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TAS Graduate Seminar: defining “competition” (second in a series)


I’ve been very critical of the TAS Graduate Seminar, but I mentioned in the same post that we covered a lot of important ground there, and that I’d try to blog the progress we made when I got a chance. Here’s a first installment to that end.

Shawn Klein has a post over at his Sports Ethics blog on one of those topics–the definition of the term “competition.” The discussion came up in the context of Klein’s very illuminating lecture on the ethics of competition, itself couched in terms of Robert Simon’s discussion of the topic in his Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport. I’m not a sports fan (actually, I hate spectator sports) but I got a lot out of the discussion, whose ramifications went far beyond sports. I thought Klein did a great job in giving content to the idea the distinctively Objectivist mode of interacting with people is, as a default, to bring out the best in yourself by seeking to bring out the best in others. Obviously, things change if your attempt to bring out the best in someone doesn’t bring out the best in him. But the general point is that egoistic interaction at its best takes the form of pursuing bestness for self by eliciting bestness in others.

The immediate topic of discussion on Klein’s blog concerns the epistemology of definition, a major sub-topic at the seminar (and coincidentally, a major sub-topic in the new Ayn Rand Society book, Concepts and their Role in Knowledge). A debate arose at the seminar over whether biological and rule-constituted competition are species of a common genus, or simply two irreducibly different concepts. Will Thomas took the first view; Klein took the second.* I incline somewhat toward Thomas’s view. Here’s how Klein puts it:

I am somewhat sympathetic to this objection [Thomas’s view]. There does seem to be a more general idea of an activity of parties vying for some good or goal. Some of these activities are governed by some set of rules and others might not. Part of conceptual analysis here is to figure out what makes more sense as “competition.” I think I would be more sympathetic if there were more examples outside of biological competition that illustrated activities of parties vying for some goal independent of any set of rules.

A similar objection might be raised about characterizing war as competition. Might this be another member of the more general genus? Whatever superficial similarities there might be, the activities and goals of war are quite a different thing than anything one finds in sports or games (or business or politics or even biological interactions). I am not sure it belongs in the same genus or even nearby conceptual space. The goal is the death and destruction of your enemy (the prey of a predator is only metaphorically an enemy). There is no necessity of agreement on rules, means, or even on particular goals. It can persist without any particular actions of either other party. It can exist without any response from one party (e.g. an aggressor makes war on a pacifistic village). The use of competition here is much more clearly metaphorical. There is little conceptual gain, efficiency, or clarity by grouping these kinds of things together.

On the point in the first paragraph: it seems to me that we don’t need more examples besides biological competition to illustrate non-rule-constituted competition. The varieties of biological competition are sufficient to make Thomas’s point. I also suspect (but don’t know for sure) that biological competition can be mathematically modeled in a rule-like way, so that biologically competing entities can be understood as acting as though they were following rules.  So there is some (generic) similarity there as well. But this last point is something to ask a biologist.

On the point in the second paragraph: it’s true that warfare can be relatively unconstrained by rules, but I think warfare is constrained by rules, though in a different sense of “constraint by rules” than Klein’s paradigm examples of competition. (Nowadays, warfare is constrained by ethical and legal rules, but it’s always been constrained by strategic rules. The rule-bound constraints don’t, for definitional purposes, have to be ethical.) Thomas’s point was different: that there is a generic conception of competition, one species of which is unconstrained by rules. But that claim isn’t affected by Klein’s observation that the two species look very different. They could look different as long as they shared a generic similarity. The issue, then, turns on whether the sense of competition in question is metaphorical, but I don’t think it is, or has to be.

Upshot: either warfare is constrained by rules in my sense or it isn’t (as Thomas suggests), but in neither case does warfare have to be excluded from the definition of “competition.”

I myself don’t have strong views on the nature of competition per se; it isn’t something I’ve studied very much before. But as an epistemic matter, I think Thomas’s impulse is the right one: we want a definition with the greatest explanatory power possible, integrating the widest range of instances within a range of commensurable similarity. Ultimately, then, I don’t think Klein’s objections are strong enough to overturn Thomas’s suggestion.

In any case, the same epistemic issue came up again and again, not just in defining “competition,” but in defining “courage,” “moral luck,” “the environment,” “racism,” and “emergencies.” Lots to say there; more soon.

*I fixed a typo in this sentence. The original reversed the order of “Thomas” and “Klein.” Thanks to Roderick Long for spotting the error.




  1. As Aristotle points out, there are a lot of intermediate options between “species of a common genus” and “two irreducibly different concepts.” In particular, there’s the case of focal homonymy, where for example “healthy” in “Nikias is healthy” is the focal concept and “healthy” in “Nikias’s diet is healthy” is the derivative concept.

    I’ve also got to namecheck Hesiod here: “Not one breed of Strife is there on earth, but twain. One shall a man praise when he beholdeth her, but the other is a thing of reproach …. The one increaseth evil war and contention …. But the other … stirreth even the helpless to labour. For when he that hath no business looketh on him that is rich, he hasteth to plow and to plant and to array his house: and neighbour vieth with neighbour hasting to be rich: good is this Strife for men. So potter with potter contendeth ….”

  2. I think focal homonymy is useful for defending a disjunctivist approach to perceptual illusion (which in turn I think is the best way to develop Rand’s and Kelley’s discussion of the subject). Thus we can avoid saying that a veridical perception and a perceptual illusion are simply species of some common genus, as though perceptions were just like hallucinations except for being caused by their apparent objects — without being pushed to the opposite extreme of saying, implausibly, that veridical perceptions and perceptual illusions are two unrelated things. (I think a similar move works to defend legal naturalism.)

    Another intermediate case that Aristotle mentions is concepts being related analogically. For example, Aristotle maintains that there’s no common genus to which all goods belong, but it’s not purely homonymous to either; rather the good for A is related to A in the same way that the good for B is related to B.

  3. irfankhawaja says:

    To be fair to Klein, the idea that the two varieties of competition might be “two irreducibly different concepts,” is really my oversimplified way of summarizing his view; the view he defends is actually closer to something like focal homonymy [or possibly analogy]*.

    I think there’s a lot to Aristotle’s doctrine of focal meaning, and it certainly works well for the Nicias example you give, but I don’t quite see the application here. Why not say that there is one generic conception of competition (involving many individuals chasing scarce rewards) and then subdivide the species by the modes of chase and the types of reward? I don’t see the objection in this case to a straightforward genus/species analysis.

    It’s actually been awhile since I’ve studied Aristotle on focal meaning. Any reading suggestions that discuss it as a doctrine for contemporary application, rather than as a textual issue in Aristotle? All the reading I ever did was of the latter variety.

    I don’t have a view on disjunctivist analyses of perception off the cuff. Have to think about that.

    *Added later.

  4. Yeah, I wasn’t necessarily saying that competition had to be treated that way.

    By the way, in the post above you say that WT took the “irreducibly different concepts” view and that you incline to WT’s view. So I’m guessing either the description if his view or the description of your leaning was a typo?

    I’ll let you know if I think of a good source on contemporary applications of focal homonymy . I encounter it more often in conversation than in print.

  5. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks. Yes, there was a typo there. Fixed now. I meant that Thomas took the genus/species view, and I agree with him against Klein, whether or not “competition” turns out to be entirely rule-governed, or sometimes rule-governed.


  6. I would have thought that if there were Objectivist worries about the generality of the concept they would turn more on conflating automatic processes (competition between plants) and purposive ones (market competition). Though Rand grants that value-concepts apply across the board, so maybe that’s seen as authorising the same.

  7. Amanda says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is interesting, but so long as everyone is clear on what definition they are using or not using, why is the question important? In other words, what do we gain or lose by thinking of the two things as irreducibly different concepts or as members of the same genus? Typically in law, we will explore defining things either way by going more broadly or more narrowly. And in reality, it’s true that biological competition and rule-based competition are in some ways alike and some ways different, depending on how broadly or narrowly we look. Here it seems like we’re pondering only whether they are different *enough* or similar *enough* to group in one category or not.

    I don’t know if this is a difference between philosophers and litigators, but if I disagree with the other side on a definitional issue, I would first argue for my definition and then argue that even under their definition, their argument fails. (Not that there are truly opposing sides here, in the same sense as there are in litigation.)

  8. Well, if one’s conception of meaning were purely stipulative, so that what a term refers to was always settled by an associated list of properties in the user’s head, then it wouldn’t matter what definition we used so long as everyone was clear on it. But for most philosophers nowadays, most terms aren’t like that (and for orthodox Randians, none is — though I think they go too far). In most cases a term’s meaning is at least partly constituted by causal interactions with real phenomena in the world, and so definitions need to turn on what is fundamentally explanatory about those real phenomena — which can’t be settled by stipulation.

    In the case of the dispute over competition, I think what’s at issue is not just the degree of similarity but the respect of similarity, and whether that respect is fundamentally explanatory or not.

  9. Amanda says:

    Thanks. So the point, in this example, is not just to figure out what the “best” definition is, but also to gain some new insight into biological competition, rule-based competition, and competition generally by gaining a better understanding of what is fundamental about each? What is an example of such an insight? (If we include or exclude biological competition, for example, what is it that we have explained, or what insight have we gained?) Can we get that insight by exploring each thing without having to land on which definition is best? (Just trying to understand, thanks.)

  10. Well, I wasn’t there for the discussion of competition, and I’m not sure why being or not being rule-governed would be considered a fundamentally explanatory characteristic in this context.

    But more generally, the idea is that formulating a definition is (often) more a discovery than a stipulation. And likewise for determining whether there’s a common kind or not.

    An example: it used to be assumed that jade was a single kind of material — i.e., that the superficial similarities in appearance, texture, etc. were the result of a common deep explanatory structures, But then it was discovered that two very different microstructures (now called jadeite and nephrite) underlay the surface similarities. Since our classifications of material kinds are driven by concerns for fundamental explanatoriness, this constituted a discovery that the samples did not share a common kind.

  11. Amanda says:

    “But more generally, the idea is that formulating a definition is (often) more a discovery than a stipulation. And likewise for determining whether there’s a common kind or not.”

    Thanks. This is part of what I meant when I mentioned gaining insight by exploring each thing without having to land on which definition is best. I’ve seen knock-down drag-out fights over definitional issues, and it confuses me because the conversation and the discovery are more interesting than which definition we ultimately land on.

  12. irfankhawaja says:

    Hi Amanda–

    I was going to do a lot of blogging on definitions when I got the chance, so some of that might answer your questions. But one quick comment. You say: “I don’t know if this is a difference between philosophers and litigators, but if I disagree with the other side on a definitional issue, I would first argue for my definition and then argue that even under their definition, their argument fails.” There are times, though, when the strategy of arguing that way will itself fail. It’ll fail in any case in which the other side has a bad definition, and their whole case depends on adoption of that bad definition. If you adopt their definition, but their case follows logically from it, their argument won’t fail. Yours will.

    Example: Suppose that I accuse a student of plagiarism. His definition of plagiarism is very narrow: he thinks that to plagiarize, you have to copy and paste a whole paper from the Internet; if you don’t do that, it’s not plagiarism. My definition is broader: I think that unattributed use of other people’s work is plagiarism, whether or not it involves cutting and pasting a whole paper. Suppose his paper involves the latter kind of plagiarism, not the former. If I argue under his definition, he’ll get away with plagiarism. To “convict” him, I have to argue under my definition, or something like mine.

    It’s natural here to ask which of the two definitions is better, where “better” means “the definition which groups all the relevantly similar things together and explains why they belong together, while excluding other things, especially things easily confused with the similar things but not in fact similar.” His definition seems too narrow. Mine is certainly better, but maybe too vague (maybe). But those very criticisms suggest the need for a definition of plagiarism that is broader this his and (possibly) more precise than mine. If some third party came to adjudicate our dispute, she might suggest such a definition. This improved definition would undoubtedly be closer to mine than his. But it might end up being better than either mine or his. If there were no other available alternatives in existence, the improved definition might be the best definition of “plagiarism” around (at least for now), and we could justifiably say that this definition ought to be adopted, written into student handbooks, and consulted in plagiarism cases. The person who then invoked a definition radically at odds with this best definition would bear the burden of proof for invoking it. There was a famous (notorious) controversy a few years ago between Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz in which Finkelstein accused Dershowitz of plagiarism. The controversy was really over what counts as plagiarism in the first place. In my view, the pro-Dershowitz side was right, but the dispute itself was about what was the best definition of the term.

    I think this sort of thing happens a lot. Suppose we’re talking about “terrorism.” Suppose you’re coming from one perspective on the topic, I’m coming from a radically different one. We discuss cases, and start coming to radically different verdicts on them. (“9/11 was obviously an act of terrorism.” “No, it wasn’t; it was an act of retribution for American imperialism.” Etc.) Eventually it occurs to us that we’re not operating with the same definition of “terrorism.” Your definition (let’s say) implies that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of terrorism. Mine (let’s say) does not. If we’re going to continue using the term at all, we need to figure out what definition should govern our discussion. Suppose we both want to hang on to the term, but each of us uses it a radically different way. In that case, stipulation won’t help. All that stipulation does is to underscore the disagreement we’re having anyway. Each of us needs to explain why terrorism ought to be defined this way rather than that. That’ll require opening up issues that are more fundamental than terrorism. If we open all of them up, and resolve all of them, we ought to be able to arrive at a definition of “terrorism” that groups the distinctively terrorist acts together and excludes the non-terrorist ones. If we can’t do that, or don’t want to, we can’t really have the discussion at all. We might agree to stipulate a meaning for terrorism, but then we have to realize that we’re doing so precisely to avoid having a fundamental discussion about what divides us. That’s fine, but it’s an important realization.

    The same sort of thing is going to apply to “freedom,” or “emergency,” or “racism” or whatever. So there’s both a theoretical and practical rationale for discussing which definition is best.


  13. irfankhawaja says:

    Those two facts are the exact source of the puzzle. If you define competition one way, you’re conflating automatic processes with purposive ones. But then, why not do that, since value concepts apply to both? I don’t really have strong views either way, but that’s because I don’t know the material very well: I hate competitive sports, did poorly in economics, and only know the biological cases in a primitive way. If we were defining “honesty” or “ignorance,” on the other hand….


  14. Marsha says:

    Regarding the following issues and your comments, you [Irfan] said:

    “I also suspect (but don’t know for sure) that biological competition can be mathematically modeled in a rule-like way, so that biologically competing entities can be understood as acting as though they were following rules. So there is some (generic) similarity there as well. But this last point is something to ask a biologist.”

    Following rules is a subset of acting towards goals and all organisms act towards goals. So, in fact, acting according to rules is as though you are acting towards goals, i.e. a species of acting like a biological organism.

    And as far as warfare as competition – whether both parties are engaging in it or not (Shawn’s pacifist village), warfare is a competition for survival/dominance.

  15. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks, Marsha. That sounds right to me.


  16. I see a few issues here.

    (1) There is a difference between acting in ways that are accurately described using a set of rules, and knowing and using those rules in order to act. Some forms of biological competition may be describable with a rule-based model. Yet there need be no implication that the competing organisms know and follow such rules as are specified in the model. In the extreme case, there need be no implication that they know or follow any rules at all.

    (2) There is also a difference between goal-oriented activity and adopting a goal regarding the kinds of goals that are worth pursuing, or making a judgment about which goals are worth pursuing. These, in turn, are different from striving to be the kind of person who sets certain kinds of goals for him or herself. And so on. Objectivism scarcely differentiates among goals, values, and purposes, making the issue difficult to raise in the intellectual milieu of a TAS Graduate Seminar.

    (3) There is a difference between explicit norms that competitors take to govern some form of competition, and norms that are implied by some form of competition but not actually known or thought of by any of the competitors (should they even be capable of knowing or thinking about such things).

    (4) Whether competitors consider violence acceptable as a means, expect themselves and others to use it as a means, or even treat violence as constitutive of the (sort of) competition would seem to matter—a lot.

  17. […] TAS Graduate Seminar: defining “competition” (second in a series) […]

  18. irfankhawaja says:

    I take your points, but I don’t think they settle the issue in dispute–how broad or narrow the concept of “competition” should be. All things considered, I still don’t see the problem with Thomas’s proposal, which defines “competition” broadly enough to include biological competition, and restricts rule-governed competition to its own species. You could further subdivide that latter species into ethically-relevant categories.

    On issue (4): true enough, whether competitors consider violence acceptable as a means matters, but it matters to the ethical evaluation of an action, not to whether or not it counts as a case of competition. You could have violent and non-violent competitions, after all, and the violent ones would as much be competitions as the non-violent. Not all violent competitions are necessarily immoral, either, as I think Shawn pointed out in his lecture. His example was boxing (which is moral, as long as it’s consensual), which he contrasted with ultimate fighting, which he regarded as an immoral competition (even when consensual). (I don’t remember his exact reasoning, but it turned on the relative brutality of ultimate fighting versus boxing.)

    Incidentally, all this reminds me that for some reason, Shawn came up with a thought-experiment involving ultimate fighting among the homeless, who are paid by rich sadists to watch them fight; I don’t recall why that came up, but I think he dubbed it “Hunger Games Plus Ultimate Fighting.” I don’t know if he realizes this, but the scenario he mentions is in fact the plot device of the epic 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme film, “Lionheart,” which should probably be required viewing for all practitioners of sports ethics (and indeed, all afficionados of classic film). A bonus 3 minute clip from the Jean-Claude Vandamme Library. For your viewing pleasure and edification.


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