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The Third Way: Game Theory and the Gift of Sacrifice


Photo by sk for Unsplash

Christy Vines
Christy Vines is President of the IDEOS Institute.
July 2019
Imagine you are a soldier standing on a battle line. Directly across, though unseen, is the enemy. You look left and then right at your fellow soldiers. Your company. Your tribe. You’ve been here before, so you know that the sound of gunfire is imminent. So, with trepidation, you wait.
As a soldier, you recognize one important truth: that there are only two possible outcomes in war: victory or defeat. There are also only two possible outcomes for you: life or death. You also know that to win, the enemy must lose and that to survive, someone else will likely die.
You have several options in this scenario. You can remain alongside your brothers and sisters in arms and fight. But what if some (or all), out of pure fear, turn and retreat? If you remain, you are more vulnerable and will almost certainly be killed or seriously injured. But if you, and perhaps others following your lead, retreat then you leave your comrades vulnerable and one or many of them may die or incur serious injury.
Your last option is to remain and hope that all of your fellow soldiers remain as well. Though it is almost certain some of you may die, working as a collective unit ensures fewer die overall, and your likelihood of being one of them decreases.
Whether we realize it or not, scenarios like this occur in almost every decision we make when it depends on the decisions of others: crossing the street at a light (will the oncoming traffic stop?); whether to purchase a more expensive meal at a restaurant when you are splitting the bill with a friend (will they purchase an inexpensive meal and have to pay more than their fair share, which makes you look inconsiderate?); or, in the case of the soldier, whether to retreat or stay (what are the odds that my fellow comrades will hold the line or retreat themselves?).
This is the essence of game theory - the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction between rational decision-makers pioneered by John Von Neumann in 1928 - in its most simplistic form: the process of decision-making based on how people, institutions and even nations (the players) make decisions in the face of uncertainty about the strategy or thoughts of an opposing player. It is the study of how we, as individuals, choose to cooperate or not cooperate when our own self-interest is our primary priority.
The fundamentals of game theory can be summed up in the following manner:
“I win/They lose” (the exploitive)
“I win/You win” (the ethical)
But what if there was a third way?
At a recent conference hosted by Praxis Labs, award-winning author and Praxis guru, Andy Crouch, posited another option:
“I sacrifice/We win” (the righteous)
What Andy offered those of us in the room was an alternative. In fact, he offered us a better way. That by practicing sacrifice, there is an option for all of us to not just win but to win better. By committing to one another, we may not win as big, but we will all flourish. This is the same commitment a soldier makes to his country and to his fellow soldiers when he takes the Oath of Enlistment. It is so often why the only choice of a soldier is to hold the line.
Along similar lines is Garret Hardin’s theory of the commons: an economic theory that describes how people, when internally or externally unregulated, will use resources to their advantage without considering the good of society as a whole. When people consider only their own welfare, it ultimately leads to negative outcomes for everyone. Understandably, Hardin’s theory is commonly referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons. For in it, when self-interest becomes the primary lens through which we see the world around us, tragic outcomes (at least for those dependent on those same resources) are almost always a certainty.
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC161GvMPc for an easily consumed description of Hardin’s theory
Both of these theories assume that people, when acting rationally and in their own self-interest, will make choices based only on what serves them best, regardless of whether it serves the interests of others. However, both theories discount three things: our capacity to overcome self-interest; individuals can and do act rationally while simultaneously rising above self-interest and into self-sacrifice; and self-sacrifice is a rational choice.
In December of 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned from his post; however, his message personally delivered to troops in 2017 is worth highlighting:
"You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, being friendly to one another; what Americans owe to one another."
Given the current state of our society, it is clear we must continue to hold the line – all of us – if we are ever to have a chance of returning to the picture of civility and kindness Mattis espouses above. However, our culture today is not new nor without precedent. We have been here before.
Thousands of years ago, this was the world Christ entered. His death on the cross – the ultimate sacrifice – was the ultimate exemplification of a “third way.” It was the sacrifice of one for the betterment of all.
This model of self-sacrifice is what we are called to each day - to choose the better way through our own sacrificial offering.
What if, as a society, we embraced Christ’s model and Crouch’s call to sacrifice for the betterment of all? That by sacrificing what is best for only ourselves, we are likewise, considering the best for everyone?
Today we are connected to one another across geographical, cultural, and economic lines, unlike at any time in modern history. Yet, we are also more relationally and socially disconnected. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, and self-harm have become public health emergencies, especially amongst our younger generations. Could it be that in our desire to enrich ourselves, our families, our tribes, we have entered collectively into Hardin’s tragic commons? That our families, our communities, our environment, our world are suffering mightily as a result of the zero-sum mentality we, as the older generations, ushered in with zeal in the 1980s and 1990s, and that continue to blur our lenses today.
The tragedy of the commons brings to mind another story. As a parent of kids from the millennial and post-millennial generations, I am reminded of one of their favorite childhood movies, Monster’s Inc. Because I assume anyone reading this knows well this Pixar blockbuster (if not, pause now and find it on Netflix or Amazon Prime and watch it before reading on), I will refrain from telling the full story here.
When the movie begins, the business of the Monster’s Inc. energy company is to source their energy through the fear-induced screams of children caused by monsters scaring them in the night. By the movie’s end, not only has the owner been arrested for fraud, but Monster’s Inc. is on the verge of being closed down. The redemptive arc of the story though ends with Monster’s Inc. under new management (some of the original “scarers”) and a new source of energy - the far more powerful and zealous laughter of children.
However, what some may not fully grasp is that once Sully, a Monster’s Inc. “scarer,” becomes emotionally attached to one of the children he is tasked with scaring, he suddenly recognizes the damaging impact of his work. And in case you haven’t watched it yet (which is disappointing at this point in the story), he is actually the company’s top “scarer” and benefits financially and personally from this position and the screams he so easily coaxes from the children he is tasked with scaring.
We can learn a lot from Monster’s Inc., from the better way the story so cleverly reveals. We can learn that at the heart of sacrifice is a heart for people and that until we are personally and emotionally connected to the state of their lives, the tragedy of the commons will not seem very tragic at all. In a binary world where we must choose between “I win/you lose” and “I win/You win,” righteousness is an elusive and oft-forgotten pursuit.
John Robert Fox was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in May 1915. He was educated and intelligent, eventually earning a spot at Wilberforce University. With his graduate degree completed, he signed up for the Reserve Officer Training Corp with a rank of Second Lieutenant. He was commissioned to the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated division for African-American soldiers.
In 1944, Fox and his troops were sent to fight the Nazis in Italy. He was tasked to stay behind in a small Tuscan village that had been overrun by Nazis. Knowing that much of the American military in that area were in retreat, Fox found a house for his troops to hide in and, from the second floor, he used his radio to contact headquarters. He called for artillery fire to be directed at his exact position to give U.S. forces time to retreat, regroup and launch a counter-attack. The gunner who received the message pointed this out to him, assuming it must be some mistake. His famous last words were: “Fire it. There’s more of them than there are of us.”
Fox’s act of sacrifice was not in vain. As planned, the artillery barrage did indeed give his comrades the chance to regroup and launch a successful counterattack. When the US army entered the small village that Fox had ordered them to fire on, they found his body surrounded by the bodies of around 100 Germans.
In 1997 Fox was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton. The citation noted it was awarded for Fox’s “gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life.” He had made the ultimate sacrifice.
John 15:13 reveals to us the ultimate description of the third way, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” May we all seek out opportunities to live like this, holding the line, shoulder to shoulder, to overcome the tragedy of the commons. For this is indeed the better way.

Christy Vines is President of the IDEOS Institute. She is a published writer, international speaker and strategy expert, and has served as an expert and advisor to government leaders and agencies in and outside of the U.S. on issues related to women’s leadership and global gender equality; conflict mitigation and peacebuilding; international religious freedom and countering violent extremism. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Religion News Service, Capital Commentary and Christianity Today.


ideosinstitute, president's perspective, reconciliation, conflict transformation, game theory, sacrifice, andy crouch, praxis labs, garret hardin

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