Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 433–451 | Cite as

Can Competition Ever be Fair? Challenging the Standard Prejudice

  • Christian Arnsperger
  • Philippe De Villé


In this paper, we challenge the usual argument which says that competition is a fair mechanism because it ranks individuals according to their relative preferences between effort and leisure. This argument, we claim, is very insufficient as a justification of fairness in competition, and we show that it does not stand up to scrutiny once various dynamic aspects of competition are taken into account. Once the sequential unfolding of competition is taken into account, competition turns out to be unfair even if the usual fairness argument is upheld. We distinguish between two notions of fairness, which we call U-fairness, where ‘U’ stands for the ‘usual’ fairness notion, and S-fairness, where ‘S’ stands for the ‘sequential’ aspect of competition. The sequential unfairness of competition, we argue, comprises two usually neglected aspects connected with losses of freedom: first of all, there is an ‘eclipse’ of preferences in the sense that even perfectly calculating competitors do not carry out a trade-off between effort and ranking; and second, competitive dynamics leads to single-mindedness because the constraints on the competitors’ choices always operate in the sense of increased competitiveness and, therefore, in the direction of an increased effort requirements. We argue (1) that competition is S-unfair even if it is U-fair, (2) that as S-unfairness increases, the ethical relevance of U-fairness itself vanishes, so that (3) by focusing as they usually do on U-fairness alone, economists neglect a deeper aspect of unfairness.

Key words

alienation ethics and economics fairness of competition freedom normative economics philosophy of economics winner-take-all 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS), Chaire Hoover and IRESUniversité catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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