Christopher Hitchens takes to the pages of Newsweek to publish a glorious anti-Olympics rant. The subtitle is the thesis: “How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.”
Hitchens is too quick to declare the issue settled, but he’s on to something interesting. What should moral philosophers– especially virtue ethicists– say about the character trait of competitiveness? Hitchens is making the “vice” case: excessive competitiveness can, indeed, bring out the worst in us.
There’s no doubt that the competitive spirit, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can have the terrible consequences Hitchens catalogs. But the same can be said of uncontroversial virtues. Generosity, allowed or encouraged to run amok, can lead to terrible outcomes. Consider the excessively (or exclusively) generous person who might help a jonesing addict buy his next dose of heroin, or help a struggling thief carry a heavy painting away from a museum.
But what of a competitive spirit bounded by virtues like kindness, generosity, and perspective? It seems to me that, bounded by other virtues, a competitive spirit might be revealed as a virtue. It is, or can be, a major driver of self-improvement. It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the violinist to stay up late practicing in hopes of winning first chair. It is, or can be, the competitive spirit that drives the inspiring sorts of achievement we sometimes see in events like the Olympics.
By Anne Margaret Baxley, Washington University in St. Louis
Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University