1. Its nature

A competitive situation is one in which the actions or attributes of two or more entities determine at least partially how an excludable and diminishable good is shared out among them. In such a situation, the entities compete with one another for the presumed good, and are said to be rivals or competitors. (In common with the Oxford English Dictionary, I treat ‘rivalry’ and ‘competition’ as synonyms; the words are often used interchangeably.)

1.1 For something excludable and diminishable

To appreciate the just-mentioned conception of competition, it is helpful to notice what it includes and what it excludes. The good that is being shared out must be diminishable, in the sense that whatever share of it goes to one competitor is no longer available to be distributed. Thus there can be no competition for a non-diminishable good like information; the fact that one person possesses some information does not make it unavailable for others. The presumed good must also be excludable, in the sense that it can be granted to one competitor without simultaneously being granted to the others. Thus there can be no competition for a non-excludable good like breathable air in the atmosphere.

            Against the claim that competition is always for a diminishable good, it might be objected that there is no theoretical limit to the number of times an individual can compete. Theoretically, for example, a star athlete could keep on winning gold medals without limit. But each new medal would be awarded in a different competitive situation. In a single competitive situation, if success is winning the gold medal, a gold medal given to one competitor is not available to be given to another competitor.

1.2 For a good

That which is shared out in a competition must be a good, either in the sense that the competitors actively pursue it or in the sense that it benefits its recipients. A common object of competition is recognition as the best in some respect, as when a group of boys compete to see who can pee the farthest; victory in such a contest is a good of sorts, even if it is not constitutive of generic human excellence. On the other hand, trees in a forest that compete for sunlight do not consciously strive for it, but it benefits them, in the sense of helping them to flourish. There cannot be a competition for things that are neither actively pursued nor beneficial to their recipients. For example, a prison may have a limited number of solitary confinement cells, to which prisoners are assigned for misbehavior; but under ordinary circumstances the prisoners cannot be said to compete for solitary confinement.

1.3 Among rivals of many sorts

The entities that compete, the rivals, need not be individual human beings. Teams of human beings may compete with one another, as in a soccer game or a debating contest. Human organizations may compete with one another, as when businesses compete for customers, universities for students, or managed care organizations for ‘merit trust’ (Buchanan 2000). Non-human animals compete with one another, as when bovines and horses engage in friendly dueling (Caillois 1961, 16), males of a particular species compete for a mate, or hungry animals compete for food. Plants compete with one another, for example for sunlight. According to Weber’s so-called ‘competitive exclusion principle’, different species in an ecosystem compete with one another: ‘Species with insufficiently differentiated fundamental niches cannot coexist at equilibrium.’ (Weber 1999, 76) In scientific and scholarly research, rival hypotheses or theories or research traditions compete with one another for acceptance by members of a scholarly or scientific community. In machine learning, and perhaps in human and animal learning as well, if-then rules abstracted from previous experiences compete for endorsement by the learner in situations where each predicts a different outcome (Meidan and Levin 2002). In moral reasoning, ethical principles or maxims compete for acceptance in situations where a decision-maker cannot abide by both; for example, the principles of autonomy and non-maleficence compete with one another when a patient wishes to be told the whole truth about her condition but the caregiver has good reason to believe that telling the whole truth will be harmful to her. In a free and pluralistic society, ends and social standards accepted by different individuals or groups compete for broader acceptance, in a process that enables us to confirm how much each contributes to the preservation of civilization (Hayek 1972, 36). One may even speak about objects in a visual field competing for the attention of the observer, as in ‘biased competition’ theories of visual search, object segregation and attention (Vecera 2000). One can also speak about competition for medical time and expertise between different kinds of medical care (Audi 1996). In the latter sorts of cases, the condition of benefit by the object of competition is attenuated; only in an extended sense of being benefited can we say that an ethical principle is benefited by being adhered to in a particular situation or that an object in a visual field is benefited by capturing the attention of an observer.

            One can of course take the view that competition requires active striving for the object of competition, in which case one would regard as metaphorical any talk of cultural memes competing (Jahoda 2002), or ends and social standards, ethical maxims, objects in one’s visual field, or kinds of medical care.

1.4 Opposed to distribution by chance

Situations where an excludable and diminishable good is shared out among two or more entities as a result of chance, or independently of the actions or attributes of those individuals, are not competitive situations. A lottery is not a competition. Nor is the ‘lottery of life’, in which each of us human beings receives a genetic endowment not of our own making and encounters circumstances not of our own making. As the French anthropologist Roger Caillois points out, competitive games and games of chance correspond to very different personalities: ‘Agôn, the desire and effort to win a victory, implies that the champion relies upon his own resources. He wants to triumph, to prove his supremacy. Nothing is more creative than such an ambition. Alea, on the contrary, [the principle of games of chance—DH] seems to be a foregone acceptance of the verdict of destiny.’ (Caillois 1961, 77)

1.5 Not necessarily victory-oriented

Not all competitive situations require that there be just one winner. For example, in a given sector of an economy many competing firms can be simultaneously successful. And members of a household who compete for the attention of some family member can each end up getting enough attention. Nevertheless, a competitive situation implies a conflict of interest among the rivals: whatever share of the presumed good goes to one competitor does not go to any other competitor.

1.6 An irreflexive, symmetric and almost transitive relation

Formally, competition is a four-term relation: where competition exists, there is a situation a in which b competes with c for some presumed good d. For example, in the 100-meter dash at the 2004 Olympic Games (a) a sprinter from Canada (b) may compete with a sprinter from Greece (c) for the gold medal (d). Or in the tourism market (a) a hotel on the island of Spetses (b) may compete with another hotel (c) for paying guests (d). Or in a research grants competition (a) one scientist or scholar (b) may compete with another (c) for a grant (d). Given a particular competitive situation and a particular good, the relation of competition is irreflexive, symmetrical and almost transitive. It is irreflexive: no individual competes with themselves for one and the same good in one and the same competitive situation. It is symmetrical: if x is competing with y for a specified good in a specified situation, then y is also competing with x for that good in that situation. And it is almost transitive: if x competes with y and y competes with z for a specified good in a specified situation, then x competes with z for that good in that situation, provided that x is not identical with z.

Against the claim that competition in a given situation for a given good is irreflexive, one might object that we sometimes talk of people competing with themselves, as when an athlete strives to achieve a personal best or a novelist tries to write a better novel than previously. But it is rare and odd to refer to such people as competing with themselves; the usage seems best construed as metaphorical. In competitive situations as we ordinarily understand them, it is initially possible for any one of the competitors to succeed. In situations where a person tries to do better than before, however, only that person can succeed; if the person fails, we would not say that someone else (e.g. the same person in the previous situation) succeeded. ‘Competing with oneself’ is more like emulation than competition.

1.7 Distinct from emulation

Competition may be confused with other relations. Striving to live up to an ideal, or to be at least as good as some role model, shares many features with competition, but can be called competition with the ideal or role model only in an extended sense of ‘competition’. For it lacks the symmetry of the competition relation; the ideal or role model is not striving in a similar way. Furthermore, there is no diminishable good being distributed among a group of competitors. Emulation of an ideal only becomes competition when several people vie with one another to see who can come closest to the ideal. Thus, what Keekok Lee (2004) calls ‘internal competition’ does not fall under the concept of competition articulated in the present paper.

1.8 Compatible with cooperation

Competition is usually contrasted to cooperation. The 19th century sociobiologist and political theorist Peter Kropotkin, for example, maintained that social cooperation rather than Darwinian egoistic competition was the key to species development; for Kropotkin, sociability, the desire of members of a species to be in relationship with their own, and the quality of life they get from these relationships, is primary, and all species development flows from this sociability (Glassman 2000). Some philosophers (e.g. Patterson 2000) identify the Daoist principles of yin and yang with cooperation and competition respectively; in the way of ‘yin mana’ (cooperative standing), all parties are supposed to gain through their participatory activities. A cooperative situation is one in which the actions or attributes of two or more entities contribute jointly to the production of some presumed good in which all share. Cooperators have a common interest in the production of the good; they are working together to produce this good, rather than against one another to get something that the others cannot have. Thus the common contrast of competition to cooperation is correct; two entities cannot at the same time compete and cooperate in the same respect for the same good. But competition in one respect can be compatible with cooperation in another. In team sports, the members of each team cooperate to help their team defeat its rival; thus participation in team sports combines training in cooperation with training in competition. In business, competing firms in a sector can cooperate to advance the interests of the sector as a whole, for instance through common institutions like cheque clearing centers, agreements on industry-wide standards, and trade associations. Competition is compatible not only with cooperation but also with acts of beneficence towards one’s rivals; competition is not hostility or enmity. In athletic competitions, for example, people routinely help rivals to their feet after a fall, show concern if they are injured, and so forth. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, brokerage firms helped their competitors from affected premises to continue in business. On the other hand, actions designed to harm a rival in sports or in business go beyond the limits of fair competition, and are rightly stigmatized. The point of victory-oriented competition, in particular, is not to harm the rival but to show that one is best in some respect. In fact, seriously meant combat between human beings or groups of human beings—street fights, civil wars, wars between states, guerrilla wars fought by ‘freedom fighters’, terrorist attacks—is not competition, though it is often treated as such. The structure of such combat is not that of rivalry for an excludable and diminishable good, but that of an effort to achieve through the defeat of an enemy some more ultimate end; whereas the goals for which success in competition are pursued are extrinsic to that success, the goals for which victory in serious combat are pursued are intrinsic to that victory. Our customary speech conforms to this distinction. For example, we would not speak of revolutionaries in the Greek war of independence competing with the Ottoman Empire, or of Osama bin Laden in his terrorist activities competing with the United States.

2. Its extent

2.1 Characteristic of civilizations

Cultures vary in competitiveness. Caillois, in his fascinating study of human play and games (1961), sees the spirit of different types of games as reflected in, and reflective of, the culture in which they are played. He divides play and games into four types, defined by the principles of competition (agôn), chance (alea), simulation (mimicry) and vertigo (ilinx). According to Caillois, the birth of civilization is an emergence from a culture based on simulation and vertigo to one based on competition and chance. In contemporary democracies, he points out, ‘The competitive spirit has indeed become dominant. Good government consists of legally assuring each candidate of an identically equal chance to campaign for votes. One concept of democracy, perhaps more prevalent and plausible, tends to consider the struggle between political parties as a kind of sports rivalry…’ (110) In fact, according to Caillois, ‘all of collective life, not merely its institutional aspect, from the moment when mimicry and ilinx have been suppressed, rests on a precarious and infinitely variable equilibrium between agôn and alea, or merit and chance.’ (110) Caillois praises the contemporary trend ‘to enlarge the domain of regulated competition, or merit, at the expense of birth and inheritance, or chance,’ as ‘an evolution which is reasonable, just, and favorable to the most capable.’ (114)

2.2 Spectator sports as paradigms?

The Canadian philosopher John McMurtry (1977) propounds a more specific thesis about the relation between games and culture: that a society’s major spectator sports are its paradigms. The underlying principles of those sports, McMurtry claims, are versions of the underlying principles of the ‘social game’, and in fact cause the social order to be maintained ‘by evangelizing in popular form its essential structure of action’. (McMurtry 1977, 11) The reflective part of this thesis is difficult to refute, because there are so many ways in which one can formulate underlying principles, both for a given sport and for a given social order. By attending to some aspect of any game, one can find on some level of abstraction a principle which a given social order exemplifies; for example, the long process of developing hockey skills through childhood, followed by tryouts for a professional team, getting a position and finally retiring, corresponds to the long process of education as a child, following by applications for jobs, getting a position and finally retiring. The vagueness of McMurtry’s reflection claim makes it not only difficult to refute but empty of substance. The causal claim, on the other hand, is very hard to substantiate. Relevant evidence might be, for example, the frequency of occurrence of sports metaphors or analogies in justification of the social order. But in fact such metaphors and analogies occur infrequently, at least in my experience. Sports are in fact distinguished by being, in themselves, play activities, games that have an inner structure but no purpose qua games beyond the playing of them.

2.3 Competition in classical Greece

Classical Greece, and especially classical Athens, seems to have been a very competitive culture. The Constitution of Athens, perhaps written by Aristotle himself, notes that Athens had 10 Commissioners of Games, who were responsible among other things for supervising musical contests, gymnastic contests and horse-races (Constitution of Athens 60; Barnes 1984, 2378). Plato’s writings refer to competition (antagvnia, diagvnia) in the context of war, trials before a jury, debates in a legislature, question-and-answer examinations, public speaking contests, musical and dramatic contests, erotic pursuit, athletic competitions, and fights among animals. In similar vein, Aristotle mentions as examples of contests or competition public performances of plays (Poetics); wars, including civil wars (Politics); rival educational programs in different cities (Politics Y4.1338b37); musical performances in the theatre (Politics Y7.1342a18); competition for money (Rhetoric A9.1366b8); public speaking (Rhetoric G1.1404a5); and question-and-answer disputation (Sophistical Refutations 3.165b11). Plato’s Laws in particular contains extensive discussions of contests (764c-765c, 795d-796d, 829e-835b, 955a-b.). The Platonic writings sharply distinguish a conversation oriented towards victory from a discussion (diatribh) oriented towards truth.

3. Its value

Is it a good or a bad thing for societies to be so competitive, and for human beings and human groups to compete with one another? Since opinions on the value of competition differ so markedly, it will be helpful to approach the question by examining critically the reasons for and against competition.

3.1 Reasons for competition

3.1.1 In society in general

Caillois perhaps articulates best the view of those who see competition as something good:

 Agôn, the principle of fair competition and creative emulation, is regarded as valuable in itself. The entire social structure rests upon it. Progress consists of developing it and improving its conditions, i.e. simply eliminating alea, more and more… chance is not only a striking form of injustice, of gratuitous and undeserved favor, but is also a mockery of work, of patient and persevering labor, of saving, of willingly sacrificing for the future—in sum, a mockery of all the virtues needed in a world dedicated to the accumulation of wealth. As a result, legislative efforts tend naturally to restrain the scope and influence of chance. Of the various principles of play, regulated competition is the only one that can be transposed as such to the domain of action and prove efficacious, if not irreplaceable.’ (Caillois 1961, 157)

But these remarks over-extend the scope of the principle of competition. Work, saving, perseverance, sacrificing for the future, and other middle-class virtues may be opposed to a reliance on chance. But they are not necessarily, or even typically, practiced in a spirit of competition. Likewise, as pointed out already, creative emulation is not the same as competition. In contemporary advanced industrial societies, Caillois’ praise of competition applies to the more limited sphere of selection for such benefits as admission to advanced education and training programs, employment, and promotion. In such situations, competition based on merit is fairer than selection based on personal connections, and produces better results.

3.1.2 In the economy

The Austrian economic liberal Friedrich Hayek regards competition as the best principle of economic organization, for two reasons: ‘not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority.’ (Hayek 1944, 36) But, as Hayek points out, a carefully thought out legal framework is required to make economic competition beneficial; in other words, economic liberalism is not just a matter of leaving firms free to act as they wish. Further, Hayek himself advocates other methods of guiding economic activity in cases where competition cannot be made effective. He cites seven requirements for effective economic competition:

  1. The parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction.
  2. Anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.
  3. Entry to the different trades should be open to all on equal terms.
  4. The law should not tolerate any attempts by individuals or groups to restrict this entry by open or concealed force.
  5. There should be adequate organization of institutions like money, markets and channels of information.
  6. The legal system should be designed to preserve competition and make it work as beneficially as possible—not just the principle of private property and freedom of contract, but also laws regarding corporations and patents.
  7. The owner must benefit from all the useful services rendered by his property and suffer for all the damages caused to others by its use.

Where this last condition is not met, direct regulation by authority must be substituted for regulation by the price mechanism. Further, although he maintains that attempts to control prices or quantities of a commodity deprive competition of its power to coordinate individual efforts effectively, Hayek notes that restrictions of allowed methods of production, and extensive social services, are compatible with competition. Thus even Hayek’s wartime diatribe against socialist economic planning leaves considerable room for activist governments to promote environmental protection and social welfare.

Hayek’s warning against the authoritarian implications of central planning has been vindicated by the experience of dirigiste economies. But he exaggerates the effects on personal liberty of limited involvement of government-owned monopolies in the production of goods and services. Government medical and hospital insurance, for example, is much more efficiently administered by a single government payment agency than by a host of competing insurance companies, and hardly less respectful of personal liberty. A monopoly on the sale of spirits by a government agency has many social advantages, and also does not seriously erode personal liberty. Such examples could be multiplied. Whether competition, regulated monopoly (government or otherwise) or regulated oligopoly is the best system should be decided on a case-by-case basis for each economic sector in each jurisdiction, in the light of local circumstances. There is at best a presumption in favour of competition. It should be noted, too, that competition is compatible with a variety of forms of ownership of the rival firms: owner-operated, joint stock, worker cooperative, government-owned.

3.1.3 In sports

Competition in sports has been defended as ‘a mutual quest for excellence in the intelligent and directed use of athletic skills in the face of challenge.’ (Simon 1991, 35) According to Simon, it ‘may have intrinsic worth as a framework within which we express ourselves as persons and respond to others as persons in the mutual pursuit of excellence,’ (35) and is one of the most universally accessible and fully involving of such frameworks. Such competition can express and illustrate such values as dedication, teamwork, courage and loyalty. (19) It can reinforce the development of such desirable character traits as mental fitness, resilience and strength (18), as well as of such undesirable traits as low altruism (selfishness) and linking one’s sense of self-worth entirely to achievement (18). While Simon’s qualified ethical commendation of competition in sports is nuanced and plausible, it is worth noting that there can be a mutual quest for excellence without competition, as when the challenge is to meet or exceed some designated standard, and no antecedent limit is placed on how many can do so. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (2004) is a fine example of such a non-competitive alternative.

3.1.4 Overall

It is a matter of everyday observation that competition tends to induce human competitors to put greater effort and thought into developing the qualities which contribute to success in the competition. The tendency increases with the strength of the desire for the presumed good for which the competitors vie, as well as with the intelligence of a given competitor and/or the competitor’s advisors, and is particularly noticeable in team competition. The rigorous and carefully calculated training regime of a competitive athlete or of a professional musician or dancer is one manifestation of this tendency. So is the attention to quality and cost control of a firm in a strongly competitive sector. In contrast, absence of competition induces lassitude and indifference. One can imagine the quality of the performances at the Olympic Games if every participant received a gold medal and stood on the podium while their country’s anthem was played. Similarly, in monopolistic and oligopolistic sectors of an economy, the quality of the good or service provided tends to suffer, and its cost tends to rise. Regulation can compensate only to some extent for this tendency.

3.2 Reasons against competition

At the same time, competition has many negative features. It causes unpleasant and ignoble emotions. Already in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle pointed out that rivals—especially those who are quiet, dissembling and unscrupulous—arouse fear (Rhetoric B5.1382b12-14, 20-22), and that ambitious people envy their competitors, their rivals in love, and in general those who are after the same things as they are (Rhetoric B10.1388a14-16).

Among contemporary writers about competition, Kohn advances the strong thesis that ‘competition by its very nature is always unhealthy. .. rivalry of any kind is both psychologically disastrous and philosophically unjustifiable … the phrase “healthy competition” is a contradiction in terms.’ (Kohn 1980, 15, 49; italics in original; cf. Kohn 1986)

He has five independent arguments for this thesis.

3.2.1 Incompatibility with cooperation

First, he claims, competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive orientations; it is even doubtful how full and deep are the relationships resulting from the supposed camaraderie among players or soldiers on the same side. As pointed out already, however, although rivals cannot both compete for and cooperate in securing the same goal at the same time in the same respect, competition in one respect is compatible with cooperation in another, and is in fact observed to happen.

3.2.2 Exclusion of rivals from human community

Second, Kohn maintains that those on the other side are excluded from any possible human community. ‘When my success depends on other people’s failure, the prospects for a real human community are considerably diminished.’ (49) This point is however exaggerated; it applies only to all-consuming victory-oriented competition, which is exceptional and deviant. Rivals in sports, or business, or love, can and do have good friendships with one another.

3.2.3 Displacement of other goals and values

Third, Kohn maintains that the desire to win tends to edge out other goals and values, such as truth in debate, non-maleficence in athletic competition, truth in political campaigning, the Geneva Convention restrictions in war, and honesty and fairness in business. ‘Whenever people are defined as opponents, doing everything possible to triumph must be seen not as an aberration from the structure but as its very consummation.’ (49) With this objection to victory-oriented competition, Kohn is on strong empirical ground. He is on weaker ground, however, in taking winning at all costs to be part of the structure of victory-oriented competition. If the point of victory-oriented competition is to demonstrate the winner’s superiority in some respect, then winning at all costs is not part of its structure, but is a corruption; it does not demonstrate superiority, but the appearance of superiority. As Aristotle comments: ‘Just as unfairness in a contest (h en agvni adikia) has a form and is a sort of unfair fighting (adikomaxia), so eristic is unfair fighting in disputation; for in the former case those who choose to win at all costs grasp at anything, and in the latter case eristic people grasp at anything.’ (Sophistical Refutations I.11.171b22-25, my translation)

3.2.4 Inducement of anxiety

Fourth, Kohn argues that a person whose success depends on being better than others is caught on a treadmill, destined never to enjoy real satisfaction, anxious and insecure. Such a person begins to see their self-worth as conditional on how much better they are than so many others in so many activities, and thus can become mentally ill, because unconditional self-esteem is a requirement for mental health. Kohn here echoes the claims of the psychoanalyst and social theorist Erich Fromm (1941) and of the psychologist Rollo May (1977). In his classic work Escape from Freedom, Fromm claims (1941, 48) that competitive individualistic ambition leads to self-alienation; the individual’s own self-evaluation depends upon his achieving competitive success. He sees as a consequence of the new freedom ‘an increased isolation, doubt, skepticism, and–resulting from all these—anxiety’. (48) Rollo May maintains (1977, 41) that competitive individualism is the chief source of anxiety in contemporary western culture. According to May, a stringent drive for competitive success characterizes contemporary individuals; the intensive individualistic competition of modern capitalism and industrialism has reinforced the competitive tendencies of individuals in our society. Because individual success is defined in a competitive culture inversely to that of the community, ‘…competitive individualism militates against the experience of community, and that lack of community is a centrally important factor in contemporaneous anxiety.’ (191; italics in original)

What are we to make of this claim that the competitive individualism of contemporary culture leads to anxiety? It is a truism that people who define their sense of self-worth by their competitive success will feel anxious if they believe that they are not succeeding or may not succeed. And much in contemporary consumerist culture reinforces the idea that competitive success, as indicated by the superiority of one’s possessions to those of others, is crucial to self-worth. This idea obviously reflects a shallow conception of the good life; when one looks back over one’s life, what will count for a person free of serious emotional or cognitive pathologies are one’s relationships with family and close friends, one’s achievements, one’s manner of conducting oneself in one’s various roles, and the quality of one’s experiences. None of these depend on competitive success, still less on one’s possessions. So the psychologists’ indictment of competitive individualism as leading to anxiety is correct. It is important to note, however, that it is an indictment of defining one’s sense of self-worth by one’s competitive success, not an indictment of all striving to succeed in competition and of all competitive aspects of a culture.

It is worth noting as well that non-competitive striving to live up to an ideal or to achieve a personal goal can also induce anxiety and depression if the effort seems likely to fail. Emulation of this sort is more under the control of the individual, however, through the adoption of realistic goals.

3.2.5 Poisoning of personal relationships

Kohn’s fifth reason for the unhealthiness of all competition is that the competitive orientation poisons personal relationships: ‘We bring our yardstick along to judge potential candidates for lover, trying to determine who is most attractive, most intelligent, and … the best lover.’ (Kohn 1980, 49) Clearly such an orientation, if applied to all potential friends and acquaintances as well as potential lovers, would make it difficult to develop and sustain personal relationships of any kind. But this defect does not show that all competition is unhealthy, only that applying a competitive orientation to all one’s personal relationships is unhealthy.

3.2.6 Overall

Taken together, the arguments against competition have considerable force. But they are arguments against an all-consuming desire for competitive success, one that thrusts asides the values of personal relationships, of personal integrity, of cooperation and community. We do not need to follow Kohn’s recommendation to construct a competition-free society. In some spheres of social life, in fact, competition is the best option: in admission to advanced education or training, in hiring, in promotion at our place of work, selection by merit in fair and open competition is clearly superior to the alternatives of cronyism or a lottery. We should however heed the warnings of social theorists that there is too much emphasis in contemporary western culture on individual competitive success. In the realm of sports, for example, it would be desirable social policy to put much more emphasis on non-competitive activities like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award than on competition, including extravagant spectacles of competition like the modern Olympics. We should recognize that arguments for the advantages of competition in one sector of human life may not apply to some other sector.

3.3 Virtues and vices of competition

As a character trait, competitiveness may be a virtue or a vice. Here Aristotle’s conception of a virtue as a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency applies. The sphere of competitiveness is participation in competitions. People are deficient in the way they participate in competitions if they shy away from competitions where they have a good chance of succeeding, or make no effort to put in a good performance in the competitions they do enter, or are absolutely indifferent to whether they succeed or not in such a competition. The various forms that such deficiencies take may be collectively labeled as vices of uncompetitiveness; their common fault is indifference to whether one does well. People go to excess in the way they participate in competitions if they make ordinary encounters into competitions when there is no point in doing so (i.e. when the competition serves no function), or take friendly competitions such as social bridge games too seriously, or use unfair tactics in their attempts to succeed in competitions, or let their desire to succeed in a competition interfere with their moral obligations and with morally commendable behavior (e.g. courtesy to fellow competitors), or have an all-consuming intense desire to succeed in the competitions they enter. The various forms that such excesses take may be collectively labeled as vices of hyper-competitiveness; their common fault is to push competitive striving beyond the point where it serves a positive function. Aristotle’s advice for the formation of character applies here as elsewhere. Although there is no mathematical formula for finding the mean, a person should steer away from the more common vice and from the one to which they are personally inclined. In advanced industrial democracies, especially in North America, the culture promotes hyper-competitiveness, not only in business and sports but also in attracting members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, if that is the inclination). In general, then, it is appropriate for people in these cultures to avoid turning every situation into a competition and to make sure in situations that are inherently competitive that they do not use unfair tactics, that they treat social competition as just social, that they maintain common human courtesies, and so on. Only in rare cases of personal disinclination to compete and disinterest in doing so does there seem any need to steer oneself in the opposite direction.


For helpful comments and discussion, I thank Constantinos Athanasopoulos, Inga Dolinina, Moschos Lankouvardos, Keekok Lee and Ronald Polansky.


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