Friday, 17 May 2013

Ruth & Game Theory


As I was thinking through this sermon, I pulled this book off the Shelf, Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue. It’s a book I read nine years ago.

It contains the story of an experiment in game theory – the study of the decisions we make.

Suppose, says the academic Douglas Hofstadter a dilemma in which 20 people sit, in a cubicle with their finger on the button. Each person will get £1000 after ten minutes, unless someone pushes his button in which case the person who pushed the button will get £100 and everybody else will get nothing.’

Even a fool knows, Ridley notes, that the best result is not to press the button.

But if you are a little bit more clever you will realise that there is a high chance that someone else will press their button, so if you are a bit clever you should probably press your button before they do.

As a matter of Games theory, pressing fast is the way to go.

The risk reward balance demands it.

‘Don’t get misled by your morality’ writes Ridley, ‘that fact that you are being noble in cooperating is irrelevant to the question. What we are seeking is the logically best action in a moral vacuum – it’s rational to be selfish.’

Ridley wants us to feel the power of the logic of game theory,

I’ll come back to Dr Ridley, or Viscount Ridley later.


I knew I wanted to share something about this book because I am still thinking about the single moment in the entire Hebrew Bible which most stands most fiercely against this kind of game theory.

The moment, in the entire Hebrew Bible, which looks at logic, calculation and the rest of it and hurls it all away because of a strange, most human quality we call chesed - kindness.


We read the Book of Ruth during the Festival of Shavuot – on Thursday, forgive me for still being held in thrall by its foundational uncovering of what it means to be human.


Story –

Naomi has two sons, they marry and then they die.

Leaves three women, devoid of economic possibility, devoid of the possibility of a future – without a child to carry the name of the family onwards.

Give up on me, tells Naomi, head back to your own families. And one daughter in law leaves.

But Ruth doesn’t leave.

Naomi attempts, for a second time to push away and Ruth stops her.

Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you;

For where you go, I will go

Where you stay, I will stay;

Your people shall be my people,

Your God my God;

Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried.


I’m in, says Ruth, I’m with you.

And the reward for this fidelity – I disregard.

This is the key point, for an understanding of Ruth.

When we do something for someone in the expectation of reward, or if we do something for someone because they have done something for us, that is all called reciprocity.

What Ruth does for Naomi has nothing to do with reciprocity.

What can I offer you? Says Naomi, even if I were to be with a man tonight, it makes no sense for you to wait for me to have another son for you to marry.

Where you go I will go – says Ruth.

I have nothing to offer you - Naomi.

Where you stay, I will stay – says Ruth


This isn’t reciprocity.

It’s the inverse of reciprocity.

Doing something for someone not only not in the expectation of reward, but in wilful disregard of what one might get back from the relationship.

This is love.

Love is doing something for someone with no thought as to the return, the reward, the ‘what’s in it for me’

This is the meaning of Hebrew term Gemilut Hesed – doing things for others out of a sense of kindness – phrase perfectly encapsulated by the translation – wanton acts of kindness.

To be Gomel Hesed is to be gratuitously kind.

Doing the kind thing above and beyond any supposed call of duty.


The Rabbis understood precisely how the Book of Ruth carries this relationship with kindness at it’s very heart in a Midrash, a commentary which plays with this supposed challenge in the book.


The book of Ruth, says Rut Rabba, contains nothing about ritual, nothing about forbidden and permitted. Why then was it written? To teach how great is the reward for gemilut hesed – wanton acts of kindness.[1]


Why would you do something for no reward?

The Rabbis consider Gemilut Hesed not just a nice thing to do, but a religious, a godly, thing to do.

Here is another Midrash, another Rabbinic teaching on gemilut hesed, from the collection Yalkut Shimoni

Anyone who is Gomel Hesed, it is as if they accept all the miracles which the Holy Blessed One has done since bringing Israel out from Egypt, and one who does not Gomel Hesed is like one who denies the existence of the Divine.[2]


That’s a stunning idea.

The idea that if you do something for someone with no thought for what is in it for you, when you do something out of love, out of a sense of Hesed you are in some sense accepting the notion of God,

who placed this possibility of love in the human soul

who justifies all acts of love in ways beyond human fathom

and who demands from us these acts of love.


Try this as a definition of God – God is the begetter of the possibility of Gemilut Hesed –

God is that which elevates our lives beyond the level of reciprocity.

I think that’s stunning.

That’s the God I believe in.


I began by mentioning Matt Ridley’s book The Origins of Virtue.

Virtue in Ridley’s book has nothing in common with Hesed.

Rather the book documents a sort of evolutionary principle which explains how humans and animals alike end up doing things which appear to be non-selfish.

The book documents how doing which appear on the surface to be non-selfish ultimately rewards and turns out to be in our best interests.

Ridley’s virtue involves acting selfishly, but with a slightly longer term perspective than one might at first expect.

The book is not theological, it’s not about love, it’s not about Chesed.

I mentioned I would return to Matt Ridley, he came to prominence in 2007 when he resigned as Chairman of Northern Rock Bank. That’s right they made an evolutionary biologist who believed the pursuit of self-interest was the same thing as pursuing virtue the Chairman of a bank.

And when it turned out that the Bank had done exactly what Ridley would have expected, and gone bankrupt and dragged half the city of London down in its wake, some were surprised.

Certainly MPs, leader writers and the rest of them were quick to point a finger at Ridley who resigned in disgrace.

But what else could one have expected.

If you confuse self-interest with virtue you can justify all sorts of economic lunacy.

I don’t mean to belittle self-interest. Of course it a necessary part of life.

And the book is certainly a terrific read.


It’s fascinating to understand why fish exist in schools.

It’s an extraordinary act of scientific discovery to unpack how meerkats work out how to avoid predators or how flocks of doves can fight off a hawk.

But these biological truths have nothing to do with virtue.

If you want to understand virtue you would do a lot better reading the Book of Ruth.


What can I offer you? Says Naomi.

Where you go I will go – says Ruth.

I have nothing to offer you - Naomi.

Where you stay, I will stay – says Ruth


The things we do for those we love.

The things we do for our children, for the members of our family, for our friends, even the things we do for mere acquaintances and most especially the things we do for the stranger in our midst, the things we do with no thought of reward, these are the markers of virtue.


This, Max, is the test of whether, as you grow and develop you will be a virtuous man.

Will you do things for others with no thought as to what is in it for you.

This is the test of virtuousness for all of us.

Gemilut Hesed is more than being nice.

Gemilut Hesed is the test of our humanity – the extent to which we, as humans -  beings created with a soul, beings created in the image of God -  transcend the life nasty brutish and short.


It’s one of the deepest and most central teachings of our faith.

When we look out at the world and you look to make decisions as to how to expend your energies and your resources, do we plot what is in it for me, or do we reach beyond the reciprocal, to the true level of virtue of love and Gemilut Hesed.

This is the test,

May we rise to meet it and triumph in the love and kindness we can pour into the world.


Shabbat shalom


[1] II:14

[2] Shoftim 64

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