Competition v. Cooperation

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.

11 Replies to “Competition v. Cooperation”

  1. But Danno, the question is what do you think??? What is your opinion? Although I like posting my observations, what I am looking for (like always) is an argument, a disagreement, or another point of view, so that I know I’m right and all y’all are wrong.

  2. There’s nothing to disagree with in this essay. I agree with the philosophy almost completly.

    However, the cynic in me says that it can’t be accomplished. Not only is the natural man averse to spirituality, but he also loves competition because it ignites the lust for power and pride.

    If you have some ideas as to the implimentation of the suggested spirituality, that would be something we could discuss more (and most likely debate).

  3. I think it’s a great idea. You’re right, Mike. We need to put into place a program designed to assertively and successfully compete with the hedonistic natural-man tendencies of the world. Our marketing must be aggressive, if we are to win customers, and we must focus on the results of our product (spirituality), namely, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith. I really think we can win this battle, if only we compete properly in the given marketplace.

    Now, where did I put all those Pass-Along Cards?


  4. Rick and Dan,

    Thanks for the comments. The issue, I think, for conservatives (or those who hold hard to the value of competition) is that competition will always deepen inequalities and oppression. What is interesting is that as the world becomes technologically flatter, we seem to be seeing greater cooperation and companies actually sharing information. During my time in research, there wasn’t much more frustrating (except for having experiements not work) than having this veil of secrecy about everything. I mean, isn’t science about discovering truth? Shouldn’t we be willing to share what we know with those who are working on the same projects? This is where cooperation seems to run counter to economic progress and intellectual progress.

  5. That last sentance should read: “This is were COMPETITION seems to run counter to economic progress and intellectual progress.”

  6. One of the huge benefits of competition is innovation. Without competition, we wouldn’t have the flat world of today (seeing as you are going to mention ideas from The World is Flat).

    As I’ve said before, it is a great solution in theory, but is counter to human nature. If the innovation and advancement would continue without competition, then I am all for it. But I don’t think it will happen.

    Looking at history, when the single organization becomes dominant in any industry, innovation stalls. Look at IBM. They dominated the PC industry in the beginning. What happened? They became complacent… innovation stalled and it took reverse engineering of the IBM BIOS to eventually give the PC the momentum it currently has.

    That being said, cooperation is a good thing too. In my industry, cooperation through the open-source movement is an amazing thing. Innovation is propelled through the cooperation and re-use of code. But open-source doesn’t eliminate competition. There are open-source software packages that compete against each other and thus create innovation.

    So in other words, I’m in the middle. If you can create en environment where you have cooperation and still foster innovation, then I’m in. But I don’t think it’s possible in this world, and especially the dominant world society.

  7. Reluctant,

    Two points: first, I agree that cooperation is counter to human nature. That is the reason that we must attempt to impliment it (on a personal and individual basis). Just as charity, kindness etc. are contrary to human nature. Is competition inconsistent with Christianity as Mr. Knight states? I think it is.

    Second, I think you make my point for me about the failings of competition. Had IBM been less competative and less isolated in its research and development it likely would have not fell into the situation it did and the PC revolution could have occured at an accelerated pace.

    Further, businesses and individuals make a decision as to what motivates them: profit or making the world a better place. Can both be accomplished? Definitely. However, only by placing the latter before the former can lasting change and development take place. Companies driven strictly by profit (ignoring the responsibility we all have to each other) will often end failing or with a severely damaged reputation. They will have to “re-invent” themselves to overcome the reputation. Wal-Mart is facing this now. Because of their unwillingness to meet the needs of employees and cooperate with suppliers, they are dealing with public relations nightmares.

    Am I an idealist? Of course. The current reality is so messed up that the ideal is what is worth striving for.

  8. I guess I’m just a realist. If it’s not possible, I don’t see the point.

    I really don’t think you can achieve a successful cooperative economic society — at least not until you throw away the democracy and institute some type of theocracy that all agree upon.

    People have to be motivated by something other than money in order to make this happen. And human nature says personal gain is one (if not the most) powerful of all motivations. Which is in direct opposition to what you propose.

    The other problem is if one company (or even individual) decides to NOT participate in the cooperative nature of this economy, then the entire system is blown. Because those who freely share their innovations would become victims.

    It sounds like you would like the Free Software Foundation. In principal, I agree with what they say, except for one thing. They believe that the sharing of software (code) should be legislated. Everyone should be forced to share and there is no alternative. I have to disagree with that.

    In your world of cooperation, the only way to implement this properly, would be to legislate it. Otherwise, there will be those few who will take advantage of the many.

  9. My point, Reluctant, is that this cannot be legislated. I don’t believe that would work at all. As soon as you try to force someone to cooperate, it ceases to be cooperation. What I am talking about is changing the hearts and minds one individual at a time. There is no way to bring this about in one, two, or possibly ten generations. However, in my business dealings and those who I can influence, I can encourage and practice cooperation over competition.

    The market is what it is. It is a natural entity. Any attempt to manipulate it results in unwanted and unseen effects. I am not talking about changing the market. I am talking about changing the participants in the market.

    Rick’s suggestion about Pass Along cards is one way; however, most conservative Christians see the competative market as if it were something instituted by God and worship the competative market. The competative market is what works (to a degree), but Christ’s economy would not be competative.

    Unless people freely choose cooperation, it isn’t cooperation. It is socialism and communism and economically those forms don’t work. Cooperation is like consecration: it only exists if it is chosen freely.

  10. Agreed!

    And that’s why I don’t believe it will ever come about. Even a righteous community under what many would call a theocracy couldn’t pull it off.

    How could we ever expect an entire nation or even just a small community to properly understand this concept, let alone actually implement it.

    Doing it in your own personal dealings is a fantastic idea. One which I will probably attempt to implement in my own dealings.

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