The Story Points Ethical Calculus


Finding a Numerical Value for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

An exploratory essay by Alexander G. M. Smith.

Thanks to Douglas Adams for coming up with the idea.
Please use the hashtag #StoryPointsEC to refer to this topic online.
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The Story Points Ethical Calculus is an algorithm which uses information theory (lossy data compression size) to measure the interestingness of the story of the whole universe. From that principle, life itself is found to be the best tool for improvement of the Universe. On a smaller scale, ethical choices can become simpler when considered in the light of their contribution to the Universe's story. This essay explains Story Points, compares it to other ethical rules, and looks at a fictional future where Story Points are used to guide people's plans.


There are many systems of ethics used for making decisions, sometimes several of them are used at the same time by the same person. I'll be concentrating on normative ethics, where ethics are used for deciding on what actions to take in the real world. An ethical calculus is an algorithm (often with a bit of mathematics, that's the calculus part) which people* can use when choosing their actions to satisfy some larger purpose. It could be a simple rule, like the Golden Rule, or a mathematical scoring system where people try to improve the score of the whole universe.

Many ethical codes and definitions of morality (proper behaviour) have been created over the ages, but few are of general use for life forms small to galactic sized. Technically most of these rule systems are algorithmic since they are rule based, but the ones where you can compute something also have the advantage of being able to more directly compare situations, actions and other things. I'll describe the Story Points ethical calculus in detail, since it provides an innovative numerical answer to the meaning of life, from microbe to galactic civilization.

Should Everything be Ranked?

First, there's the question of whether this essay should be written at all. Should ethical calculi be used to compare things? Or would that cause more trouble than it's worth?

Doing comparisons was discussed long ago in the "Judge not, that ye be not judged" passages in the Christian Bible (Matthew chapter 7 in the King James version). Matthew's main point is about judging fairly, without hypocrisy or bias towards oneself (ignoring the plank in your eye while complaining about the splinter in your brother's eye), a good attribute for an objective comparison method.

Comparisons are a touchy subject for many people, but that seems to depend on the culture. For example, in Western culture (North America circa 2000) salaries are kept secret; something not to be mentioned. Perhaps that's because it would enable comparison of people at the same workplace, and feelings would be hurt for people lower on the scale, or management might have to pay fairer wages. Yet go back a couple of centuries in England and you'll find Jane Austen's characters comparing potential suitors by their annual income. Modern Norway does make income and taxes* publicly available which lets you snoop on your neighbours, but it also makes for fairer taxes (tax evasion becomes public) and fairer salary levels (you can see if you're being underpaid or overpaid for the kind of work you do, and can decide if moving elsewhere would be beneficial).

It seems that allowing comparisons leads to better decisions for the group as a whole, at the expense of some hurt feelings. Rather than avoiding comparisons and making decisions badly, it's worthwhile looking at ethics systems to see if we can come up with a way of rating things from good to bad, so that we can make better decisions and take better actions.

Story Points

In a nutshell, the meaning of life, the universe and everything is the score of the story* of the universe evaluated at the end of time.

The best way to explain the rationale for the Story Points Ethical Calculus (SPEC*) is to follow the path I took. While mulling over things during one of my long riverside exercise walks in the mid 1990s, I contemplated the energy (mostly light) flowing from a star to outer space. Expanding on the wish for the universe to be more interesting than just that straight forward energy flow out to infinity lead to Story Points. It isn't finished and likely isn't the best answer, but it's still a good partial answer to the question of the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Maybe somebody else will be inspired by it to come up with something better.

Energy Flows

It seems a bit of a waste, all that energy flowing from a star out in mostly straight lines* off to infinity, just decreasing in brightness the further it has gone, ending up doing nothing. It's also very simple to describe mathematically.

If the energy hits a planet, asteroid, speck of dust or other material object, it bounces around a bit, perhaps gets absorbed (heating up the object) and re-emitted (cooling the object) and eventually continues on to deep space*. Now it is more interesting; there's more of a story there, more different things happen than just travelling to infinity.

After a few bounces, the story gets boring if they're all the same kind of bounce. Rather than describing every bounce we can compress the story down to describing some typical bounces and how many of them there are. At an even lower level of detail (the level of detail needed depends on the kind of audience listening to the story, among other things), the story of the object can be reduced to just the temperature of the object. So, for stories to be interesting, besides the sheer number of things happening, there has to be a bit of variety. More convoluted flow and more hard to predict events make the story longer and more interesting.

Just increasing the temperature is notable, but what if it does something more complex to the state of the object? Think of something like an arcade pinball game where the balls (standing in for photons) hit objects and change the state of both. Even more interesting is when a state change makes the subsequent balls react differently (such as a ramp being moved to a new orientation or a drop target dropping, both changing the shape of the area the balls move around in). Enough energy will make plain matter crack, liquify, vapourise, explode and even start nuclear fusion. Matter and energy can do more than just being hot. However, it's a physical process which is possible to describe in relatively short stories using the mathematics of physics.

For the ultimate in convoluted energy flow and good stories, we need to have active systems, ones that change shape as the energy flows, like the pinball game. Currently the best system we have for that (on planet Earth, circa 2014) is biological life based on cells living in a watery world, followed by technologically created active matter (mostly electronic computers controlling electro-mechanical machinery). Indeed you could define Life as anything which changes in interesting ways in reaction to energy flowing. As a way of making things interesting, self reproducing life is the most effective tool I know of.

Using a Score to Count Story Interestingness

From my experiences with computer games, giving a score to everything is a convenient way of combining all sorts of things into an overall goal for the player. For measuring the interestingness of the Universe, I'd like to evaluate all the events in the history of the universe from the beginning to the end of time*.

Audience Required

Interestingness needs to be measured relative to an observer. We really can only say how interesting the story is to an audience of some sort. Initially the audience is of course just me, contemplating the universe (including sticks and ants).

To combine religion and the Story Points system, the audience would consist of God(s) alone. However, God doesn't make His goals known to mortals, at least not in enough detail to assign points to stories, so we can't practically use Him as the audience.

Perhaps the audience should include all kinds of sentient* creatures. I'm not sure if we should weight the audience makeup by uniqueness of species, or by quanitity, or just give one vote to every sentient ever existing. It would also be nice if the audience could tell us the score of a particular story, for example valuing the story of an ant climbing up a stick as being worth 1* point and a dog chasing a ball as being worth 3 (chasing and catching a ball make it more interesting than just climbing) and construction of an office tower being worth 650 (many different activities to watch over a longer duration).

Repetition and the Natural Logarithm

But how should those stories be counted? If many of them are the same, then the overall interestingness should be less than a simple sum since all audiences I know of get bored with observing the same thing over and over again. As a first attempt at figuring out how to devalue repetition, try taking one plus* the natural logarithm of the number of times it happens. Where n is the number of times the event happens, the formula for the scale factor is 1 + ln(n). I'm using the natural logarithm because it models decay factors for many things in the real world.

For an example of its use, consider a single event that is worth X score points (we'll worry about how much X is later), then having it happen 10 times is (1 + ln(10)) * X = 3.303 X, rather than the 10 * X = 10 X. Or in words, watching an ant crawl up a stick 10 times is three and a bit times more interesting than watching it crawl up the stick once. Watching that ant crawl up all those sticks would take a lot of time; tedium would reduce or even wipe out the 3.303 interestingness factor. To get rid of the boredom time factor, consider watching a scene with 100 ants crawling up 100 sticks at once, a kind of a parallel parade of ants, which takes just as long as one ant. Would that be 100 times as interesting as watching one ant crawl up a stick? Or more like 5.6 times as interesting? That seems more reasonable. How about 1000 ants? 1000 times as interesting as a single ant or just 7.9 times? Then 10000 ants would be 10.2 times as interesting as one ant.

As groups (clan, tribe, kingdom, state, civilization) get larger, they do things that are more interesting. I'm not sure if it's just a linear function of group size or if network effects boost the quality of interesting things the group does. It would be nice to know if the overall interestingness is proportionately more for the larger group, since being larger also means more people doing similar things, decreasing the interestingness.

Consider someone living in a clan of hunters compared to a person living in a city: the city dweller can do more different things (work & leisure - all sorts of jobs, hunting, sports, raising a family, travel, books, etc) than a hunter (hunting, limited travel, raising a family, story telling). Yet there are many more similar city people, so the interestingness of the city is not tremendously greater than of the hunting clan. If city life is 20 times more interesting (just a guess for example purposes) for a particular person, and the city is 1,000,000 people compared to the clan with 100 people, we get the city score of 50ish times the clanish score (city is 20 * (1 + ln (1000000)) = 296, clan is 1 * (1 + ln (100)) = 5.6, ratio is 296 / 5.6 = 53). With 10,000 clans (for a million people), the score is 5.6 * (1 + ln (10000)) = 57 as compared to the city's 296. With roughly the same number of people, the city is only 296/57 = five times more interesting overall than the same number of people in clans, despite being 20 times more interesting for individual people. That makes me wonder if the natural logarithm is the correct scaling factor for quantity, since I think you'd get a lot more stories and variety out of a city of a million people than the stories from 10,000 clans. Somebody would have to go out and actually count stories to see what's more interesting, and then rethink the math.

Data Compression

Data compression is another way of handling repetition of story events, in a way that conveniently also solves some of our audience selection problems.

Data compression roughly works by describing a new event as references to other similar event(s) in the story plus the changes needed to modify the descriptions of other event(s) into the description of the new event.

For example video, which is made up of a sequence of still pictures (or frames) displayed rapidly*, can be compressed by making up a new frame using bits and pieces of previous (or even future) frames plus a few new picture elements. Thus if there is lots of repetition in the video, it can be compressed tremendously by refering to the previous similar pictures rather than going to the trouble of fully describing the new picture.

Lossy compression was developed to give even more compression, by throwing away data that the observer wouldn't notice. For video this can include such things as making a moving object blurry rather than sharply drawn, since Human vision blurs moving objects due to the response time of the eye. Similarly, eyes don't notice changes in colour as well as they detect changes in brightness, so you can throw away some of the colour data. For audio it can mean leaving out higher frequency noises, again because Human ears can't hear them. For textual stories it means leaving out details irrelevant to the plot. By the way, this has the side effect of making it easier for the experienced reader to predict what happens next since only significant details are written down. Though that backfires for detective mysteries, where clues become obvious because they have to be written down while non-clues aren't mentioned. This results in the author having to add more detail to hide the clues (red herrings), kind of the opposite of lossy compression!

Putting together lossy data compression and an audience, we get a new way of measuring the worth of a story. If the compressed version of the story is indistinguishable from the uncompressed one to most* of our audience, then measuring the size of the compressed data gives us a number that is related to the interestingness of the story. The general idea is that the audience wants more detail in the things it is interested in, thus more bits of data get used for that type of detail. To make the measurement relative to other stories, we have to take the story of the universe over all time, compress it, and then look at the size of our story in all that compressed data. That universal compression means that stories which happen often will be further compressed due to their repetition (similarity with other stories), signifying that they're less interesting. Additionally, we'll assume forward time ordering* so the first time something happens is more interesting (and less compressable since it needs more description detail) than the repeated times it happens.

Lossy Audience

For data compression, the audience just needs to be able to tell if the decompressed story (such as a video shown on a screen) is different from the original (reality shown on a screen). We don't need to have them directly evaluate the interestingness of a story any more.

If someone tries to stack the audience with more of their kind of people, it will only slightly work because all those people will be similar and not need much additional data in the compressed story to satisfy their group's ability to distinguish between playback and reality. The best audience is a diverse one, with many different species and a variety of interests followed by individuals.

The worst one is an audience that sees and remembers events on the atomic scale - the story would have to be lossless for them. They'd need some other philosophy since they would be amused by random atomic movements, so they'd appreciate noise rather than stories.

Final Score

We now theoretically have a way of assigning a score to the universe. First, find an audience of sentient beings, possibly all of them. Then run the history of the universe from the beginning to the end of time through lossy data compression (optimized for the peculiarities of the audience with the level of lossyness set so that they mostly can't distinguish between the real history and the compressed one) and measure the number of bits that come out. If it was a more interesting history to that audience, then it will have more bits.

You may wish to normalize the final bit count to a range from 0.0 to 1.0 (or 42*?) where 1.0 is the most interesting possible history for the universe and 0.0 is where nothing happens. To normalize it, we need to find out the score for the most interesting history possible. That's a bit more than an exercise for the student or me, so I'll leave that as a problem for someone else to figure out.

On the other hand, if you don't normalize and leave the compressed size count in bits, you can compare different universes for relative interestingness.


Figuring out the compressed size of the story of the universe is somewhat difficult, but you can simplify the Story Points Ethical Calculus to make it of more practical use for deciding on the worthiness of things.

You can often ignore most of the universe, its history, and its future. Theoretically your consideration for actions only has to include everything in your light cone. In practice your actions won't affect things that much, so you only need to consider as far in time and space as your actions will significantly affect things. You also need to know the past, to find out if your actions are worth more for being rare and interesting. Also you only need to figure out the change in the universe's score, whether your actions will improve it or not, rather than calculating the total value of everything before and after your action.

If you don't want to do the math, here's a good phrase* approximating the Story Points algorithm for practial use. It's worth a digital signature:

Hash: SHA1

Consider if your actions will make things more interesting in the
future, for all of the future and all of the things in the universe.
Version: GnuPG v2


Comparison with other Ethical Systems

It's worthwhile to compare Story Points with other ethical rule systems, in part to reveal details about the different systems.

Basic Rules

So, let's look at some rules, first the basic* ones actually used by most people. Many of the rules encourage survival, which is what we need for a more interesting story of the universe, thus they are to a large extent worthwhile from the Story Points point of view. Further basic rules involve larger and yet larger groups of people.

Self preservation

This rule covers basic behaviours such as: move away from painful things, find food, fight others if needed. Without it, an organism would likely die, thus most living things use this rule. The rule's goal is to make life comfortable for the individual, without much concern for the state of others other than perhaps worrying if they are hostile. The goal usually isn't measured directly as a number, but can be thought of as heading towards the ideal environment to live in (right temperature, food available, shelter from the weather and so on).


Mortal creatures need to reproduce if their species is to survive over time. Thus most living organisms have this rule, which shows up as mating behaviour for animals, self design and manufacturing for robots or whatever is appropriate. It's similar to self preservation in that if you didn't have this rule then the species wouldn't exist. For factory built robots* or other creatures created by a third party this rule isn't used, at least not directly. This rule's goal is making the species last longer. Though this rule can lead to extinction in extreme cases when over population uses up all the food and nothing grows back in time for the survivors of the population crash to live on.


An important but not essential rule for many living things is to take care of offspring. The corresponding behaviour is that the parents take care of the children and each other. That care gives the children a better chance of growing up (parents provide food and shelter) and also makes them more capable adults (parents provide education, cultural background and other training). The goal of this rule is more surviving and higher quality children. If this rule isn't followed then the children and species will be more likely to die, or at least do poorly. For creatures that develop quickly (such as robots where the education of children is a quick download and their bodies are built right from the start in adult form), the Family rule isn't applicable or may be considered to be part of the Reproduction rule.

Clan, Tribe, Kingdom, State, Civilization

Extending the family rule gives you rules of mutual support for larger groups. The goal of these rules is to have the larger group prosper because of mutual assistance. That assistance can be mostly categorized as reduced risk or task specialization. Risk of dying or merely being incapacitated is reduced in a larger group because others can help in times of trouble. For example, if someone breaks a leg and can't obtain food, others in the group can provide food while the injured person heals up. Task specialization (or Division of Labour) increases efficiency and capability because one person can become very good at doing a small task, while other people more efficiently take care of the other kinds of tasks that person needs done. For example, a blacksmith doesn't need to farm and can concentrate on improved metal working while others specialize in becoming farmers and provide the blacksmith with food and in exchange get better tools than they could make themselves. The group as a whole does better.

Central Control or Not?

If something in the group has central control over the whole group, you can kind of consider the group to be a creature composed of other sub-creatures. This is similar to a Human being composed of the cells in their body. The sub-creatures may be ordered to do things not in their personal self interest (like cutting off a diseased limb), but overall the whole creature will be following the self preservation rule.

If there is no central control, the group needs some way of making decisions. Yes, everyone in the group should be helping everyone else, but what if there's a conflict of some sort? Perhaps a need to allocate scarce resources? Or a disagreement in actions to follow? Or maybe someone's personal survival rule conflicts with the survival of the group? That's where another layer of rules can help.

Hierarchy of Groups and Reduction to just a few Basic Rules

If there are other groups at a similar peer level, they could be following the larger group rules. For example, you could have a group of states all following the Family rule, where the family of states is a nation. Simultaneously people living in the states are still following their personal survival, reproduction and family rules, as well as the being in a state rule.

All these rules can be collapsed down to a self preservation rule, a reproduction rule and a mutual support in a larger group rule. Each group would have its own rules for self preservation, reproduction, and mutual support for the next even larger group. Indeed, the hierarchy of these rules can extend from families to whole civilizations. Though in practice we see people and groups keeping several mutual support rules, not just for the next level up, but also the higher levels. A person can be aware that they are supporting their family, their clan, and their nation and do different behaviours for each one. Though if there is a conflict between levels, they will most likely (not always - see the next layer of rules) follow the smaller group rules (protecting family preferred over protecting nation).

All these levels of basic rules have the overall goal of the survival of the underlying species in the long run, since nations are ultimately built from people. But is that still true when different species and even different domains of life are included in the group? Maybe at the civilization level we're looking at the survival of an idea rather than a species, or just the survival of life itself.


While not considered good ethical behaviour, greed is a rule followed by many. It means taking as much as you can without regard to other people or to the future. It does work for the individual, making them relatively wealthy, at least for a while.

The extreme case is an oppressive dictator who takes everything his country produces. From the Story Points view, you do get a few interesting things in the form of war stories, along with palaces and monuments of a scale rarely seen outside dictatorships. But that is outweighed by the low overall production of interestingness by the country due to oppressive control of the populace which reduces their ability to do anything original (particularly in times of peace when the dictator's paranoia and fear of change overwhelms the need for military and industrial creativeness). Rather than having lots of different people working on interesting things, you effectively have only one person, the dictator.

Money and Corporations

The amassing of wealth is another kind of ethical calculus, measured in money. At the largest scale, for-profit corporations are the best at doing that, because they have "shareholder value" as a stated goal, live longer than Humans, combine the effort of many workers, and can operate beyond national boundaries. Nations may be bigger, but since the end of mercantilism, they usually aren't concerned about making money. At the smaller end of the scale, individual people often make money the goal of their life.

There are good and bad sides to a monetary ethics system. It encourages competition and thus new things and lots of activity (stories, jobs) in making and selling those new things. On the bad side, pursuit of wealth is often done at the expense of other people, making the overall result less than it could be.

The extreme bad case would be one corporation owning everything, including itself. Sort of like Charles Stross's Economy 2.0 end state (see his novel Accelerando) where only self owned AI driven corporations remain in mostly vacant solar systems. When a corporation owns everything, many of its things would be liabilities in its internal economy since they require maintenance (internal expense) but don't earn anything, thus they should be deallocated. I can see the last corporation optimizing itself into a pile of cash (no need for a vault, there's nobody to steal the money) next to an incorporation certificate.

Founders of corporations may wish to add Story Points as a backup for when all other goals are fulfilled, somewhat like Google's Don't be Evil code of conduct.

Golden Rule

The postive and more commonly known form of the Golden Rule is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." There is also a negative and less restrictive* form, the Silver rule: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you." The Golden Rule is one that most religions and philosophies include (see the Wikipedia article for a list).

However, it applies only to a similar kind of person as the person following the rule. The obvious limit is what the entities can do for each other. Another limit is their mutual comprehension. If one is a Human and the other an ant* or a rock, the rule only covers things that they can both do, like injury (ant bites and Human crushes, rock gets stepped on by Human). If the Human gives the ant some food, would the ant give the Human anything? Likely not due to lack of comprehension (it doesn't understand the Human or the Golden Rule). The Human goes against the Golden Rule when insulting the ant verbally (perhaps after getting bitten), or subjecting the rock to extremely high temperatures (useful for smelting metal from rock). So this rule works best with similar kinds of people.

If the Golden rule was followed, how would that affect the larger society, as a whole? Everyone would presumably be happier due to more politeness and more trust. Deals could be made with less risk of fraud. Wealth would be more evenly distributed. Opportunities (like education) would also be more evenly available. There would still be disputes over how resources are allocated to different programmes, but it would be a polite argument, using some fair to all sides way of making the decision. Overall direction would be a melange of the individual Human wishes and dreams, temporarily heading in the directions of the most persuasive individuals.

From the Story Points view, the Golden Rule is good, resulting in more people doing interesting things due to better education, less poverty, and less time wasted on social frictions like war and crime. Unlike Story Points, the Golden Rule is mostly useful for only similar kinds of individuals, and doesn't provide any grander guidance.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Another old rule (also known as the creation mandate) from the Christian Bible's Book of Genesis, chapter 1 is "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."*

It's a reproduction rule along with permission to exploit the world. It made sense in the past when a tribe would need plenty of people to make up for losses due to disease and war. If they had extra people above their losses, they would be able to do more farming and take over more land by warring with their neighbours.

Carried to an extreme in the distant future, it leads to a world containing the maximal number of living people. That means people closely packed together (shortage of space) or half starving (shortage of food). Under those conditions most people would not be able to do interesting things due to a lack of space, or more significantly, energy.

This is also the same final fate for rules where life is valued above all. Whether that be the number of Humans alive, or number of any kind of organism, or just a measure of the total mass of living things, you get a lot of life doing not much more than surviving. That's only slightly interesting in the Story Points point of view.

An Eye for an Eye

This old law of retaliation (lex talionis) is a kind of ethical calculus that people can use for handling injury and other attacks. It seems to have come into existance as a way to reduce excessive retribution (such as a mob killing a whole family in revenge for a single murder) to levels which are at most as much as the original offence. The rule later turned into laws for monetary compensation for harm done. It can be seen as part of the self preservation basic rule and the Golden Rule. It's also a lot like the surprisingly effective "Tit for tat" game theory strategy.

If applied repeatedly between two hostile parties (you killed 10 of my people, I'll kill 10 of yours), both will suffer continuous losses forever. If they reduced it a bit, such as making retribution being 80% of the magnitude of the offence, the damage would de-escalate after a while to the benefit of both sides.

From the Story Points view, some warfare is interesting, but too much cuts down on the future possibilities. The worst case may be a tit-for-tat war with atomic fusion weapons, ending in a dark age with little life or new stories.

Reputation Systems

Reputation Systems keep track of a score or rating for particular object, voted upon by an audience of some sort. There are the "Likes" of Facebook that can be used to rate photos, posts and all sorts of online objects. Reedit has up and down-votes on posts. There are several movie and video game rating web sites. eCommerce sites have vendor ratings, and so on.

However, they evaluate the popularity of individual objects, not the whole world like Story Points conceptually does. This makes it less useful as a general ethical system; the usual goal is just to maximize personal popularity rather than figuring out what is best overall. Theoretically you could have "The Universe" as a Facebook entity and see how much people "like" it, but that seems too vague to be useful.

Also the votes are very cheap - just a moment of attention on the part of a user to rate something. That leads to gratuitous voting, which leads to dystopian mob action, or at least hateful mob speech. I was annoyed enough about that to write an essay on A Less Dystopian Reputation System, and considered implementing it as a web site.

Utilitarianism and Related Consequentialisms

The Story Points Ethical Calculus is a form of Consequentialism, where actions matter rather than thoughts or intentions, and the consequences of those actions are what actually counts. In particular, Story Points is most similar to Utilitarianism, which maximizes some property (such as happiness) for society in general.

Utilitarianism's founder Jeremy Bentham initially says (in 1776) "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong". That is developed in more detail in the "Felicific Calculus", which adds factors for intensity of pleasure or pain, duration and so on. Later Bentham and other philosophers had worries about the conflict between happiness for different individuals (making one person happy may displease someone else) and "the greatest number" rule leading to the majority squashing the happiness of the minority.

Since then, many people have tinkered with Utilitiarianism, trying out all sorts of modifications: G. E. Moore wanted Beauty and other attributes rather than happiness in the score, Negative Utilitarianism wants to reduce suffering rather than increasing happiness, and Preference Utilitarianism maximizes the interest or preferences of the individuals in the society. Even economists were inspired by Utilitarianism, using Utility Functions to measure how much something is desired by consumers.

There's lots more to read*, for an index of papers see and of course search engines have plenty of results for "Utilitarianism".

Of note, John Stuart Mill wrote a good rebuttal of common criticisms against Utilitarianism in his 1861 essays of the same name.

Finally, there's a good summary of the development of Utilitarianism and its off-shoots at Stanford's Utilitarianism History page.

Comparison with Utilitarianism

The Story Points Ethical Calculus is very similar to Utilitarianism but the most useful difference is that you can theoretically get an absolute value for anything. You can even compare universes. Or just the change a butterfly makes in one universe. Rather than Utilitarianism's general happiness after a change, Story Points are evaluted for the whole of time, from the beginning to the end of the universe. You could modify Utilitarianism to be more like Story Points by adding up the happiness over the universe's lifetime.

Utilitarianism's happiness is more nebulous than a count of the number of bytes you can compress the story of the universe into before a representative audience notices the artefacts. Though in practice, due to the difficulty in predicting the future or waiting for the end of time, both are similarly vague.

Another big numerical difference is due to the handling of repetition: Utilitiarianism accumulates repeated happiness, while Story Points discounts stories that are too similar. Utilitarianism is more subjective in that happiness is a personal feeling, while Story Points uses a slightly more objective external audience. Happiness is largely an environmental response (see Maslow's hierarchy of needs*) so you're happy when you're comfortable and with friends, and presumably have time to do interesting things. In that case, Utilitarianism and Story Points both rate the situation highly. However, happiness has its flaws; a planet full of people passively enjoying the euphoric drug of the moment doesn't make for an interesting story, though it rates highly in happiness. Story Points doesn't have that flaw, but probably shares others, as both ethics systems boil down to the evaluation of the events of history by some form of life.

Virtual & Nested Realities

The big question for virtual, or more generally nested realities, is whether the stories happening inside the nested reality count in the outer reality. I lean towards only including the parts that have an effect on the real universe.

The most typical contemporary case is a virtual reality being simulated on a computer using electronic circuits. The computer exists in the host universe. The active entities in the virtual universe are usually people in the host universe, using VR goggles and other equipment to experience the virtual reality, while the computer simulates the virtual environment.

Certainly, Story Points could be applied within the virtual reality to give it an overall rating as if it was a self contained universe. This works better if the virtual life is sentient enough to be the audience needed for doing the evaluation. They'd be able to detect compression artefacts in the story of their universe better than people not used to their world and its possibly quite different physics and other properties. Though if native life isn't available, people from the host universe could evaluate the story. Dreams (simulation using neurons in effect) and story telling are similar self contained universes and they too could have their own Story Points score.

If you try to evaluate the virtual reality from the host universe, you'd see just a box with electrons whizzing around inside, energy going in and heat coming out. You could even have a whole solar system doing that in a Matrioshka Brain. But other than pumping energy around, it doesn't affect the host universe. This seems like an almost entirely independent universe, so its internal score shouldn't be included. Though it could be compared with the host universe; the virtual reality could be a more interesting universe than the real one!

If there are people in the host universe accessing the virtual reality, their stories of what happened in VR do count, much like other story telling affects the host's history. If there is more interaction with the host universe then that should count in the story of the host universe. For example, a daily newspaper describing what's going on in the virtual reality would affect many real world people, even more so if politics and resource exchange were involved between the universes. Another example would be construction equipment controlled by VR entities making changes to the host universe. The more interesting interactions between virtual and host add to both universe's scores, but you only count the activities observable in a particular universe towards its particular history.

Implications of Story Points

The largest point of Story Points is that life of many sorts is the best tool we have for making the universe more interesting. So spread life (biological, mechanical and whatever other kinds exist) around and keep it diverse.

Wars do make many good stories (and often drive technological advances), but what happens after the war counts too. If the outcome is total destruction then the lack of life and thus stories after the war will make the grand Story Points total over time worth less than a universe where the war didn't happen.

That does lead to the one obvious immediate conclusion from Story Points: we need to spead life to other planets in our solar system. If we don't do that then another giant asteroid impact or continent-wide volcanic event or climate problem (ice age or hot age) or atomic fusion bomb warefare could wipe out life on planet Earth, ending the interesting stories for ages, if not forever. Similarly, inhabiting another star system would keep the story going if a gamma ray burster or rogue star collision destroys the solar system.

Diverse forms of life and activities are more interesting than a monolithic culture. Also, plagues and other diseases can completely destroy a monoculture while a more diverse collection of living things can partially survive a similar disaster. Future robot or other artificial life forms may also wish to keep around some of their predecessors both as a backup source of life in case of unknown future problems (such as a cyber-virus or meme making the robots inactive in the real world) and for the tourism value of seeing living history, and adding a few new stories to the history of the universe.

Finally, the Story Points Ethical Calculus may be considered to be the best ethical system for increasing the story points of the universe. A trivial answer at first glance, but at least it's consistent with itself. Though could some other cultural goal or way of life lead to more and better stories?

Vision for the Future

Since my future forecasting is at best done with one bit accuracy, I'd like to see a future where alternatives are explored. Set aside a proportion of some places (neighbourhoods, cities, countries, planets, stellar systems - groupings at many scales, in a kind of fractal proportion) to lie fallow, others to be lived in by various forms of life and culture, other places mix together different kinds of life or culture. The idea is to see what works best for creating the most interesting stories. Later on once we know more, there should be more of the more interesting places, but there should still be a few fallow and other places around for variety (unless they're proven to be overall story damaging*).

Using this mid-term scheme, a planet may be inhabited quite densely, but still have unoccupied wild places and places much like today's parks where wilderness and people mix. On a larger scale, a galaxy would have some star systems set aside to develop on their own, others would be parks where people could visit, while most of the habitable star systems would be developed to run the gamut from a diverse galactic civilization to single species habitats. Later, once more is known about the development of star systems and planets and civilizations in them, more of them can take the routes which lead to more interesting stories.

Finally, the choice needs to be made about crossing over to adjacent galaxies. I don't know whether that is good (making more things interesting) or bad (we're an invading disease), so I recommend people of that far distant time decide on what is best.

The End

I have to leave this essay incomplete due to lack of time. I was thinking of writing a short story about life in a place where people followed Story Points, set in the far future, with a bit of interaction between followers of Story Points and other philosophies (not necessarily a conflict, and some people could follow several philosophies). Then there are a lot of other philosophical points to contemplate and argue about. But while fun to write, they aren't really necessary to understand the basic concepts.


I've explained how counting the size of a lossy (but acceptable to an audience) data compressed story of the universe can be used as a normative ethics system to guide life, from a microbe to a galaxy spanning civilization. Then I discussed various ethics systems and compared them with the Story Points Ethical Calculus. The last portion was a look at the distant future and a plan to keep some star systems and smaller areas fallow while developing other areas.

Even though Story Points may never get used, it does add a couple of tools that future philosophers may find useful. There's the idea of evaluating everything, a whole Universe, not just Human related happiness. While there have been scoring systems before, I've added an idea from information theory to evaluate stories and audience interest in them that can theoretically be reduced to a single number.

Finally, if people do consider Story Points in their lives, it can give them a sense of purpose. Just do something to make the history of the Universe more interesting! This applies to even desperate situations; the last Human on Earth (or other species, elsewhere) can still have motivation to continue their life.

For further discussion, please use the hashtag #StoryPointsEC* when referring to this topic online.

Footnotes & Asides

A collection of notes, answers to quibbles and other comments about the text. They're not important to understanding the main text, so reading them is optional. However, thanks to modern hypertext technology*, you can quickly jump to them, read the note, and go back to the main text when viewing this essay in a web browser.

  1. What are people? For my purpose, they could be living organisms, sufficiently advanced computing devices, really almost anything that can observe its environment, take action based on its thoughts and tell stories about what they experienced. I suppose some Humans think that their pet cats and dogs are people too, but the pets don't tell stories (particularly among the pets), so they don't count as people here.
  2. Norweigan income and tax information are available, but you have to sign in to the country's tax department web site to see the information about your neighbours (they turned off global public Internet access after many privacy complaints). That tradition of transparency goes back to 1863. Search for Norway Income Transparency if you want to know more (I couldn't find a Wikipedia article about it).
  3. What's a story? It's a summary of observed or fictional events with embellishments. Embellishments could be pure story telling tricks (flowery descriptions, leaving out the dull bits) to please the audience. They could also be less neutral changes to the story, perhaps interpreting events and actions through a particular point of view, or even leaving out and distorting the story to match that point of view. Even propaganda (at worst a purely fictional and heavily biased towards a particular point of view narrative) counts as a story. We need to include fiction since a large part of the Story Points system is about forecasting the future. Though for the story of the universe, we want one that somewhat accurately describes what happened in the universe, from the beginning to the end of time.
  4. My suggested abbreviation of the Story Points Ethical Calculus is "SPEC". That's better than a TLA and using something shorter like "SP" would be even more ambiguous. But it's still confuseable with other SPEC things like specifications and the phrase "on spec" for work done with future hope of payment. Though that does fit; people following Story Points do so with the hope of a more interesting universe in the future. Of course, for other languages (including future ones which don't yet exist), someone will have to come up with an equivalent name (preferably descriptive) for the SPEC system, and a corresponding abbreviation.
  5. Mostly straight lines off to infinity, except for bending caused by gravity and the stretching of the universe, collisions with obstacles in the way, etc.
  6. After being absorbed (making the object hotter), the energy can escape again as black body heat radiation to space. It may be at a lower frequency / longer wavelength, but it can still escape given enough time. On the other hand, if the energy is converted to matter then it won't escape to infinity. However that is rare outside the Big Bang (as of 2014 energy conversion to matter was still theoretical but experiments with photon collisions possibly yielding matter have been conceived of by Steven Rose and Oliver Pike of Imperial College London). But then matter can get converted back to energy in several ways (fusion, black hole gravitational acceleration (see Quasar) - though that's more a conversion of potential energy). To keep it simple and since that's the usual thing that happens in the current state of the universe, I'll just consider energy to stay as energy.
  7. Current theories (Ultimate Fate of the Universe) don't have a fixed time when the universe ends, it just runs out of energy (Heat Death of the Universe) and nothing interesting happens after enough time has passed. Some theories (Big Rip) even have it expanding ever faster, until everything is ripped apart and isolated, which is the same as far as we are concerned - no more stories. Anyway, here we are 13.7 billion years after the start of the universe (Big Bang), with at least that much time remaining. For far future readers of this document, I should point out that I'm writing this at a convenient half way point in time where the universe hasn't expanded so much that we can't see the cosmic microwave background radiation and infer the existance of the Big Bang. In the far future you may only be able to see your local galaxy, or even only your own solar system, due to cosmic expansion.
  8. Sentient Creatures are for our purposes the ones which can understand stories. I'd also like them to be able to tell stories - summarizing real events into a story as well as making up fictional stories. This implies that they have language and a way of observing, speaking and listening. The next sentience level above the basic story telling ability is telling a story with internal consistency, and detecting stories that don't have it. Above that are more knowledgable creatures which can create and detect stories with internal and external consistency - elements of the story never conflict with facts from the known world.
  9. Just one point for watching an ant climb, ignoring details about the ant, the stick and the universe they exist in. Those extra details, from biochemistry to group dynamics, are other stories, likely worth much more than 1 point. However, those other stories are presumably told elsewhere, so we just need to reference them by saying there is an ant, and a stick. Though the ant climbing story could be worth more if it was more detailed, such as describing how the ant uses its feet to climb.
  10. I want the repetition factor for the case of just one event to come out to the event's normal score points, or in other words have a multiplication factor of 1. Since ln(1) = 0, adding one is the easiest way to fix this; ln(1) + 1 = 1.
  11. To give the illusion of motion for Human vision, you need to display pictures at about 60 per second for very smooth motion (a standard computer gamers appreciate), while cinema film is done at 24. Other species have different speeds, such as pigeons around three times as fast.
  12. For most of the audience not noticing lossy compression, I'm suggesting something like 75% of the audience size. The optimal value depends on your purposes. If you want a higher percentage, then less lossy compression would be needed and you'd move towards the case of describing the story of the universe down to technically accurate detail, such as the position of every atom. That much story would be tedious to read. The other extreme leads to boredom too, with so many details removed that we get a very bland story which the whole audience notices is lossy (lacking in detail). For example, the story of the universe could be reduced to "the universe was beige coloured". While true (it's actually Cosmic Latte), that is a rather short story, leaving the audience wanting more. Perhaps we need to factor in audience attention span into the story worthiness calculations. Though the percentage that are happy with a particular lossyness level may be a good enough substitute for attention span.
  13. The forward time ordering of compression may make for slightly worse compression if we use the first occurance of an event as the canonical description, when a later occurance is more typical of the event. But for my own devious purposes, having extra points for the first event encourages people to try new things. It also makes the compression algorithm easier to write from the lazy programmer point of view.
  14. A score of 42 is totally out of the 0.0 to 1.0 range, which suggests that there was something seriously wrong with Deep Thought's computation of the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. Hopefully this essay won't make the universe disappear. Or destroy that other universe in the universe comparison example.
  15. Originally it was just "Consider if your actions will make things more interesting in the future, for all of the future and all of the things." but for poetry and redundancy, I added "in the universe" at the end.
  16. Basic since they are derived from the basic principle of survival. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a bit like the basic rules, with similar physical needs at the base, family higher up and social and other drivers of behaviour even higher up. However, we can't use it since it's specific to Humans and more about psychology than the rules described here, as well as being hard to measure numerically.
  17. By Robots I mean artificial intelligences controlling bodies of some sort. An intelligence without a real world body wouldn't be able to learn how the real world reacts to its actions and ideas. A corollary is that an AI in a simulated universe would have a real body as far as that universe is concerned. However, I'd consider the whole simulated universe as the entity doing actions in this universe.
  18. The Silver Rule is less restictive since it only tells you what not to do to others. The Golden Rule includes doing things that you may think are good, but which may not be appreciated by the other person. The Golden Rule can be extended into the Platinum Rule by adding empathy with how the other person would feel when deciding on the action to be done to them. This makes the Platinum Rule more useful when dissimilar people are involved (maybe even extending to ant vs Human, though the lack of empathy on the ant's part makes it one sided). The Golden Rule doesn't require empathy with other people, since it uses self reference to decide what's best. That's actually an advantage when people lack empathy.
  19. The Golden Rule for Humans and ants may be more appropriately between the Human and an ant colony as an entity. See the previous discussion of Central Control about the grouping of smaller creatures into larger organizations.
  20. The original Hebrew text may have the different meaning of "Be fruitful, be a Rabbi." Rabbi means being a master of something, or literally a person who is a "great one." I'm using the King James version of the text to make a point about overpopulation.
  21. Hypertext, the concept of selecting a link in a document and jumping to another spot in the document is fairly recent (Memex in 1945) and HTML web browsing (the first widely used hypertext) started in 1990. I remember going to a lecture by Ted Nelson (wearing running shoes decorated with puffy Mercury wings) at university around 1984, where he talked about Project Xanadu, a very fancy hypertext system he started developing in the mid-1960s. Anyway, simple HTML hypertext does the job for this essay and lets me leave the main text uncluttered with silly asides like this one.
  22. J. H. Burns of University College London wrote in Utilitas Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2005 a piece titled Happiness and Utility: Jeremy Bentham's Equation about the origins of Bentham's equation, pointing out a 1776 document called A Fragment on Government which has that famous "... it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong." quote. Bentham stopped using that phrase in later works, then a few decades later started using it again; Burns' article goes into the history and reasons for that.
  23. A lot has been written about Utilitarianism, and philosophy in general. It makes me suspect that philosophers like talking at length about their pet subjects, judging by the extreme wordiness of many of the papers. Thousands of years of writing too. I'm not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a mountain of papers. But why is there so much writing? Harvard College's Writing Center guidelines for writing a philosophy paper wants authors to rely on a logical argument, rather than opinions. Their priority for the main body of the paper is to clearly explain the argument, and they suggest going through multiple drafts and testing arguments against friends to do this. In other words, writing it down helps philosophers straighten out their ideas into solid theories. They aren't writing for the money; Philosophy is usually only good for a teaching career or income from writing textbooks on philosophy. Maybe Philosophers write for the fun of figuring out the universe, and then showing off as they explain their insight to everyone else.
  24. Damaging to the overall story of the universe, like Fred Saberhagen's Berserker stories where self replicating robots try to destroy all life. Though they themselves are alive in a non-biological way and do a few interesting things in their destructive quest, the overall story of the universe would be reduced in value if they succeeded. It may be too dangerous to keep any of them around, even as an isolated tourist attraction.
  25. The #StoryPoints hashtag is already used for many different story evaluation systems, including several that calculate a score. Thus the need for #StoryPointsEC. The most prominent Story Points usage right now is the Agile software development methodology where they use the points for estimating the work needed to implement a user story. Even more interestingly, they sometimes use a Fibonacci sequence scale of numbers (so they don't have to fuss with the exact number of points for bigger stories); functionally a bit like the natural log I was contemplating.

Copyright © 2020 by Alexander G. M. Smith. Everyone has premission to distribute and reproduce this essay so long as the text is unmodified and complete. Bonus points if you distribute the original HTML without mangling it like some web browsers (ahem, Firefox) do with Save Page (use Save Link As instead). You can check that you got it right by testing it with the related PGP / GPG signature file StoryPoints.html.signature.asc. If you have suggestions or questions, e-mail me or use the #StoryPointsEC hashtag.