Competition – Prof John McMurtry | Encyclopedia of ethics

Reproduced from: Becker, L. C. and C. B. Becker (2013). Encyclopedia of ethics, Routledge. p. 277-280.


As the sea is to the fish, so competition is to life. It is the formative medium through which life moves, reproduces, and dies. If we ask what form or bearer of life is not the result of competition, we are hard pressed to find an exception. Competition is like time: we seem unable to exist outside of it.

It is not surprising, then, that both biologists and economists presuppose that life is, at bottom, driven by competition. Oddly, ethical investigation has not exposed this assumption to critical investigation. Unlike other basic categories of existence, competition seems always to be presupposed – either in a reductionist way by thinkers like HOBBES (1588-1679) and NIETZSCHE (1844-1900), or as a brute given, beneath philosophical notice. Yet competition admits of profound differences of ethical form. The struggle against injustice, competing claims of right, and wars between nations, for example, are distinct problem sites of moral deliberation: all are forms of contest. More deeply, the very framework of substantive moral issues as right versus wrong, or good against bad, implies an agonistic metastructure of ethical thought itself.

This metastructure is still more graphically apparent in religious belief systems. An ultimate conflict is invariably posited between good and EVIL, with rewards for the victors and punishments for the wicked. The Adversary who repels the choice of good is conceived in the Judeo-Christian tradition as Satan (the terms are identical in Hebrew), and correlatives can be found in every other major religion except Taoism – Mara the Tempter in Mahayana Buddhism, Ahriman in Zoroastrianism, the manifold of Asuras in Hinduism, the Infidel in ISLAM, and so on. In the eternal battle between the forces of Light and those of Darkness – a theme holding across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto – interim victories and defeats are the defining coordinates of life’s moral journey.

The heroic and tragic stories of peoples across time are also governed by an inner logic of conquest and defeat, whether the dramatic conflicts of ancient Greek epics and tragedies, the legends and myths of the Norse and Babylonians, or the REVENGE tales of the medieval feud and the modern Western. Unifying the diverse tales across cultures is a single theme: Always the hero must enter the crucible of testing challenge and prevail in triumph, or lose legitimacy by failure to measure up to the adversary he is confronted with. Even the origins of modern justice are found in trials by battle and ordeal, in which win or loss determines right, a tradition which continues into the present in still hidden ways. Consider, for example, the function of PUNISHMENT, which can find no plausibly consistent justification except the public defeat of the transgressor by the sovereign.

We may think a realm beyond contest exists where we are not constrained to struggle against the forces of nature or rivals, the realm of our “free time.” But we discover on closer examination that this realm too is ruled by the same master principle expressing itself in a myriad of competitive games. What is different about the competitions of leisure is that oppositions are contrived artificially to compete against. They are not posed against us by actual circumstance. They are generated by rules which create opposition where none existed before. When an opposition is not there, we construct one.

Homo contendens is not a category applied to the human species, but if we miss this substructure of what we think and do, we may miss the ethical substructure of our lives. Moral theorists may argue that because competitors are partial to their cause while moral agents are not, competition cannot be truly moral. But there seems no form of competition in which the approbation or reproval of being recognized as the “winner” or “loser” does not, in fact, imply ethical content, the demonstration of some superiority which we ought to aspire to or admire. Even the competitions of the contemporary coliseum are typically construed as contests of good versus bad, with entire cities feeling morally vindicated or defeated by the competition’s outcome. As terms of “winner” and “loser” increasingly substitute for traditional ethical terms as signifiers of worth, we may wonder whether this competitive ordering of life has sedimented as an ultimate framework of value.

But what, exactly does competition mean? We may see its phenomena everywhere, but its meaning remains interred in assumption across fields of discourse. The category “competition” is not listed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and is not explained as a general category in any established encyclopedia of the humanities or social sciences. Even philosophy, whose vocation is to lay bare such universal infrastructures of thought, has remained mute on the question. One reason for this silence may be that philosophical method itself is presupposed as a contesting of arguments and argument owners, and so this competing of positions is assumed a priori as a condition of doing philosophy. Another reason may be that competition is so deep a structure or the regimes of social POWER surrounding philosophy that opening it to question poses the danger of challenging received structures of legitimacy.

Whatever the reason, philosophy shows no historical case of investigation of competition at the highest level of abstraction, nor any recognition of the primary distinctions among its alternative normative types. Instead, we find monocomprehensions of competition’s varied fields, each of which assumes a socially dominant form of competition as all of it, and then posits this as a given which is closed to further question. This unexamined fixity of assumption indicates the kind of profound confusion that philosophers seek to expose in prereflective understanding elsewhere.

This is not to say that philosophers do not advance colourfully diverse positions on the form of competition they presuppose as given. LAO-TZU (sixth century B.C.E.) conceived of competition among humans as a form of life that was partial in principle and of ruinous disvalue. He saw no good in it, concluding his timeless Tao-te Ching with the counsel. “The way of the sage is to act but not compete.” Heraclitus of the same period, in contrast, thought that war was the ruling principle of existence and in his Fragment LXXXI attacks Homer for even regretting “the conflicts among gods and men.” The Mahabharata and its Song of God, the Bhagavadgita, suppose military war as the medium through which moral order must be won, although ahimsa or peace is the objective of the war. Hobbes saw competitiveness as the expression of a law of nature which propels humanity in a “perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death.” But Hobbes sought to end the bellum omnium contra omnes by the absolute AUTHORITY of the Leviathan state whose nature is precisely that it must not be contested against. ROUSSEAU (1712-1778) in the Discourse on Inequality condemned the vain corruptions of competitive self-love or amour-propre which makes the impossible demand that others should prefer us to themselves. Yet he retained civil competition for offices in his Social Contract. HEGEL (1770- 1831) glorified the waging of international wars as “the health of nations,” but ultimately sought the contradictory goal of “universalized unification under Right and law” as the highest realization of Reason. MARX (1818-1883) proposed the emancipation of society from competition by projecting the end of class struggle in a future of communist relations. Yet every step of the progression he described is characterized as a conquest of nature and of opposition classes by human productive forces. Nietzsche affirmed the desire to overcome the other as the “universal will to power,” which he affirmed as much in the reduction of the greater part of humanity to SLAVERY as in the imposition of creative forms on matter. Contemporary game theorists have, perhaps most naively of all, presupposed the calculating contests of self-maximizers as the very structure of rationality. The conceptualization of competition in the history of philosophy is, in short, symptomatic of thought which has not yet critically examined its deepest assumptions.

Despite these opposing positions on the ethical meaning of competition, one underlying principle is assumed: namely, that competition is an activity in which an object of desire, which cannot go to all who want it, goes to one or some. This principle picks out not only what is in common among philosophers’ conceptions, but also what is in common among the diverse fields of competition with which we are separately familiar – biological competition for survival and reproduction, market competition for profit, military and political competition for state power, athletic competition for prizes, and academic competition for grades and rank. This principle also subsumes regulated as well as natural competition and, relatedly, competition which is and is not time-limited.

Such unitary meaning across the many orbits of competition provides, despite WITTGENSTEIN (1889-1951), a necessary step to understanding the concept philosophically. But an unfamiliar question undercuts our definition. Are there forms of competition which this criterion does not cover, forms of competition in which one’s victory does not entail another’s loss, even if both are competing for a scarce good? This question is unasked because it contradicts the dominant understanding of what competition means. But there may be no more far-reaching questions in ethics.

Consider humanity’s archetypal form of seeking the Good in which the victory of overcoming barriers to life’s freer realization is the goal which is fought for – “to fight for truth,” “to conquer disease,” “to battle against oppression,” and so on. One can substitute any adversary to life in the logical space of what is contested against in such value quests, and discover that this structure of competing does not entail loss to other humans, or to any other vertebrates. The extent to which contending against adversaries to life covers what stands in the way of our moral enterprises indicates the generality of this structure of competing. In such a higher order of competition, all may benefit and none need lose by the win. What loses is the old self, the beast, the disease invasion, the falsehood, or whatever the opponent to life’s more comprehensive vital range may be. Insofar as competition can be of this nonpartial kind, it reverses the loss to others which is entailed by competition as we now understand it.

In corporate market competition that now regulates global society, a moral critic might ask: “Who wants a world in which global competitiveness means ever more sacrifices to losers so as to lower money costs for winners?” Although such a structure of competition may seem implied by a market order, it is profoundly false to believe that such sacrifices follow from the nature of competition itself.

Once we open to the inclusionary forms of competition, horizons of possibility emerge into light which are consistent with the deep lying structure of competitive motivation. But does a common ground of meaning for both partial and impartial forms of competition still remain? The answer may be that whether competition is partial or impartial in its payoffs, there is always: (1) the sustained intention of the competing parties to win against an opposition confronting them; and (2) an unpredictable outcome of the competing. The first condition refers to what tests those who compete; and the second condition refers to what distinguishes competition from other oppositional processes such as dialectics: namely, that competition ceases to be such to the extent that its results can be known beforehand.

Once conception is released from confinement to the traditionally dominant form of competition, it can be seen to admit of fateful moral choices as well as unpredictable outcomes. It not only admits of ethically opposed kinds, but by its nature reorders the world in new ways. Its most peculiar depth may be that the more the win which is sought is not biased toward pay-off to the self or to time-limited results, the more the impartial competitor cannot lose.



  • H. B. The Murals of Markets. London: Longman’s. 1971. A rare philosophical analysis of competition addresses counterarguments against competition from a pro-market standpoint.
  • Bhagavadgita. In A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, translated by Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. The dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, in particular verses 45-53, articulates from a theistic ground the ethical position of waging an imperial war: “To action alone one hast thou a right, and never at all to its fruit” (verse 47).
  • Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Facsimile edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964 [1859]. Darwin and Darwinians draw from Malthus the principle of animal populations multiplying faster than their means or subsistence, which puts their members into competition. This single idea of competition is first formulated by Adam Smith, who observed that with the human as well as other species, propagation of “the inferior ranks” exceeds means of subsistence, and their supply, accordingly, adjusts to market demand by starvation (see Smith, Adam, below).
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover Publications, 1956 (translation first published 1899). Hegel’s dialectical principle of development through conflict approaches most closely to competition in international war, which Hegel affirms as a necessary medium of the Spirit’s worldly progression toward “self-comprehending totality.” The master-slave dialectic of Part 6 IV A of the Phenomenology of Spirit is revealing in its account of self-dissolving dread in the face of life-and-death contest, and of the transcendental consciousness it generates.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan. Edited by Oskar Piest. New York: Liberal Arts Press. 1958 [1651]. See especially p. 86.
  • Kant, Immanuel. “Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” [1784] In Theories of History: Readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources, edited by Patrick Gardiner, Propositions Four Through Seven. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959. Competitive conflict is seen as the way in which life’s capacities are required to develop, but by the brutality and devastation of its consequences eventually drives peoples and nations to “perfect civil union.”
  • Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Competition. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986. Various purported values of competition are robustly argued against, and a non-competitive society is advocated.
  • Lao Tzu. Tao-te Ching. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan, in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1963. See especially chapter 80, p. 176.
  • McMurtry, John. “How Competition Goes Wrong.Journal of Applied Philosophy 8, no. 2 (1991): 201-10. Competition in which pay-offs external to the activity go to one party at the expense of others is distinguished from competition in which no structure of extrinsic pay-offs is imposed on the action.
  • —. Understanding War: A Philosophical Inquiry. Toronto: Science for Peace and Samuel Stevens, 1989. The underlying principles of military war are excavated and analysed, with alternative forms of war examined.
  • Moulton, Janice. “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method.” In Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science. edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka, 149-64. Dordrecht: O. Reidel, 1983. The adversary method of philosophical reasoning is criticized, and a cooperative, nonadversarial alternative is advocated.
  • Michael Murphy. Golf in the Kingdom. New York: Dell, 1972. The philosophy of India’s Aurobindo Ghose is applied to “the inner game” of golf, with competition construed as a journey of the self’s awakening.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: A Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future. Translated by Helen Zimmern. London: Allen and Unwin. 1967 [1886]. Sections 257 to 259 are particularly relevant to understanding the savagery of Nietzsche’s concept of the agon. Nietzsche’s polymorphic concept of the “will to power” here and elsewhere can be decoded as an inchoate philosophy of competition.
  • O’Neill, Onora. “Consistency in Action.” In her Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. 102-3. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Common policies for economic and sporting competition are rebutted for violating the categorical imperative.
  • Ong, Walter. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981. This multilevelled and literary investigation of competition considers gender, academia, and reflective consciousness as rooted in contest.
  • Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations. The Harvard Classics, Volume 10. New York: P. F. Collier and Sons, 1909 [1776]. Smith justifies the principle of unlimited market competition within the circumstances of the late eighteen century. For theoretical anticipation of Darwinism, see especially Book I, Part VIII (p. 84) and Book V, Part II (p. 534).

 John McMurtry

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