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If I get a job that many people applied for, assuming equal qualification I’ve obviously benefited greatly, but the person I was fighting the seat for just got burned. It could have been nothing to them, or it could have been something that seriously hampered their plans.

This applies to all forms of competition, me making the winning shot in a sports game could hurt the career of an opposition player. College admissions, etc.

Clearly, I causing the other party "harm" by winning. So I was wondering if its ethical to compete for things?

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  • What is ethical is what leads to a better functioning society (according to your chosen measures of end results, such as happiness/health/productivity/education/discovery/empowerment/etc.). Does competition lead to a better functioning society? Whatever your definition of "better functioning," the answer to that question is "yes." We can't even imagine a society without any competition at all. Even in a centrally planned society, some people would be better suited to some jobs than others, and should get them, to the detriment of some of the others who wanted those jobs and did not get them.
    – causative
    Mar 26 at 3:49
  • Is it you causing harm to the other party? Or is the harm caused by an established system in which you likely must participate in order to find employment? Or is it some combination of both? If free will is assumed for a moment, perhaps the level of responsibility you acquire is proportionate to the degree of free will you are able to exert in the process of maintaining a reasonable quality of life for you and your family. (All these points assume certain obvious goals, of course). Mar 26 at 12:10
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    Not if people operate in a competition with consent. The social contract, for instance, dictates that we may lose a competition for a job, but that interviewing is better than plundering and raiding.
    – J D
    Mar 26 at 20:41
  • Clearly, I [am] causing the other party "harm" by winning That is not clear to me at all. It'd be one thing if you were gladiators fighting to the death, or poker players with your own money on the line. But a job interview? If they don't get the job, that takes nothing from them, only denies giving them something that they want. If they want $500 from me, is it unethical for me not to give it to them? Even if it would really help them out? I don't think so. At least, not the same way as taking $500 from them, which would be an actual harm.
    – John Wu
    Mar 28 at 7:19
  • @JohnWu Thanks for your comment. The reason I suggested "harm" was that beyond possibly causing direct harm, the paper that made me question competition as virtuous described it as inherently treating the other side harmfully by treating them as means/objects/enemies. "One of the most controversial features of our society is competition. It is condemned by Marxists, championed by capitalists, deemed a necessary evil in education, and is necessary to and dramatized in sport. Alfie Kohn argues that competition is bad both psychologically and morally.
    – Jim stoke
    Mar 28 at 11:32

3 Answers 3

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Part 1: Philosophical Reasoning

There appears to be confusion of agency here. The agent would be the system, not the person who "won" the position.

With that said, this dilemma, like most moral dilemmas, is one of scope. If we look at only a person or two, ignoring any greater group or thing, then a dilemma may present since we know someone is gaining while someone is losing. The solution may be to broaden our perspective by looking both to include more people and longer term.

This overarching phenomenon applies to a substantial set of moral and ethical dilemmas. A prominent figure in the study of moral reasoning is Lawrence Kohlberg, who identified six plus stages through which a person's breadth develops. I will attempt to list these here, along with a tip on how the scope tends to expand at each consecutive step. List from Wikipedia, with notes and emphasis by me:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)

  • 1. Obedience and punishment orientation

This early viewpoint focuses on the will of those with power, often one's parents. One's own will is subordinate to that will.

  • 2. Self-interest orientation

Here, one begins to include one's own will, at least where possible. The scope of concern is one's superiors plus oneself.

Level 2 (Conventional)

  • 3. Interpersonal accord and conformity

Once society outside the home is better in view, one usually begins to include consideration for the happiness and well-being of one's peers.

  • 4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation

With further experience, a person may begin focusing on and upholding social hierarchies. Which hierarchies or authorities are recognised depends on values and group affiliations. Externally-defined social roles serve as a source of consideration in ethical matters.

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)

  • 5. Social contract orientation

Consensus-based rules and expectations, whether individual agreement or broadly democratic, are now included. Reminiscent of the transition from stage one to stage two, but more abstract, something of moral self-determination begins to emerge.

  • 6. Universal ethical principles

Beyond the one-off, ad-hoc focus of the previous stage, a person may begin to reason in moral abstraction, where ideas alone, not tied to any particular person, group, or role, have inherent value and perhaps agency.

[suggested by Kohlberg]

  • 7. [Transcendental or Cosmic]

While generally reserved for those who have spent fair time thinking about life, ethics, and existence, at stage seven, a person begins to focus on matters, and non-matters, past the flesh. Some may look at life beyond humans, caring for the whole biosphere. Others may set their mind on the universe. Still others may prioritise immaterial, spiritual essence.

On the question of competition, if we get stuck at stage three (interpersonal accord), we may have a dilemma since both persons cannot be kept happy in the immediate term. If we move to stage five (social contract), one might argue that the participants agreed to the game, so no foul. But if that reasoning is unsatisfactory, stage six (universal principles) may come to the rescue. Here, instead of focusing on this one-off instance, we can abstract through time and say, the person may have lost this round, but may have won other rounds in significant ways that balance out overall. If we abstract beyond the individual, one could argue that having people well-positioned in the most fitting roles makes for better society that benefits everyone.

In conclusion, many dilemmas can be alleviated by using more encompassing, perhaps more abstract consideration. Even when not fully resolved, higher stages of reasoning can highlight new ways forward.

Part 2: Ethics of Emotion

The idea may sound crazy at first, but hear me out: both egoistic competitiveness and empathetic compassion are emotion-based, heuristic substitutes for moral reasoning.

When we are first born, we lack the discipline of careful logic and the depth of philosophical wisdom. Nevertheless, we must survive. So nature comes to the rescue with the emotional heuristics of ego and empathy. Their function is not to replace, but to substitute reason when experience, or when time for thought, is lacking.

As with many heuristics, careless use, or overuse, can create issues -- especially dilemmas.

In the case of ego, careless use can enable inaccurate, self-serving misjudgements. These can have far-reaching moral consequences, particularly for persons in positions of power or influence. Overuse tends to result in narcissism, which traps a person in the cycle of validation seeking, whether covertly or overtly.

In the case of empathy, careless over-reliance can result in blind harm, without remorse. The nature of empathy is to feel for those of the in-group. All it takes is for a person or group to be cast out and dehumanised, and empathy turns off for that party. If one never learns to appreciate others rationally, relying only on emotion, atrocious manipulation of this sort is possible.

In both cases, coming to learn and understand our emotions and motivations -- especially the hidden ones, lurking in the shadows of the unconscious -- is key to avoiding blind suffering. From Wikipedia:

In analytical psychology, the shadow (also known as id, shadow aspect, or shadow archetype) is either an unconscious aspect of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself, or the entirety of the unconscious; [...] "Everyone carries a shadow", [Carl Jung] wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."[4] It may be, in part, one's link to more primitive animal instincts,[5] which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

Back on the topic of competition, a couple of potential ethical problems come to mind. One, careless egoism can promote dishonesty and other dirty behaviours. Two, those having less competitive spirit and perhaps more empathy are likely to find the competitive climate, even if absent of anything dirty, to be rather unpleasant. As a result, these people may have trouble finding optimum performance and enjoyment.

To support harmony, various options may be considered, with different options better fit to different environments. Here are some ways to keep the peace:

  • Dedicated arenas can be offered to satisfy competitive urges. Sport is one such arena.

  • Referees or reputation tracking can help identify and demote dirty tactics.

  • Counseling can be provided for those with problematic narcissism.

  • Group bonding activities can help promote cohesion.

  • Some positions can be split into egoistic and empathic versions, both equally paid.

More so than with moral dilemmas, emotional dilemmas cannot always be solved using reason alone. Accommodation, compromise, and special motivation may be in the picture.

Related reading: goal orientation; motivation.

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  • Thanks a lot! I read a piece by Jan Boxill which described competition as inherently immoral, which I intuitively disagreed with but wasnt sure why. "One of the most controversial features of our society is competition. It is condemned by Marxists, championed by capitalists, deemed a necessary evil in education, and is necessary to and dramatized in sport. Alfie Kohn argues that competition is bad both psychologically and morally. As he sees it, competition is a vice, the very antithesis of cooperation - a virtue.21 For him, competition is intrinsically immoral"
    – Jim stoke
    Mar 26 at 22:10
  • "it is selfish and egoistic; it involves treating others as means or as obstacles thwarting one's victory. Further, the consequences of competition are harmful; in aiming for success, competitors view their opponents as enemies, and focus on winning by whatever means possible. Sports may not hold a monopoly on the 'win at all costs syndrome' nor on the harmful effects of competition, but because competition is dramatized and exaggerated in sport, where it is publicly reinforced and approved, the characteristics of competition are best seen in sport."
    – Jim stoke
    Mar 26 at 22:14
  • @Jimstoke -- In light of your comments, I have added Part 2: Ethics of Emotion. Indeed, well-functioning society ought to account for emotion, being so central to the human condition.
    – Michael
    Mar 27 at 12:36
  • It's the somatic marker hypothesis.
    – J D
    Mar 27 at 19:06
  • Oops: "The idea may sound crazy at first, but hear me out: both egoistic competitiveness and empathetic compassion are emotion-based, heuristic substitutes for moral reasoning." This isn't crazy. It's neuroscience. All reason relies on normativity that inheres to being, preference, and utility. Ethics is the extension of egoism and altruism by the use of language and logic.
    – J D
    Mar 27 at 19:07
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When asking the question "Is such and such moral", you have to specify which moral theory you are operating under. It is clear you are using utilitarianism based on your concern about harm. Utilitarianism comes in 2 major forms; Rule Utilitarianism and Act Utilitarianism.

Rule Utilitarianism
Rule Utilitarians believe we should follow rules that maximize pleasure* the majority of the time. This means that for a competition to be moral it must produce more pleasure in the winner than pain in the loser on average. In modern competitions, there is very little pain actually inflicted on the loser. Its not like the losing team of the Super Bowl is put to death. Basically the only pain comes from disappointment from losing. I very highly doubt that minor pain outweighs the massive joy felt by the winner in the majority of cases.

Act Utilitarianism
Act Utilitarians believe we should always take the action that maximizes pleasure*. The difference with Rule Utilitarianism is how they treat highly unusual situations. For example, what if an unskilled worker applies for a job and if they are rejected they will not be able to feed their family. A Rule Utilitarian could say this situation happens so infrequently that does not matter. An Act Utilitarian does not have this luxury. They have to deal with this and any similar case no matter how unlikely they are.

Someone could argue that the unskilled worker should get the job because, for this particular case, the pain at losing the competition would outweigh the joy the better competitor would feel from winning. The problem with this argument is it trades the short-term pleasure gained by the unskilled worker and his family for the long-term pleasure gained by everyone in society by having that job being preformed well. Without precise empirical data, I do not see how anyone could make a solid argument for this trade being worth it or not. Fortunately, there is a way simpler solution.

What if we gave the job to the most skilled worker and then donated food to the unskilled worker's family? The unskilled worker and his family would not suffer extreme amount of pain from starving to death and everybody in society would gain the pleasure from that job being done well. This clearly would result in more overall pleasure.

In other words, when a competition has high rewards for winning and high penalties for losing, the act utilitarian should try to reduce the penalties.

Technicality: Better Alternatives
One problem with my argument is that it does not prove that competition will maximize pleasure. It leaves open the possibility that some better system of distributing rewards than competition could exist. My response is simple: name it. It is possible such a system exists, but unless you can describe this alternative system and then empirically prove it produces better results than competition then we, as a society, should still use competitions.

*There are some utilitarians who claim the utility (the value that needs to be maximized for an action to be moral) is not pleasure, but welfare. The difference is slight enough that it should not effect my analysis, but I always feel it is worth mentioning.

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You know that failure is the stepping stone to success. Many of the geniuses we know today are those who emerged from their failure. If so, how can you prove that your success (in other words, their failure) is always unethical? But if there is any greed or jealousy (What is more objectionable morally, jealousy or envy?) in participating in a competition, it is certainly unethical; or nothing like that.

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