It is widely known that Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative, in his Metaphysics of Ethics, is as shown:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

The question I have is whether performing an action to secure a win in competitions, such as crossing the finishing line in order to clinch the first place in a marathon, can be interpreted as a violation of the categorical imperative, and is therefore immoral. This is because universalizing the maxim of performing the said action (ie. run through the finishing line so as to get first place) to win in competitions will involve a contradiction since if everyone performs an action to secure the first place in competitions, then no one can possibly clinch the first place in any competition.

However, the conclusion that I have come about, namely performing an action to secure the first place in competitions is immoral, is absurd. In which part of the argument did I misinterpreted/misused Kant's categorical imperative? Sorry, I have just started learning the concept of categorical imperative, so I do not have a rigorous or deep knowledge of this concept.

  • You're not wrong, not quite. Kant mentions a military competition in connection with this issue (or I'm thinking of Rawls' similar analogy, but either way Kant said something morally equivalent in the 2nd Critique). Also see Allen Wood for a very Marxism-friendly gloss of Kant, with possible anti-competition themes in play. (Rawls OTOH might be styled a Kantian who found room for sports/gamesmanship in his system nevertheless.) Oct 25, 2022 at 14:32
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    Could you explain how this is not answered here, please?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 25, 2022 at 17:12
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    You are ignoring the situational dimension. The maxim you should be considering would be something more like, "desiring to secure exclusive victory for myself, and being in a position to do so by crossing the finish line first, I should cross the finish line first." And that's a simplification, of course. There are likely to be other situational factors that should be taken into account in any given case. Oct 26, 2022 at 13:17

2 Answers 2


There is no contradiction in the idea that everyone's maxim in a competition is to win.

A contradictory maxim would have to make the competition or game impossible. I consider the maxim of wanting to win even if one breaks the rules of the game to be contradictory and thus immoral according to Kant. A game/competition can only take place if the rules that define it are respected. If everyone undertakes to break these rules in order to win the game, the game itself is annulled. Wanting to compete in a game and also wanting to break this game is contradictory.

If everyone sets out to win (without breaking the rules), the competition will be able to take place. Of course, not everyone will win in the end, but there is no contradiction in that according to Kant.

  • Thank you for your thorough explanation.
    – John123
    Oct 31, 2022 at 5:03

If everyone involved only has the aim to win, all except one are going to fail. But the actual Maxims people have, their actual goals, are things like 'to try their best', and the aims of competitions and games is things like 'being a good sport', recognising that you may lose now but can win in future and everyone's lives are enriched by cultivating an attitude that accepts that.

"There's a breathless hush in the close to-night

Ten to make and the match to win

A bumping pitch and a blinding light,

An hour to play, and the last man in.

And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat.

Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,

But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote

"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red-

Red with the wreck of the square that broke

The gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,

And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed its banks,

And England's far and Honor a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks-

"Play up! Play up! And play the game!" "

-By Henry Newbolt

We can see this dynamic in whether a country, like say Russia, will stoop to any tactic to win. Winning at any cost can often lead to a pyrrhic victory. Or like with Russia in Ukraine, to becoming a pariah state who's people are in open revolt against a state not upholding it's social contract. Sports help teach that winning at any cost is not the way, before the stakes get so high. Losing well is a learned skill.

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