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!