Systems of Survival

In this 1992 dialogue, Jane Jacobs lays out two basic descriptive clusters (syndromes) of morality, each tied to a means of production, and describes them as ‘systems of survival’. That is, life requires inputs; those inputs can come from either taking, which is the foundation of what she calls the Guardian moral syndrome, or from trading, which is the foundation of what she calls the Commercial moral syndrome. It’s an attempt to understand work by looking at the aspirational attitudes that people have towards work, and understand those how those attitudes are grounded in the mechanics of that work. The dialogue explains the ideas and corollaries in some depth;[1] here I present just the stripped core of the ideas.

Jacobs identifies fifteen precepts for each syndrome (I have ordered the lists slightly differently than Jacobs, to highlight contrasts, but really they want to be a graph; also, I think it’s easy to have your eyes skip over the lists, but deep understanding of this requires thinking about each precept individually as well as the connections between them, which the long dialogue is better at doing. I recommend getting the gist, reading the rest of the post, and then coming back to meditate on the lists).[2] The lists ignore universally esteemed behavior; Jacobs has her character Kate list them as “cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom”.

The Commercial Moral SyndromeThe Guardian Moral Syndrome

Shun force

Exert prowess

Come to voluntary agreements

Shun trading

Be honest

Be loyal

Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens

Be exclusive


Take vengeance

Respect contracts

Respect hierarchy

Use initiative and enterprise

Be obedient and disciplined

Be open to inventiveness and novelty

Adhere to tradition

Be efficient

Treasure honor

Promote comfort and convenience

Show fortitude

Dissent for the sake of the task

Deceive for the sake of the task

Invest for productive purposes

Dispense largesse

Be industrious

Make rich use of leisure

Be thrifty

Be ostentatious

Be optimistic

Be fatalistic

The precepts are a compilation and refinement of “esteemed behavior” notes I’ve made over a period of some fifteen years. Initially, I conceived of the two precept groups as embodying “trader” and “raider” morality, and was laggard at recognizing that “raider” precepts are as morally valid as traders’, and are grounded in legitimate territorial concerns.

Why two syndromes? The core idea is that combining two precepts might lead to different levels of synergy or discord (“Be honest” and “Respect contracts” strengthen each other; “be thrifty” and “be ostentatious” weaken each other), and so we can rank all possible combinations of precepts from most consistent to least, and separately we can rank each precept by how much it aids or hinders work of a particular type, and then we can find the optimal set for each type of work. Jacobs isn’t doing this work from scratch, she’s just describing what society has found so far, and seems somewhat optimistic about further innovation. In the absence of a third system of survival,[3] then there should be a system that’s optimal for trading, a system that’s optimal for taking, and then lots of suboptimal systems.

For example, why is ‘shun trading’ useful for Guardians? Well, the obvious thing for them to trade is secrets, loyalty, or favorable treatment, none of which the broader system wants them to trade.[4] As well, while merchants might freely consent or not to contracts proposed by either party, a Guardian dealing with a non-Guardian might be tempted to lean on the threat of their prowess or the respect due their station, in a way that causes all consent to be suspect. Safer to cleanly separate negotiation and force.

That said, if you start with one of the mutually reinforcing clusters and swap out a handful of precepts to create a hybrid, you’ll generally make things worse, as you’re removing synergies and adding friction. [The typical mutation makes a biological organism worse off instead of better off!]

For example, one might think that contracts and markets are generally good; why not encourage Guardians to take on those virtues? The primary example of this is the Mafia, a primarily Guardian organization which does not shun trading and often enriches itself thru predatory agreements; a secondary example is a consultant suggesting to a police force that they measure and compensate officers based on arrests (as had been successfully applied to line-workers on a factory floor), which led to false arrests to boost the numbers, as it made the mistake of viewing police work as active commerce instead of reactive guardianship.[5]

What about eschewing Guardians entirely? Remember they originally looked like ‘raiders’ to Jacobs. The precept of ‘shun force’ turns out to be double-sided, as it both enables most things that are good about the Commercial syndrome and means that the syndrome is weak to colonization.[6] If you don’t act like you have territory, other systems which are acting like they have territory might think that yours is up for grabs, and might be right about that.

She spends some time investigating why art is more associated with the Guardian cluster (make rich use of leisure), promoting the hypothesis that art was the province of hunters and soldiers for both reasons of conservation (if you hunted as much as you could, you’d desolate your region and then your tribe) and sanity (while tribes and nations appreciate hunters and soldiers, they only do so in moderation, and worry about living with killing-maximizers. Pairing the dirtiest work with artistic pursuits perhaps lessens the risk here). Situations where Guardian professions adopted some Commercial precepts like “be industrious” turned out terribly.

Many historical societies implemented this moral separation with classes or castes; guardians were not people who went to the military recruiter at the job fair, but people born into that position and barred (socially, legally, and morally) from other professions. This also highlights a way in which Jacobs is blending things together–she views religious organizations as fundamentally Guardian, focused on territory, peace, and control, while many historical systems viewed them as importantly different from military Guardians. As well, as the ‘plantation agriculture’ style is very Guardian, Jacobs also suggests serfs and slaves adhered to Guardian moral syndrome.[7] Jacobs thinks this is a bad plan /​ was a developmental stage that humanity has grown out of.

It is ordinary for the same individual to do both guardian and commercial work, yet keep the two distinct.

The main alternative is what she calls “flexibility”; everyone being able to act according with the Guardian or the Commercial precepts in situations that call for it. One character in the dialogue is an author who also serves on a library’s advisory board, zealously pursuing their interest during their regular business and zealously avoiding conflicts of interest while doing public service. A worker’s cooperative that runs a factory must both manage the Guardian concern of providing for members and the Commercial concern of running the factory at a profit; Jacobs notes the cases where factories whose profits were turned into largesse instead of productive investments soon had few profits to manage, while seeming optimistic about the possibilities of cooperatives that keep their ethical priorities straight.

The main obstacle to this flexibility is fixed ‘casts of mind’ or mindsets; someone who doesn’t differentiate between guardian and commercial work might unthinkingly attempt to apply the guardian precepts to their commercial work, not foreseeing the difficulties this will create for them. Jacobs judges that much of the corporate zeitgeist in America during the 80s and 90s made this mistake; looking to military leadership texts and using Guardian metaphors. To the extent that middle management in corporations is a territory game, it’s unclear whether or not this is a mistake; see Moral Mazes for what this looked like (especially the loyalty and patronage networks) from the inside.

Overall, I find the picture of two internally consistent and ‘disagreeing’ ethical clusters, which nevertheless work together to form our civilization, pretty compelling and illuminating. I already had a sense of how the Tao of the soldier was distinct from the Tao of the doctor, this makes the superstructure above that more clear (especially as I think both are Guardian, and the Tao of the merchant is yet another thing).

  1. ^

    One of the interesting dimensions of additional depth is that the dialogue contains a variety of characters, with different viewpoints, expertise, and politics; by showing the group process information together, Jacobs can not just demonstrate an idea but demonstrate that idea’s place in the social landscape of ideas. She carefully describes what the characters have for lunch, because of the angle in which that’s relevant!

  2. ^

    The graph I made is sort of ugly, with 30 nodes and 90 edges, each edge a story of how precepts reinforce or conflict.

  3. ^

    Jacobs briefly touches on ‘love’ as a third motivation, but doesn’t imagine it as a full system of survival. This seems right to me, outside of speculation about the future. She also has a communist character object to both syndromes, with the clear implication that they’re living in a fantasy world.

  4. ^

    In the bookstore where my husband picked up this book, I read thru England, Your England by George Orwell, and was reminded of this line from it: “The hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England.” A clear example of Guardian morality in a situation where commercial morality would make things worse (tho see Bryan Caplan’s dissenting view, as you might expect from a prominent proponent of Commercial morality).

  5. ^

    In the ideal world, the number of arrests is 0, which is quite different of the ideal number of products made by a line-worker. The consultant’s approach fails to respect this important difference!

  6. ^

    The typical libertarian response to this, I think, is the ‘non-aggression principle’; every person as the Guardian of their personal territory. I won’t go into further detail here, except to note that I doubt Jacobs would view it as a sufficient response, and I don’t think I do either.

  7. ^

    I’ve gone back and forth on how much I agree with this. It sure seems like loyalty, fortitude, fatalism, and obedience were part of the survival system for slaves. I think Jacobs, looking at the varna system, would class all of brahmin (priests), kshatriya (warriors), and shudra (laborers) as Guardians and the vaishya (merchants) as Commercials. It feels like the shudra are more in the middle–but perhaps this is just because they mix together farm laborers (who would naturally be more bound to their territory and thus Guardian) and city laborers (who would naturally be more bound to trading relationships and thus Commercial). It also seems like if you try to come up with a third ‘prole’ cluster, it will probably be one of the malfunctioning hybrids discussed before, where either being fully Guardian or fully Commercial would be preferable.