Defining Competition

As part of a recent seminar, I went through the exercise of creating a genus-species definition of competition. A couple of interesting questions were raised by the discussion of the definition, so I am posting the definition exercise along with some elaboration points.

Definiendum: Competition
Examples of particular units of concept:

  • Monopoly, Battleship, Chess, Checkers (Games)
  • Baseball, football, sports, foot races, etc. (Sports)
  • AT&T and Verizon; Apple and MS; (economic)
  • Job applicants for a job/promotion. (economic)
  • Presidential election (political)
  • Chopped, Survivor. (entertainment)

Contrast Objects from which to discriminate units:

  • Two males in a herd battling for dominance (Biological)
  • Two different species of cats in same location, same prey (Biological)
  • War
  • No-elimination Musical Chairs
  • Group ride (bikers touring); fishing, hunting.
  • Singing games: ring around the rosy, etc.

Activities involving multiple parties

Differentia of the units with respect to the contrast objects or the characteristics the units have in common (and that the contrast objects don’t have):

  • Goal is exclusive/rivalrous: cannot be held in common or shared among the parties
  • Means are constrained by some set of rules or guidelines.
  • Participation is also constrained by these.
  • Rules, guidelines are acknowledged or agreed to (at least implicitly) by parties.

Competition is an activity involving multiple parties that are attempting to achieve an exclusive goal, one which cannot be held in common or shared among the parties, and in which there are some set of rules, guidelines, or constraints on the means for participating and achieving the goal.

A few points of elaboration
I have included economic competition as unit of this concept. A possible objection here is that in economic competition, between two businesses or between two applicants for a job, is not bound by rules. Nevertheless, there are normative constraints on one’s actions in these contexts and to some degree these are agreed upon (legislation). No doubt these are different than the rules of a game, yet they are similar enough to be classed together.

This definition leaves out “biological competition.” This seems justifiable because although it is sometimes described as a kind of competition, it is sufficiently different from these other activities that biological competition is picking out something very different in the world. Some of what we say about competition as it exists in sports, business, and politics cannot apply to the biological: is their unfair competition between two types of fungi? Do we really think of the surviving species as “winning”? The use of competition to describe these biological interactions strikes me as more metaphorical.

At the same time, I can see the basis for the following objection (raise by William Thomas). I ought to identify, instead, a general concept of competition that subsumes both the biological interactions and the kinds of competition I have picked out. In that case, the definition is just: “Competition is an activity involving multiple parties that are attempting to achieve an exclusive goal, one which cannot be held in common or shared among the parties.” The further differentia of “in which there are some set of rules, guidelines, or constraints on the means for participating and achieving the goal” would identify a subset of the concept.

I am somewhat sympathetic to this objection. 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.

(Note: this definition method is one based on Ayn Rand’s account of definitions in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and developed by David Kelley and William Thomas)



Filed under competition, Philosophy

4 responses to “Defining Competition

  1. Tammie cowan

    Welcome back Professor Klein. I will have to think about objectivity in more detail now. I think it is important to understand how a definition is being used.

  2. Pingback: TAS Graduate Seminar: defining “competition” (second in a series) « The Institute for Objectivist Studies

  3. Pingback: The Capitalist Heart Surgeon, Silicon Valley’s Start-up Machine, Advice for Success, Censorship and Business, Hicks on Poverty to Prosperity, Defining Competition » Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship

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