Monday, September 13, 2010

The Chess Model of Sacrifice

I suppose the world of blog readers is probably divided between those who think that Thomas Friedman is aces and those who think he's a blowhard joke...if you're in the former group, you definitely should read Andrew Sprung's epic takedown of Friedman's latest, while if you're in the later group, I'd urge you not to skip it just because you don't want to hear anyone preaching to the choir.  It's excellent. 

My own interest in this is in Friedman's insistence that politicians ask for citizens to sacrifice, because it gives me an excuse to link back to and quote my theory that we need a chess model of sacrifice.  As I said then, everyone understands that a sacrifice in chess is self-interested. There is no moral or character component to sacrificing a piece; it's a good idea if it helps the player win, and a bad idea otherwise. No one analyzes a chess game by saying that the player lost, but at least she was willing to sacrifice her rook, or that he didn't deserve to win because he was unwilling to sacrifice anything.  It seems to me that we'd be better off if pundits talked about sacrifice in that way, rather than in the morally loaded fashion (which I think is similar to the misguided way that sacrifice is discussed in baseball) that Friedman favors.  Oddly enough, I think that the chess model of sacrifice, even though it appears to be cold, calculating, and cynical, would yield a much more healthy view of the collateral costs in human suffering often involved in Friedmanesque calls for sacrifice.


  1. I like this. If anything, though, the chess model is far more precise than anything in real life - or even in baseball. You're actually talking about cost-benefit analysis.

    The chess player sees the logical conclusions of his move, and the sacrifice pins his opponent into a losing position. In baseball, you're just playing the odds. You give up an out to move the runner into scoring position, and hope the rest of the side doesn't strike out.

    What Friedman ought to be talking about is resource allocation, frex: you sacrifice meat for a few meals to help feed the troops.

    BTW, he is a blowhard joke.


  2. Just one quibble, Jonathan: someone *might* criticize a chess player for failing to sacrifice on grounds that the player was not cold-blooded enough. "He lost because he was unwilling to hazard his queen," or "she failed to get health care reform passed because she refused to give up on the public option."

    In matters of the greatest import, it seems to me that a leader has a positive duty to consider the nation's interest in the terms you suggest - but "interest" has a complicated relationship to morality. Lincoln could have saved hundreds of thousands of American lives by letting the South go its way and expanding the union in another direction - but he seems to have calculated that if he did so, government of the people, for the people, by the people would have perished from the earth. That strikes me as a counterintuitive proposition.

  3. While I don't agree with Friedman's generalizing, I do believe he invoked the proper usage of the term "sacrifice" in his context.

    According to the simplistic analysis he offers, his argument is that everyone wants something for nothing- few are willing to sacrifice for their ideals. There is no need to ask people to sacrifice for their self-interest. Or, if there is, such as building savings before taking out more debt, it's a different question: delayed gratification. A sacrifice for ideals or principles, however, is not like a chess sacrifice, but is still considered a value amongst most.

    The epic war hero is not the guy who looks to sacrifice his life only when there is something great in store for himself (though that is a sure way to Valhalla, I suppose). The soldier who jumps on a grenade for his comrades isn't acting out of thought for his own great rewards, and certainly nothing believed to come in the afterlife is as objectively anticipated as a chess strategy.

    In fact, I would say the chess analogy, a quid-pro-quo sacrifice is exactly the wrong model to apply here. First of all, a chess sacrifice is made by the player, not the piece. The player is not sacrificing himself, he's sacrificing a piece for a better position/etc. The player expects to be better off from the exchange, not worse. Thus, the term is a misnomer. It's more like the general who decides to send the infantry on a suicide mission. The general is not the valued hero, the soldiers are.

    Friedman is saying if you want to win the war, you have to be willing to sacrifice your own interests toward that goal. Not some other pawn.


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