The competitive spirit

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.

Related articles:

Kantian Virtue
By Anne Margaret Baxley, Washington University in St. Louis
(April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Contemporary virtue ethics
By Karen Stohr, Georgetown University
(February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Curiosity as a Vice?

Moral philosophy has been recently shifting its attention to a classical view on ethics – virtue ethics. Kant, Hume, Mill and others – each on his own way; contributed to the modern ethical concern: what is the right thing to do? On the other hand, Aristotle and his contemporaries were concerned about something else: what makes a man a “good” man?
In the re-emergence of virtue ethics, how to categorize the character trace of curiosity? Stanley Fish raises the debate in this recent post in The New York Times.
The categorization of curiosity as a moral vice or moral virtue seems to lie in the threshold of the ongoing divergences between science and religion Continue reading “Curiosity as a Vice?”