Musk oxen fighting

Listening to the General Election debate makes me think of David Attenborough’s nature programmes. In species after species, the males fight. The females mate with the winners. The rest of the time they live in groups where they cooperate with each other.

We humans have evolved with two instincts: to cooperate and to compete. When we compete we want to win, and we want somebody else to lose – or at least, to go away and not bother us again. On this matter, the dominant values of British politics today are the values of the worst religious traditions, not the best.


In Britain today – and in the capitalist West as a whole – competitiveness is praised. Britain needs to be competitive in world markets so as to trade successfully. Businesses need to compete successfully against each other to make money. The exams we impose on teenagers make them compete for high grades. To be competitive is the way we are all encouraged to be.

What happens to the losers? The mass media don’t talk about them. We see them in their sleeping bags on the pavement, but caring about them is discouraged. They should get themselves a job. If you give them money they may spend it on something you would disapprove of. The poverty of some is a necessary condition of a successful competitive economy. These attitudes are the ways we are told not to care about them.

In a competitive society there are always more losers than winners. Losers can cooperate with each other, and often do – the original Jesus movement was a classic instance – but they cannot cooperate with those who write them off as losers. Once you have become a loser, you have little choice. Either you end up begging on the pavement until you die, or you try harder to compete. To play the system, and trample on someone else. Competitiveness has become a positive feedback loop: in a competitive society, even the people who lose most are trained to behave in competitive ways.

Thus, as the old cooperative system of the welfare state is step by step dismantled, the pressure to compete increases, and will presumably continue to increase until the system breaks.


When we cooperate we find ways to work together for everybody’s benefit. A stable society needs a high degree of cooperation, to make the best use of people’s skills and minimise the number of rebels.

All the world’s major faith traditions therefore encourage cooperation – caring for other people, especially the disadvantaged, rather than benefiting oneself at their expense. In pre-Christian times there were faith traditions that encouraged competitiveness and had little time for mutual caring – for example, ancient Mesopotamian society – but it is no accident that these have died out.

Secularism and the moral vacuum

So how has competitiveness made such an effective comeback? No doubt there are many reasons. The reason that strikes me as decisive is the moral vacuum created by modern secularism.

Historically, the story goes like this. Badly behaved church leaders, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fell out with each other so violently that a succession of religious wars ensued. Secularism was the means to peace. Religious authority was demoted. Most people continued to believe in God, but as a moral authority God had been discredited.

So what moral authority was left? The only possible authority was humanity itself. ‘We’ create our own values. So who speaks on behalf of humanity? Exactly who constitutes this ‘we’?

In practice the answer has to be the ruling classes. But even this tells us only half the story. If we compare it with the competitiveness of those ancient Mesopotamians, there is a difference as well as a similarity.

The similarity is that the society’s values, as expressed in the surviving texts, promoted the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the poor. The difference is that the ruling class still needed to justify their values in terms of the gods: they claimed to be doing what the gods expected of them. Today, in secular theory, there are absolutely no moral authorities that transcend the ruling classes. Their agenda is, therefore, the only game in town. If there is to be any moral truth at all, its content is decided by them.

So the ruling classes provide us with moral values that express their desires. Their desires, like the desires of David Attenborough’s countless species, are partly competitive and partly cooperative.

However, they are not typical of humanity. One of the reasons why they have become the ruling classes is that they are more competitive than the rest of us.

So they give us a world in which the solution to every problem is more competition. One of the most absurd results of this mindset is a common response to high unemployment: put people on training courses to help them pass interviews! The only reduction in unemployment is the jobs for the trainers; otherwise, the competition for jobs just gets tougher.

All this competitiveness is a value system. It expresses the values of those who pride themselves on being more successful than other people – and don’t care about the people they have trampled on. As a value system, it has proved very successful indeed – at doing the wrong things.

Our society needs to learn all over again what it once knew: that a healthy, stable, happy society is one where we all cooperate with each other, and make sure nobody ends up despised or ignored as a loser.