I took a week-long break (if any one noticed). Another break is anticipated as I have three finals this week. This post is taken from one of my finals.
Frank Knight wrote a piece in the Annals of America entitled The Ethics of Competition. Mr. Knight felt that competition could be replaced by cooperation as the dominant business model. His proposal was to legislate and enforce cooperation. This fails because forcing anything fails to institute a change in character and the fundamental problem (lack of moral goodness). However, Mr. Knight accurately identifies the inconsistency of the ethics of competition with happiness, spiritual well being, and compassionate human relations. He is correct that “the competitive system, viewed simply as a want-satisfying mechanism, falls far short of out highest ideals,” and that, “’Giving the public what it wants’ usually means corrupting popular taste.”
He attacks the ethics of competition: “Are there no values which are real in a higher sense than the fact that people have agreed to strive after them and to measure success in life by the result of their striving? It seems evident that most of the ends which are actually striven after in the daily lives of modern peoples are primary of this character; they are like the cards and checkermen, worthless (at best) in themselves, but the objects of the game; and to raise questions about the game is to make oneself disagreeable. To “play the game” is the current version of accepting the universe and protest is blasphemy.” Among conservatives, anyone who questions the “righteousness” of competition is almost viewed as a heretic. It seems that righteousness ends at the threshold to the boardroom. Puritanical bedroom morality is to be strictly adhered to, but moral concern for our fellow humans is the stuff of “bleeding-heart liberals.” The hypocrisy is disturbing.
Knight continues: “In America particularly, where competitive business and its concomitant, the sporting view of life, have reached their fullest development, there have come to be two sorts of virtue. The greater virtue is to win; and meticulous questions about the methods are not in the best form, provided the methods bring victory (steroids in baseball, anyone?). The lesser virtue is to go out and die gracefully after having lost.” Subsequently, “it is much easier to argue that the introduction of the contest into economic life has made it more efficient than that it have made it more pleasurable!.” This is invariably true. If we worship competition and individualism without taking into account the manner in which goals are achieved, we may have an efficient life, but one which is essentially lifeless and joyless. “There is a fairly established consensus that happiness depends more on spiritual resourcefulness and an joyous appreciation of the costless things of life, especially affection for one’s fellow creatures, than it does on material satisfaction. A strong argument for cooperation, if it would work, would be its tendency to teach people to like each other in a more positive sense than can ever be bred by participation in a contest—certainly in a contest in which the means of life, or a decent life, are felt to be at stake.”
Not only would the ethics of business (and necessarily the way we treat and perceive people) change if we shifted from competition to cooperation, but economic growth and technological progress would likely move forward at a synergistic rate. Unregulated competition is efficient, but voluntary cooperation would be more efficient. The problem is how to bring it about. It needs to be taught in homes, schools and business. However, only by demonstrating that economically and socially, with models, theories, and numbers, cooperation is a better economic model will there be a willingness to voluntarily participate. Because individualistic competition is the system we know to be effective economically, it will continue to win out unless an acceptable alternative is proposed and described and shown to have merit.
Knight concludes by arguing that competition is antithetical to Christianity, specifically regarding the teachings “that the last should be first and that he who would be chief should be the servant of all.” “The Christian ethical ideal contrasts as sharply with the Greek (which he focuses on earlier in the article) as either does with modern ideas derived from natural sciences and political economy. We have said that any ethical judgment of activity must be based not upon its efficiency, the quantity of results accomplished, but on either the character of those results or the character of the motive which led to the action. The Greek view fixes attention upon the character of the result and gives an essentially aesthetic conception of ethical value; Christianity centers attention upon the motive, and its ideal of life may be summed up in the word “spirituality,” as the Greek ideal is summed up in “beauty” or “perfection.” Does it look good or is it good?
“The striking fact in modern life is the virtually complete separation between the spiritual ethics which constitutes its accepted theory of conduct and the unethical, uncriticized notion of efficiency which forms its substitute for a practical working ideal…For “spirituality” is reserved in practice a smaller and smaller fraction of the seventh day, by a smaller and smaller fraction of the population; and even that is more and more transformed by organizations into a mere contest in membership and display, with a larger or smaller admixture of the element of aesthetic diversion and a smaller or larger admixture of pure commercialism…There are multiplying evidences of a genuine spiritual hunger in the modern peoples. They have got away from the spiritual attitude toward life and do not know how to get back. Science is too strong for old beliefs and competitive commercialism too strong for old ideals of simplicity, humility, and reverence”
Until spirituality becomes more than something one does on Sundays for a couple of hours and becomes a way of living, science and competitive commercialism are too strong for old beliefs and old ideals. However, if one embraces spirituality as the head, all other classifications fall into their appropriate places and are no longer too strong in relation to what is most important.