You and a friend are arguing over a physics question that the two of you got different answers to. The question is as follows: "You are on a train speeding seventy miles per hour east, while you run 5 miles per hour west. How fast are you moving?"
Well, the answer is obvious, you think to yourself. The question specifically says that I'm running 5 miles per hour west, so I must be moving 5 miles per hour west. The extra information about the train is just there to confuse me.
Your friend is just as convinced: If the train is moving 70 miles per hour east, and I'm running 5 miles per hour west, then my speed must be 70 minus 5, or 65 miles per hour east, he reasons. I guess this guy must just be one of the slower kids in the school. The next five minutes are spent in argument because you're telepathic and can hear your friend's mocking thoughts.
Then, because this was actually one of those dreams where you're back in high school and don't know any of the answers on the test, Galileo materializes in front of you.
"Forsake these notions of absolute velocity!" he booms. "Woe unto you, who have so quickly forgotten my doctrine of Galilean relativity! You are traveling 5 miles per hour west relative to the train, and 65 miles per hour east relative to the train tracks. You’re also zipping at like a bajillion miles per hour around the sun."
You are both deeply embarrassed, and have learned your lesson. You will always be careful to understand that a single number is usually meaningless: What matters is the relationship between some numbers. To talk about velocities, you need a reference point, something whose velocity has been fixed by agreement, at which point you can start to talk about
Galileo smiles at you both as he fades away into the abstract concept of experimentation and hands you Old Spice cleaning products because this was actually a really weird commercial for soap.
It’s temptingly easy to argue absolute velocities.
Take Scott’s SSC post, "How Bad Are Things?"
This is also why I am wary whenever people start boasting about how much better we’re doing than back in the bad old days. That precise statement seems to in fact be true. [… But] I don’t think we have any idea how many people do or don’t have it pretty good.
Now, it's true that the world having improved doesn't imply that the average person's life is good right now -- but that’s mostly because the question of whether the average person's life is good or bad is too vague to be answered. Is the average person's life good or bad by what standard? How many people have it "Pretty good" depends almost entirely on what bar you pick, and not at all on how good people's lives actually are.
No matter how obvious the right bar seems to you, where it should go is debatable. You could put the bar as low as bare subsistence, since people who are alive and have not killed themselves presumably prefer life to death, implying their life is valuable to them and therefore a net good. You could set the bar at the average person’s quality of life. You could pick some "Acceptable" quality of living based on what you think constitutes a bare minimum. You could stop making me list examples since I'm running out of them. There are infinitely many lines you can pick to divide good and bad, and all are at least somewhat arbitrary.
Or maybe you’re arguing about whether the world is fundamentally a good place or not. So let’s imagine that there is a moralometer, way out past Alpha Centauri, which can perfectly measure the amount of good in the universe. Having discovered this moralometer, you can now read off its precise output: The amount of good in the world is exactly equal to 1,276,642.
You might be a bit disappointed to hear that this number has changed exactly zero opinions, because without having anything to compare it to, this number doesn't mean anything.
This sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? We have two free variables, two questions we are trying to answer at the same time, but the answer to each depends on the other. "Is this possible world good" fails to be meaningful even if we completely agree on both ethics and on the state of the world, because we haven’t set a reference point for what’s “Good.”
So the question of whether a possible world is good might be a meaningless one parsed literally. But nobody parses the question literally. Nobody tries to calculate the total amount of good before comparing it to a predetermined standard to see if it's above or below it.
No, the truth is much worse. As soon as you’re discussing whether something is “Good” or “Bad” instead of “Better” or “Worse,” you’ve already failed. As soon as you start to argue about whether a policy, a choice, or anything else would be “Good,” you’ve left a free variable in the equations, and that way lies confusion.
Your subconscious is far better at tricking you than you give it credit for. Give it a single opening, leave a single definition unspecified, and it will immediately grasp for any positive affect that it can attach to help you win your argument; your subconscious is interested in winning arguments, even if they’re meaningless, not in being right. Without you ever noticing, your brain will seize on a reference point that lets you call your position “Good,” and anyone who dislikes your position will just as easily find a reference point that will deny you this victory. After all, what word has more positive affect than the word “Good” itself?
Just since I started writing this post, I’ve noticed at least half a dozen conversations falling into this failure mode. The most recent was a discussion on the US healthcare system where about thirty minutes in I realized with extreme embarrassment that the other person wasn’t actually disagreeing with me on whether some candidate’s particular healthcare plan was an improvement over the current US healthcare system -- they just thought that this plan was worse than some other candidate’s healthcare plan.
There’s a couple suggestions I can make to help avoid this mistake.
The first is, beware of ascribing anything some inherent property of “Good” or "Bad." As soon as you hear these words come up in a discussion, start worrying. You will notice that the CBO score on bills does not include a section saying "By the way, this law contains an essence of goodness." (Or, if it does, you should start worrying for completely different reasons). Hearing discussions of "Good" and "Bad" are common, albeit not perfectly reliable, signals that your argument has gone off track. The same goes for any word that implies making an absolute judgment (especially one with emotional affect) rather than a relative one.
Usually, the words you're looking for are “Better” and “Worse.” “Democratic candidate# 247’s healthcare policy is better than #233’s” is far less likely to fall prey to this problem than “Democratic candidate #247’s healthcare policy is good.” 4 None of this is to say that you can never use the words good/bad (everyone knows what you mean when you say “Killing is bad”), but the situations where you disagree with someone are very rarely the same situations where you can afford even an ounce of vagueness.
At some point in the healthcare discussion laid out above, someone mentioned something along the lines of “Yeah, but better than the American healthcare system is a low bar to clear,” or “Yeah, of course that plan is better than the American healthcare system as it is right now, because it’s terrible.” This is the smoking gun, and how I realized I was making this mistake. As soon as you hear this, you know the conversation has fallen into this failure mode, or is about to do so unless you immediately wrench it off of this track.
Remember this: There. Are. No. Objectively. Low. Or. High. Bars. To figure out if a bar is high or low, you need another bar; and if you ask the first bar, it’s the other one that’s the problem. A bar can be bad at conveying information, i.e. “Passing this law would be better than starting a genocide,” but it can't be wrong.
Moving the reference point is the last refuge of the scoundrel; the temptation to do so is strongest when you are losing, when the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Recognizing this temptation, and knowing when it is strongest, is the first step towards resisting it.
Remember that even if you think the reference point you’re using is probably obvious, it is not. People will pick terrible reference points even when there's a perfectly good reference point that the rest of the world uses; see America's insistence that water must freeze at exactly 32 degrees. In my healthcare discussion, I thought that the reference point “The way things are right now” was obvious. It was not.
You have to be damn sure that the reference point is obvious before you use it. In the absence of a reference point for good/bad being declared, assume that the reference point is "This is preferable to inaction/no change," but anything less clear than “Murder is bad” (reference point clearly intended to be not murdering people) should probably be avoided. Most importantly, if someone disagrees with a claim you've made along the lines “X is good/bad,” proceed to set an explicit reference point.
After all, arguing absolute velocities is pretty bad.
- I do feel the need to point out that Scott’s post is still pretty good overall as long as you recognize the implied reference point Scott’s using is “How good the average person thinks other people’s lives are,” and the intention of the post is to show that the actual level is below this. It’s just that other people are using other bars, and as phrased this is easy to misinterpret.
- If only I had some nice, convenient reference point I could use, like how good the world has been in the past! I mean, this is my first thought for a reference point to use, and so questions about whether the world is good or not are turned into a question of whether the world is better than it once was. I suspect lots of the people talking to Scott made the same subconscious leap as I would.
- Let’s admit it though, a monkey banging on your head with a wrench whenever you felt sick would be an improvement over the current US healthcare system.
- This joke will not age well, but goddammit, I’m leaving it in anyways. Not like anyone’s gonna be reading this more than a year from now. Any potential time-travellers should know that 20 candidates qualified for the first Democratic debate.