Zero Sum Thinking

One of the more enlightening ways to think about how humans rationalize their beliefs is through the lens of zero sum thinking. Zero sum thinking is when an individual thinks that a given real world situation is like a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

The name “zero-sum” comes from the fact that when you add the total gains of the participants with the total losses the result is always zero. One example of a zero sum game is the simple game of Odds and Evens. In this game, one player is assigned odds and the other evens. The two players then quickly and simultaneously thrust a fist toward each other extending their finger(s) indicating one or two. If the sum total is 2 (1+1) or 4 (2+2), evens wins. If the sum total is 3 (2 +1 or 1+2), odds wins. The game is straightforward with a clear winner and loser.

In contrast, a non zero-sum game like Prisoner’s dilemma permits both players the additional outcomes of winning or losing together. Unlike Odds and Evens, where you can only win 5 points or lose 5 points (arbitrary number), The Prisoners Dilemma has a spectrum of outcomes ranging from 0-3 years in prison for each person and potentially 4 years of prison collectively. I’ve created the following payoff matrices to highlight the differences between these two games:

The prisoner’s dilemma game (non zero-sum thinking) is often used as a model for many real world situations. Likewise, zero-sum thinking too can be applied to real world scenarios albeit in different contexts. Problems arise however when both types of thinking get applied to the same situation. This clash of thinking is in fact a clash of world views- each side thinking that their version of the ‘game’ is correct. Let’s take a look at some zero-sum thinking in the real world:

  1. Wealth Inequality – The rich get rich at the expense of the poor.
  2. Immigration – More resources for immigrants means less resources for non-immigrants.
  3. Relationships – Loving more than one person at a time means loving each person less.
  4. Skill Set – Having more skills means having less aptitude (Jack of all trades, master of none).
  5. Piracy – Every pirated download is a lost sale (See my Ethics of Piracy article).
  6. Cliques – Stronger membership in one group is weaker membership in another.

The problem with zero sum thinking is not that these ideas are outright false (indeed, there is some truth in these ideas), but rather it’s that these ideas are incomplete. The nature of zero sum thinking is viewing the game through the lens of strict competition despite an alternative path available that can benefit all participants. Whether it’s actually possibly for all participants to choose this path is another question entirely, but it’s important that we know that this is an option. Perhaps there are some things in this world that are doomed to be zero sum, but I believe it’s far less true then we often imagine.

Zero-sum thinking is certainly a legacy of human evolution. In environments where resources like mates, status, and food were perpetually scarce, it’s unsurprising that our experiences could generate this kind of psychological adaption though fierce, but successful competition. As mentioned in my Understanding a Science of Morality article, this knowledge is crucial for helping understand human behavior and ultimately developing a better society. Our evolutionary roots and its influences still has many of us thinking reality is a simple game of winners and losers with no other options available. Nevertheless, as the world advances the path of cooperation will be the only reliable way forward.

Understanding a Science of Morality

In the following post I will attempt to organize some of my thoughts on what constitutes a “science of morality.” I believe there are two main projects for science as it relates to morality:

  1. Explain human behavior through the evolutionary process
  2. Rationalize patterns of behavior we ought to follow or avoid via utility or “well being”

These projects should be considered distinct from one another and we should be careful not to conflate them. Conflating projects 1 and 2 would make the mistake of committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural does not make it good. Likewise, just because something is unnatural does not make it bad. Social Darwinism is in no way a moral ideal- but understanding the implications of natural selection is of great importance for developing a science of morality.

Let’s look at project 1 more in depth. Evolution not only provides the basis for the physical structures of organisms, but the foundations for behavior of organisms as well. This of course includes humans. Evolution can thus provide powerful explanations for our ancient and intuitive ideas about our actions. Vividly so in contrast and comparison with other animals.

Before diving into evolutionary explanations for human behavior, it’s essential to understand the material basis of reality and how human brains perceive reality. It is true that a material reality exists external to the mind. However, we do not perceive this reality directly. Rather, what we experience is a model of reality that is constructed in our minds via the filters of our senses.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this famous philosophical thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well to be frank- the answer is no, there’s no such thing as sound if there is no one to perceive it. Likewise, color, smell, taste, and other sensations are not “real” in the same way. What actually exists are compression waves that travel via the laws of nature, but sound itself is a product of brains.

This is important to understand because what this means is that different organisms and even different people experience and model these waves in completely different modes. Knowing this fact, we can deduce and study how and why evolution gave rise to these different models and experiences of reality. Take for example the smell of human feces. Why does it smell bad to us?

R.G. Price explains it succinctly in one of his essays on evolution:

“It’s not because feces inherently stinks, it’s because our brains have evolved to perceive certain chemicals in feces negatively.

Volatile chemicals emanate from feces and become airborne, where those chemicals are detected by our nose. Feces, especially human feces, is a very common carrier of diseases that can affect humans. Coming into contact with feces dramatically increases an individual’s chance of contracting diseases and therefore dying. A negative perception of the chemicals commonly found in feces results in affecting an individual’s behavior so that they shun feces. The process of evolution selects for individuals who have a negative perception of feces because these individuals have a higher rate of survival as compared to individuals who do not have a negative perception of feces.

Individuals who either don’t smell the chemicals in feces, or who find those chemicals to be attractive, would be more likely to come in contact with feces, and thus they would be more likely to contract a disease and die.

Now, if we compare the human perception of the chemicals in feces to the perception of these same chemicals by flies, then we can conclude that feces probably smells good to flies. When a fly detect the chemicals in feces it most likely creates a pleasurable perception to the fly. This is because feces is a source of food for flies. Flies, since they are insects, are not generally vulnerable to mammalian diseases, so mammalian feces poses no health risk to them. Instead, the organic molecules in feces are a source of nutrition for flies.”

Perception drives behavior. Thus we can explain, at least in part through evolution, how and why our intuitive ideas relating to morality gave rise. From this knowledge we can help distinguish project 1’s “natural” morality from that of an objective morality being established in project 2.

Project 2 deals with the development of a morality of science. While the merits of project 1 is hardly debatable (because it is simply telling us what is influencing human behavior), project 2 seems to be a bit more controversial because it attempts for science to tell us what we ought to do. This criticism, while legitimate, seems to miss the point. Let me explain why.

Values are a specific type of fact. They are empirical statements about the flourishing of conscious creatures in society. Values are by definition what we mean by the word “good.” However, there exists a spectrum of competing values. People and societies make claims that some values are greater than others. This takes the proposition:

X value creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than Y value.

We can therefore use the scientific method to test these claims to see whether or not they are in fact true. For example:

Honesty creates more flourishing of conscious creatures than lying.

Often times we already have intuitions about the truthfulness of certain values. However, a science of morality would allow us to test these intuitions against real world world empirical tests. We can do this by performing simulations and then comparing their outcomes. This could even account for rarities. For instance it may be true that honesty creates more flourishing for conscious creatures in 99% of situations, but it may prove to be false in the context of honesty resulting in death or great suffering.

The point here is that there is a spectrum of competing values always at play in the real world or in other words, a Moral Landscape with peaks and valleys. We can use the scientific method to compare these values and begin the drawings of that moral map.

There is no doubt that a science of morality is in its infancy. Defining the flourishing of conscious creatures is difficult enough- how would we measure this? Wealth? Happiness surveys? Health? Brain Scans? AI Simulations? There are still limits to our tools and understanding. Nevertheless, the foundations of a science of morality are forming and can ultimately shape the morality of our future. The purpose is to expand on it, progress and educate the population like we would with any other science. That is something we certainly ought to do.