Non-zero-sum James

Writer / Editor @ Non-Zero-Sum Games
20 karmaJoined Working (15+ years)Auckland, New Zealand


Strong believer in effective altruism and have taken the giving pledge. My weekly blog at is a world-help site of sorts - focussing on win-win games as essential to facing global issues. I explore game-theoretical approaches to real world issues in an accessible way, using illustrations, simulations and badly drawn graphs.

I’m a Documentary filmmaker who has spent over 20 years researching, interviewing and building stories around the world - everything from the war in Afghanistan, to life in inner-city Los Angeles, to an Aussie bloke with 34 dogs. I'm a life long student, with passion for creating a better world.

How others can help me

I am interested in sharing good ideas, discussion, even argument - if you find my work interesting please share it with those you think would be interested. I realise EA is a niche interest, finding those special people requires casting the net wide.

How I can help others

If you would like to write an article to be featured and illustrated on the site I'm open to proposals that are in line with the ethos of the site. Otherwise I hope to help the world by contributing to positive, productive and pro-social solutions to an information-sphere that can otherwise be dominated by negativity and conflict. Please feel free to use any resources on the site, or request I cover a particular topic.


Thanks, yes, I draw them myself on an iPad, lots get recycled when they are relevant to new posts but I usually do 3 or 4 new sketches per post. It’s my little push back against the generative AI Revolution

A really interesting comment, you've obviously had some experience thinking about this from a different angle to me, but nice to see we agree on the positive masculinity types.

  1. Patriarchy: Strangely enough the idea of patriarchy didn't even occur to me while writing this, which is a bit of an admission, as it's obviously relevant! I hadn't conceived of a male-initiated down-with-the-patriarchy movement, but it makes sense, when you point to the way in which patriarchy manipulates the expectations of young men, which inevitably leaves them disappointed and vulnerable to radicalisation.
  2. Gendering ideas: I tend to agree with you, and it was a concern while writing. My reason for going along with the gendering of courage (although I do at three points mention that women also have these attributes) was that I am trying to get at the issue of men who find their masculinity very important, and perceive that it's being denied them, or stripped away, outlawed. By recognising the positive aspects of masculinity, and not denying it I hope not to alienate those who I most want to reach.
  3. Getting outcompeted by liars: I hear you. I may be yelling into the wind, but hopefully if enough of spout enough sense we can drown out the anti-social voices. Or perhaps, if we keep discussing these things we'll come up with more effective argument and convince them with reason... (wishful thinking I know).

Thanks for your critique, I appreciate you helping me hone my ideas and bringing other important pieces to the puzzle. I will check out that video :)

Fair points.

To me courage is doing what you're afraid of doing when you know it's the right thing to do. It has a two-fold definition that protects it somewhat from abuse. Strength for instance does not have this additional aspect. Now, I agree it can go wrong if someone has a flawed idea of what is right, but that's an additional issue that's complicates literally everything—if something had to be immune to a flawed sense of right and wrong then nothing would pass that test. Courage at least requires good intent, and it furthermore requires something difficult, so it guards against convenience too.

To produce a modern positive conception of manliness, I think you need to start from a place of thinking about awesome things men do.

I agree, though in my defence this is exactly what I was trying to do, pointing out men's risk-seeking nature and their ability to do courageous things, as a major positive and trying to apply it to a world where opportunities for exercising courage are different.

Given the world we live in, courage—doing the hard thing when it's the right thing to do, does play out in workplaces and homes, it can play out in physical exploits too (perhaps I could have talked about the thriving rock climbing community of which I am a part) but if you try doing the hard thing for the right reasons even in those mundane situations, I can assure you, from experience it does make you feel more masculine. In saying this, of course (and I clarify this 3 times in the post) courage is not the sole purview of men, women do courageous things all the time—but I think all men can agree that if there is such a thing as masculinity, courage is a significant part of it.

I disagree that saying someone hurt you can't...

...possibly be regarded as a distinctively manly virtue".

I can only say that, from experience, there is a distinctively masculine experience that a man has when they are honest despite their pride or habits. It is the same act—doing the difficult thing—that running toward enemy fire is, and takes a lot more courage to do than the simulacra of courage we take part in when playing Call of Duty for instance.

Exhibiting genuine courage in a different environment, with different variables is not about re-defining courage, it's about finding what that very same courage means in a new context.

Hi Nathan,

Thanks so much for your reply, I really appreciate you taking the time to critique the post in so much detail. I have taken your points on board and have actually edited the page on the site to try and address many of your concerns. It was largely a restructure of the content with some clarifications and elaborations. I moved the Adler material all into the same section, to allow the reader to sit with him for a bit rather than getting a taste and having to wait til the end to get the point (I often struggle with expecting readers to wait for a payoff without making it clear that a payoff is coming, and by the time it comes they've lost the logical connection). I also moved the philosophical digression to the end as it's more a big picture idea that broke the flow of the main argument, I also clarified that how taking a purely determinist or free-will philosophical approach is not productive in this particular issue.

I've tried to make the double standard as clear as possible, putting it in a blockquote box, and reiterating it at the end. The a, b, c, d points you make are all messages I want the reader to take away, but I see them all rather as reasons for taking on the positive double standard. No one of them is meant to be of particular focus, but rather they are all reasons from different angles that point to the same solution.

Regarding the crisis of confidence (I don't expect you to read the related material / footnotes) but I had included a mention in the footnotes.

I have also pointed towards evidence for the efficacy of a philosophy of 'personal responsibility' knowing that the positive psychology of Martin Seligman has come under question in recent years. I feel that, as I am using it essentially as a counterpoint to my argument, it's appropriate to present it charitably.

My main point is not that people should necessarily take on self-help ideology / 'personal responsibility", but rather that if they do, they shouldn't then demand 'personal responsibility' in this way from society. I was making the case for the efficacy of personal responsibility on an individual level only to be fair to those who find it effective, so I was being charitable to the research that supported this. So, I accept your criticisms about this and largely agree.

Again I really appreciate your reply. I was a little baffled why the votes were so negative to what I thought was a fairly positive post that I assumed would resonate with the EA community. It's nice in a way to hear that the response may have been mostly to do with bad writing rather than a bad idea.

Hey there, if you happen to disagree with this idea, please post a comment, I’m a little confused as to the downvotes, so would love to know what the disagreement is, after all a downvote doesn’t really constitute a valid rebuttal, in fact neither do many downvotes :)

Hi Nathan,

I'm really sorry, I didn't actually mean to include that sentence! After making the claim, based on the quote alone, I read the article and indeed the author provides plenty of supporting evidence for his claims. I had thought I'd deleted the sentence before sending.

I've edited that sentence out now. Sorry for wasting your time having to make the case against it.

I only meant to make the claim that Bregman doesn't make the claim as plainly as the reviewer makes out, and that Bregman does a good job of providing his own evidence—detailing how much inherited wisdom today comes from flawed research.

Thanks for your comment.

Bregman doesn't make this assertion in Humankind, but rather makes a well-supported case that systems of control and incentives play to our worst instincts. Bregman provides vast supporting evidence for his claims, and over-turned many of my fundamental assumptions about the nature of humanity—which I had simply gleaned from popular psychology and "common sense", through the weight of the evidence he provides.

I recommend both his recent books highly. While he may be pushing a particular narrative, it is one that is a counterweight to the prevailing distorted narrative of humanity passed down by the likes of Golding, Milgram and Zimbardo.

Hey Matt, I thought this was really interesting. I think the mistake people make is seeing saving lives as a very isolated (subjective) good, which is at odds with collective goods (zero-sum thinking), when actually saving lives has a load of other cumulative benefits also. For instance lowering infant mortality lowers the birth rate, mitigating overpopulation, not having family members die is better for people's mental health and productivity, and not being starving also means people can reach their potential, contributing more to the world as a whole.

Those people who don't die, and aren't starving might very well be those that solve the asteroid crisis. I've always been a Karl Popper fan for this very reason, that quantifiable goods in the here and now don't necessarily contradict distant unquantifiable goods, in fact, as you lock in piecemeal rights and well-being factors for people, that layer of security can be built upon, making future benefits more likely.