen from here, this was always the world, but now you can help move it up from zero! It doesn’t have to go higher than you can reach in or­der to be worth­while.

A few last notes:

  • I re­ally recom­mend do­ing this for one­self first of all, and then ex­tend­ing it to one’s efforts of per­sua­sion.

  • There are a few cases where a des­per­ate effort is called for, but even then we can frame it as build­ing some­thing great that the world ur­gently needs.

  • When it comes to per­sonal virtue, the true neu­tral point for your­self shouldn’t be “do­ing ev­ery­thing right”, be­cause you’re con­sign­ing your­self to liv­ing in nega­tive-land. A bet­ter neu­tral point is “a ran­dom per­son in my refer­ence class”. How are you do­ing rel­a­tive to a typ­i­cal [in­sert job ti­tle or cre­den­tial or hobby here], in your effects on that com­mu­nity? Are you show­ing more dis­ci­pline than the typ­i­cal com­menter on your In­ter­net fo­rum? That’s a good start­ing point, and you can go a long way up from there.

  • (Thanks to Is­nasene for helping me re­al­ize this.) If many bad things are con­tin­u­ing to hap­pen, then the zero point of “how things are right now” will in­ex­orably lead to the world slid­ing into the deep nega­tive zone. The zero point I’ve ac­tu­ally been us­ing is “the tra­jec­tory the world would be on right now if I were re­placed with a ran­dom per­son from my refer­ence class”. That is some­thing that’s within my power to make worse or bet­ter (in ex­pec­ta­tion).

Now go forth, and make the world bet­ter than the new zero!