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.