Ethics of Competition
I ask myself routinely, “what are ethics?” I’ve read the definition over a thousand times: “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior.” A simple definition that elicits hundreds of additional questions. If ethics is defined by humans, we could say it is shaped by society. What would it mean, then, that something could be ethical in one culture and not in another?
Depending on where someone grew up, they could believe that competition is unethical. In an individualist culture, competition would not only be ethical but encouraged. A collectivist society would see competition as unethical. Could this be true? Could there exist such a wide gap between what we think of as right and wrong, especially in a global economy that governs the world market?
Ethics is a set of principles that guides society. It standardizes right and wrong behavior. It is shaped by people and their shared beliefs, and can differ in every society.
For example, in some cultures, when a parent ages, a decision comes to a head: The child can either house the parent or place them in a retirement home. In some societies, it would be considered unethical to ship one’s parents off to live in a strange facility away from family.
If ethics can vary by culture, can we consider an action good in one society and bad in another? Meaning that the ethical implications of competition could vary by culture.
Individualist societies tend to lean towards a capitalist economic model. Ingrained early children that competition is not only a good thing but necessary for survival. From sports and legal systems to education and employment, the model is built on striving to be better due to competitive pressures.
If you were born into an individualist system, competition showed a melding with society. The games played as kids pushed for winning and losing. Parents then pushed good sportsmanship to temper a complete takeover of the competitive spirits within their children.
Collectivists, on the other hand, grew up in societies with a more communal nature, emphasizing cohesion, cooperation, and individual sacrifice for the common good. Competition, in this type of society, destroys the natural balance and order of collectivist society.
Competition is a zero-sum game of winners and losers. People fight, scratch, and crawl to win. Competition is the model that follows evolution and creates environments of progress.
In collectivist societies, and sometimes within individualist ones as well, collectivist nature not only looks at competition with disdain, but questions its legitimacy. The model doesn’t align with their values or philosophy. In essence, competition is unethical to them.
Can a person ever have a clean conscience about competing? Should they feel bad about their competitive nature? Competitiveness doesn’t make you a monster, just someone trying to survive in the society in which you live. A person can be kind, empathetic, and generous, but still compete.
Then again, I may be wrong. Maybe ethics do not change across cultures. Humans are great at crafting stories of good and evil so that we don’t have to deal with the mental strain of exploring the grey areas.
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