Does competition bring out the worst in us?

Explorations in Ethics: A collaboration with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke Magazine


One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a guy in outdoor garb with a rifle strapped over his shoulder, sitting at a bar and having friendly drinks with a deer on the barstool next to him. The guy remarks, casually, “Hey, if we should meet in the woods and anything happens, remember, it’s just hunting.”

A businessman may try to drive out his rival so that he can capture his share of the market. A political candidate may air attack ads that distort her opponent’s record. A boxer may literally punch his opponent in the mouth. So much for the Golden Rule! But such actions in these particular worlds can be considered ethically permissible.

The people in these roles are all players in highly structured competitions. In fact, the deliberately competitive situations that define their roles and relationships play out in some of the most important institutions in the modern world—business, politics, the criminal-justice system, and sports.

Of course, we are painfully aware of the hazards of competition. Firms may seek to profit by exploiting workers or polluting. Parties may win elections with lies and skullduggery. Lawyers find loopholes that let guilty men go free. Some athletes take undetectable performance-enhancing drugs. Still, we believe that these competitive institutions will deliver better results for society in the long run.

In every competition, there are further ethical norms that go above and beyond the rules, or that appeal to the spirit of the rules—we call this good sportsmanship, business ethics, professionalism, or statesmanship. We laud the politician who refuses to exploit details of her opponent’s private life, even if this is the only way she could avoid electoral defeat. These “players” keep in mind the expectations of those outside “the game” whose interests they are supposed to be serving.

So while competition may not create saints, it doesn’t have to create jerks.

—Wayne Norman

Norman is Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of ethics in the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Department of Philosophy.

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