Social Process

Chapter 12: The Competitive Spirit

Charles Horton Cooley

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THERE used to be much condemnation of our present state of society based on the idea that competition is a bad thing in itself, a state of war where we want a state of peace, generating hostile passions where we need sympathy and love. It seems, however, that we are coming to recognize that all life is struggle, that any system which is alive and progressive must be, in some sense, competitive, and that the real question at issue is that of the kind of competition, whether it is free, just, kindly, governed by good rules and worthy objects, or the reverse.

The diffusion of personal opportunity, and of the competition through which alone it can be realized, has a remarkable effect in awakening energy and inciting ambition. In so far as a man can and does live without any exacting test of himself he fails to achieve significant character and self-reliant manhood. It is by permitting this and so relaxing the tissue of personal character that static societies and classes have decayed in the past. On the contrary, one who has made his way in a competitive society has learned to choose his course, to select and develop one class of influences and reject others, to measure the result in practice, and so to gain self-knowledge and

(126) an effective will. The simplest workman, accustomed to make his way, becomes something of a diplomatist, a student of character, a man of the world.

It has been thought rather a mystery that modern civilization does not enervate men as the ancient is believed to have done. In the case of the Roman and earlier empires the natural course of things, apparently, was for a vigorous nation, after a career of conquest, to become rich, luxurious, degenerate, and finally to be conquered by tribes emerging from savagery and hardihood to follow a similar course. In our days it seems that a people may remain civilized for centuries without loss of their militant energy, and, roughly speaking, the nations who have advanced most in the arts of peace display also the most prowess in war.

The main reason for this I take to be that modern civilization preserves within itself that element of conflict which gives the training in courage and hardihood that was formerly possible only in a savage state. The ancient civilizations were in their nature repressive; they could achieve order and industry over wide areas only by imposing a mechanical and coercive discipline, which left little room for individual development and accustomed the mass of men to routine and servility. Thus we read, regarding Rome, that " The despotic imperial administration upheld for a long while the Roman Empire, and not without renown; but it corrupted, enervated, and impoverished the Roman populations, and left them, after five centuries, as incapable of defending themselves as they were of governing." [1]

Much has been said of the need of a moral equivalent

( 127) for war, in order that we may dispense with the latter without losing our virile traits; but it may well be thought that as a sphere for individual combativeness, for daring, resolution, self-reliance and pertinacity, our civil life is, on the whole, far superior to war, which requires a strict and somewhat mechanical type of discipline, putting only a limited responsibility on the soldier. Indeed the attractiveness to the imagination of military service lies largely in this very fact, that it is non-competitive, that it promises to take one out of the turmoil of individualistic struggle and give him a moral rest. It offers the repose of subordination, the "peace of the yoke," and many have enlisted, very much as many others have sought the cloister, to escape from harassing responsibilities and live under rule.

The idea that competition is always destructive of sympathy will not bear examination. It may be destructive or it may not, depending, among other things, on whether it is fair, whether the rules are well understood and enforced, whether the objects striven for are ennobling or otherwise, and whether the competitor has been properly trained to run his course. Injustice, lack of standards, low aims and unfitness generate bad feeling, because the individual has not the sense of doing his part in a worthy whole. A good kind of competition will be felt to be also a kind of co-operation, a working out, through selection, of one's special function in the common enterprise.

Indeed it is chiefly through competition that we come to know the world, to get a various insight into peoples' minds, and so to achieve a large kind of sympathy; while those who lead a protected life generally lack a robust breadth of view and sense of justice. A man, like Abra-

( 128) -ham Lincoln, who has worked his way from bottom to top of a society everywhere competitive, may still be, as he was, a man of notable tenderness, as well as of a reach of sympathy which only this experience could develop.

I take it, then, that real progress in this regard consists not in abolishing the competitive spirit but in raising it to higher levels, and that the questions just what this means, and whether it is practicable, and how, are the ones we need to discuss.

Suppose that we make a rough division between the lower self-seeking and emulation in service. The distinction is based mainly on whether the self-assertion, present in both cases, is or is not suffused and dominated by devotion to the common good. The lower spirit would include all merely sensual impulses, as hunger, cold, and the like, and also more imaginative motives, such as the fear of want, the greed of acquisition, the love of power, the passion for display, the excitement of rivalry, even the love of honor and renown, so long as these are merely personal, and include no conscious loyalty and service to a common ideal. It is lower, of course, not in the sense that it is always morally wrong, but from the point of view of a higher or lower appeal to human nature. In this respect we must regard as lower even the struggles of a man to provide for his family, so long as he, with his family, form a mere self-asserting unit with no sense of co-operation with other units.

Emulation in service does not displace other impulses, but suffuses them with a sense of devotion to a larger whole, so that they are modified, elevated, controlled, or even suppressed by the immanence of this greater idea.

( 129) Rivalry and the pursuit of honor will remain, but under the discipline of " team-work " so that the individual will always, at need, prefer the good of the whole to his personal glory. A man will strive to meet the wants of himself and his family, but along with these, and more present to his imagination because larger and more animating, will be the sense of service to some public and enduring ideal.

I do not wish to overlook or depreciate the pecuniary motive. As a symbol of control over the more tangible goods of life money rightly plays a large part in guiding and stimulating our efforts. The motive back of such efforts is in no way revealed by the fact that they seek to work themselves out through pecuniary acquisition, but may be very selfish or quite the opposite. A man may want money for drink, or opium, or for a good book, or to help a friend, or to save the life of a sick child. The money is rather a derivative than an original motive, except as we may come to love it for its own sake; it is a mechanism indispensable to the organization of life. And the precise measurement and adjustment of pecuniary reward and service, in the more tangible kinds of production, with increased pay for increased efficiency such as is attempted in the new science of management is a logical development of the price system and should have good results.

But this sort of motivation is wholly inadequate to the higher incitement of human nature. It takes hold of us, for the most part, in a somewhat superficial way, and if allowed to guide rather than follow the deeper currents of character, it degrades us into avarice and materialism. Certainly that is a poor sort of man to whom it offers

( 130) the only or the chief inducement to endeavor. He is not fully alive in his higher parts, a mercenary recruit in the social army rather than a patriot fighting for love and honor. The best men choose their occupation because they love it, and believe they can do something worthy and lasting in it, though, like nearly all of us, they are much guided as to details by the pecuniary market.

We may, then, take for granted the working of this inducement, in its proper sphere, and go on to consider the motives that lie deeper.[2]

I suppose most of us would admit that emulation in service is desirable and is actually operative in some quarters, but would question whether it is not too high to be generally practicable.

It does not appear, however, to be limited to exceptionally high kinds of persons. It quite generally prevails in school and college athletics, where much hard work and self-denial is undergone without inducement of any kind except a collective enthusiasm which makes each one feel that the success of the team is more than any glory that may come to himself. Yet no one will claim that human nature in college students is much above the average. And what shall we say of soldiers, who are ordinary men, drawn from all classes of society, but who soon learn to value the honor of their company or regiment so high that they are eager to risk their lives for it, and that without any hope of private reward? Public spirit is congenial to human nature, and we may expect everything from it, even the utmost degree of self-

( 131) sacrificing service, if only the public cause is brought home to our hearts.

Even in our present confused and selfish scheme of economic life the best work is largely done under the impulse of service emulation. This is the case, for example, in most of the professions. Teachers are glad to get as much money for their work as they can, but what all good teachers are thinking about in the course of their labors, and what sustains and elevates them, is the service they hope they are doing to the common life. The same is true of doctors, engineers, men of science, and, let us hope, lawyers, journalists, and public officials. The library service has aptly been cited as an example of the energy and efficiency which may be attained under the higher emulation with little or no appeal to pecuniary ambition. Librarians are paid by salaries, which are moderate at most, and not at all sure to increase with success, yet in no social function, perhaps, has there been displayed more zeal, devotion, and initiative, or more remarkable progress in serving the public. I may add that the good books, to disseminate which the library exists, were produced in a spirit of honor and service and not, chiefly, for gain.

Nor can there be much doubt that a great part of mechanical workmen, having a skilled trade into which it is possible to put interest and a progressive spirit, are animated by the sense of sharing in a great productive whole. Perhaps, like most of us, they need at times the spur of knowing that they must work, but this is not what is most present to their imaginations or elicits their best endeavors. The wage question, as the focus of controversy, is kept before our minds and leads us, I believe, to exaggerate the part which pecuniary calculations play

( 132) in the mind of the handicraftsman. For the most part he resembles the teacher or doctor in that he wishes to think no more about money in connection with his work than he feels he has to. The mechanics I see about me -plumbers, masons, furnace-men and the like—are as full of the zest of life as any class; they like the struggle, the sense of hope and power and honest service.

How far the same is true of business men I shall not attempt to say; certainly more than theories of the " economic man" would lead us to expect; yet here, without doubt, we have the class in which a pecuniary individualism is most rife and in which there is most need to foster a higher spirit.

There is a trend throughout society to substitute higher motives for lower, and this is not only because the former are more agreeable, but because they are more effectual. It was formerly thought that school children would not learn to read, write, and spell without constant fear and frequent experience of the rod; but now good schools dispense entirely with this incentive, and find emulation and the pleasure of achievement more efficacious. In the church the fear of hell fire is being supplanted by appeals to love, loyalty, and service. Even those convicted of crime, it is believed, can be more easily managed and with better results to themselves by a discipline which appeals to their self-respect and gives them a chance to show that they are men like the rest of us. Fear is a poor motive, because it does not evoke those energies that are bound up with ambition, sympathy, social imagination, and hope. It is gratifying to find that the organizers of industry are coming to ascribe more and more value to human sympathy and the golden rule. In an article by a manu-

( 133) -facturer, published in a business magazine, I read that the aim in handling men is to bring about a "family feeling." "The best way to hold them is to know them. . . . It is important not to drive. Fear of the boss never inspired any real team-work, and no good working force was ever built up without team-work. The men in positions of responsibility must make the men under them really want to work with and for them." [3] Another manufacturer, a man of phenomenal success, says: "It is the easiest thing in the world to inspire this loyalty, but it is not to be done by any trick. It's simply a matter of honest and sincere understanding of the workman's interests, a recognition -of his ambitions as a human being. If your men feel that is your attitude toward them they will do their best every hour of the day." [4]

In so far, then, as our social order fails to cultivate the sense of willing service in a worthy whole it is failing in higher efficiency. In great part the actual working is as if we formed an army of intelligent and high-spirited men, and proceeded to drive them to their duty by the lash, as was formerly done, instead of appealing to patriotism and the emulation of regiments and companies, as in modern armies. It operates on a low plane of discipline and without the spiritual co-operation of the agent.

No doubt there are workers, under existing conditions, who take no pride in their work and will not work at all, perhaps, except when they are driven to it by the fear of want. But there is reason to think that these are chiefly those who have had a brutalizing and discouraging experience. A good military officer will recruit a company

( 134) of just such men, and after a few months of discipline have them eager to excel in their duty and ready to face death. It is all a matter of how they are appealed to. And is it not the case, also, that there is a large class in industry who display more pride in their work and sense of duty and service regarding it, than could reasonably be expected, in view of the inconsiderate, mechanical, and selfish way in which they are commonly treated? If a man finds that he is hired when he is a source of gain and turned off when he is not; treated usually without personal appreciation and often with harshness, and set at monotonous work whose value to the world is not easy to feel; it would hardly be supposed that he would show much loyalty or spirit of service, and yet many do, under just such conditions. The truth is that human nature needs to believe in life, and even as we see that people cling to the goodness of God when he seems to send them nothing but misfortunes, so they often show more loyalty to the economic order than it appears to deserve.

It is almost certain that the grosser forms of economic want and terror, like corporal punishment in the schoolroom, paralyze rather than stimulate the energies of society. This liability to starvation and freezing, degradation and contempt for not having money in one's pocket, with no inquiry why, this nightmare of evil to be averted not by service but by money, and only money, no matter how you get it-this is overdoing the pecuniary motive. It brutalizes the imagination and creates an unhuman dread that impels to sensuality and despair.

I do not deny that there will be shirkers under any system, but it seems plain that their numbers are rather increased than diminished by harshness and neglect, and will be reduced in proportion as we make the whole life,

( 135) from infancy onward, one that develops self-respect, hope and ambition.

The argument for savagery — facilis descensus Averni much the same in all spheres of life. A parent beats a child, and, finding him still recalcitrant, thinks he needs more beating; a teacher whose suspicious methods and appeals to fear have alienated his scholars is all for more suspicion and intimidation; an employer who, having made no effort to gain the confidence of his men, finds that they are disloyal, is convinced that nothing but repression can solve the labor question; the people that are trying to control the negro by terrorism and lynching believe that more of these methods is the remedy for increasing negro crime; governments exasperate each other into war by ill will and hostile preparations, and then argue that, war being inevitable, ill will and hostile preparations are the only rational course to take. We shall never get out of these vicious circles until we take our stand on the higher possibilities of human nature, as shown by experience under right conditions, and proceed to develop these by faith and common sense.

One of the main forces in keeping economic motive on a low moral level has been the doctrine that selfishness is all we need or can hope to have in this phase of life. Economists have too commonly taught that if each man seeks his private interest the good of society will take care of itself, and the somewhat anarchic conditions of the time have discouraged a better theory. In this way we have been confirmed in a pernicious state of belief and Practice, for which discontent, inefficiency, and revolt are the natural penalty. A social system based on this doctrine deserves to fail.

( 136)

When pressed regarding this matter economists have not denied that their system rests on a partial and abstract view of human nature; but they have held that this view is practically adequate in the economic field, and have often seemed to believe that it sufficed for all but a negligible part of human life. On the contrary, it is false even as economics, and we shall never have an efficient system until we have one that appeals to the imagination, the loyalty, and the self-expression of the men who serve it.


  1. Guizot, France, chap. V.
  2. There is a fuller discussion In the chapter on The Sphere of Pecuniary Valuation.
  3. James Logan in System, December, 1916.
  4. Henry Ford in System, November, 1916.

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