Say you and someone else are competing for a spot on a professional sports team. You're equally good, and in the end it'll come down to minor preference by the scout or randomness as to who gets picked.

I'm just wondering whether in deontology or virtue ethics I would be morally entitled to go for it and try and get the spot even if it means I'm clearly going against the interests of the other person trying to get on the team. Is one allowed to pursue ones own goal at the expense of someone else's goals?

I understand that in utilitarianism the two are equally valuable because they'll create the same amount of utility but am I allowed to pursue my own interests at the cost of someone else's, when it's not malicious or ill intended in deontology or virtue ethics? I feel like this comes up quite a bit in life.

  • If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when? -- Hillel the Elder. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 13, 2020 at 1:36
  • In general, it depends on what sorts of interests are involved, it would not be ethical to kill somebody to get ice cream, for example. But as far as competitions your interests are no worse than anybody else's, and you have the primary responsibility for yourself, so it is perfectly ethical to pursue them within the rules. Virtue ethics explicitly endorses some self-benefiting virtues, for example, see SEP.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 13, 2020 at 5:01
  • What theory of morality are you using where it is wrong to seek your own good only because it is your own good? Your example does not have you harming anybody.
    – puppetsock
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 19:58
  • If both players withdrew in an attempt to be ethical, neither player could be selected and both players would suffer; along with anyone who benefits from the quality of the team (fans, other team members, etc.). Hence, it can't be unethical to pursue the spot. Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 9:03

4 Answers 4


One of the under-appreciated aspects of moral theory is that morality is rarely (if ever) determined by the specific outcome of an event. Morality is determined by the relationship between the participants. Consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, and pragmatism focus on different aspects of that relationship, but the relationship is always key. In other words, it is morally immaterial whether you or another 'win' in the end; moral valence inheres in the process by which the victory is achieved.

For instance, and to keep with the 'sports' analogy, in almost every sport one side or the other has to go first or start with some other advantage. there are all sorts of tactics that have been adopted for dealing with this issue:

  • random choice (e.g., coin flips)
  • performance (a ball toss, a scrum, or some other moment where players wrestle for control)
  • status or location (e.g., the 'home' team or the team with highest rank goes first)

These tactics are all considered 'fair', and are thus generally accepted as morally sound even though they explicitly disadvantage one side. However, it's easy to imagine tactics that would not be considered fair — e.g., giving the advantage to the side which offers the referee the biggest bribe, or to the team with the most players of a particular race, or by physically threatening the families of the other team until they submit — all of which would be viewed as morally unsound. In either set of cases one side 'wins' and the other 'loses'; the moral tone is not set by that outcome, but by how that outcome was achieved.

The moral essence of competition lies in the idea that competition drives all sides towards excellence. One might view that in deontological terms (as a general rule that all people should be encouraged to excel) or in terms of virtue ethics (as an imperative that one should push oneself towards perfection). But the more one focuses on the singular event of winning or losing, the more one loses perspective on the moral tenor of the situation. Winning over another does not harm them, so long as the competition was fair and drove them to be their best.


I think your self-interest in this case could be justified under all three approaches, except maybe the deontic.

From an "invisible hand" perspective you cannot possibly know that you are "equally good" in advance and this is precisely what the rules are meant to determine. Presumably the meritocratic outcome serves to increase overall utility of the team or economy or whatever, or at least that is the theory. You and your antagonist are parts of a larger utility system, not two different and "equal" utility systems.

From a virtue standpoint, you have a duty to pursue excellence, in this limited case according to the rules of team construction. Of course, you could be pursuing a higher excellence, such as Christian charity, Stoic self-control, or the ethos of chivalry, with which the Church attempted to dissuade jocks--I mean knights-- from brutish, wasteful jousting. (Of course, "virtue" derives from "virility," so culturally that's a heavy lift.)

The trickiest case is deontic. Here it seems that deference to your opponent might be positively bad. We assume you both want to be on the team because it is somehow meaningful. Yet if we universalized your "will to withdraw" you would subvert that value entirely and, defeating your own "noble" purpose, hand your opponent a now "meaningless" spot on the bench!

I'm not sure if Kant sorts through any similar cases, but to me at least this looks pretty clear cut, and a kind of oddity. The presumed good in this restricted world can only be derived from competition and thus self-assertion. Were everyone put on the team, or were everyone to withdraw, then whatever good inheres in "teamness" becomes incoherent.

As a backup demonstration, let's just think of Kant's CI as a formalized golden rule. Would you want to be on the team by virtue of the fact that your competitor withdrew so you could have your way? Only a truly narcissistic, lying, authoritarian former casino-owner could truly want such an outcome...


It is a virtue to be modest and yield an advantage for the benefit of another person, but that does not generally make it immoral to do the opposite, in fair completion for a positive gain.

In specific situations, morals may however object.

As an example, in economic egalitarianism it is immoral for the rich to use their power to become even richer.

The commandment "women and children first" declares it immoral as a man to seek own shelter before securing that of weaker people.

The "tragedy of the commons" and related sociological effects show how certain selfish behavior at the expense of others drive disadvantage for everyone involved, which can lead individuals to consider certain such actions as immoral.


We know from the first formulation of the categorical imperative that acts of selfishness are prohibited. Were I to will that I not offer money to a beggar, it is possible to imagine a world in which the universal law is that everyone acts according to the own interest. This action is possible to conceive. However, this action is impossible to will, for acting according to my own desires, I could never want others to help only themselves but would always desire they help me instead.

In the case of two equally talented players, you must yield to the other.

Similarly, the same prohibition would apply if the other player were worse, so long as you act according to selfish desire. The only ethical way to promote your interest is to not actually act by the maxim of self interest. In this case, you must operate according to respect for the coach's (or whoever chooses) reason, as per the second formulation of the categorical imperative, with the knowledge (not the sincere belief) that you would perform better. To refuse in this latter instance would be as selfish as the former.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .