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scottxyz Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Feb-25-04 11:15 PM
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The "Guardian" ethic versus the "Commercial" ethic (Jane Jacobs)
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Edited on Wed Feb-25-04 11:29 PM by scottxyz
The "Guardian" ethic versus the "Commercial" ethic
(Jane Jacobs - Systems of Survival, 1991)

We agree on where we want to go.
Why can't we agree on how to get there?

Most people agree on some basic things we all want - such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whether "conservative" or "liberal", we're pretty much all in favor of jobs, healthcare, and peace - and against pollution, poverty and war. We all want education for our children and a dignified retirement for our old age, and a level playing field for all people.

We all pretty much agree on WHAT we want - but why do we have such a hard time agreeing on HOW to get there?

In the past few decades, we have seen our country become increasingly polarized into two opposing camps, variously summed up under the rubrics "conservatives" versus "liberals", "right wing" versus "left wing", or "Republicans" versus "Democrats".

The dialog between these two camps has been heating up to the point where it's turning into a bitter and vicious shouting match, and the two sides can barely talk to each other now. As a result of all the venom in the air, the country is having a hard time now agreeing on how to deal with the problems we face.

Why is this happening? What is so different about these two camps that's making it so difficult for us to co-exist and cooperate?

The "guardian" ethic versus the "commercial" ethic
The writer Jane Jacobs may have an answer to this question, in her groundbreaking book "Systems of Survival". She proposes that there are actually two very opposite age-old schools of human thought (or "moral syndromes" as she calls them): a "guardian" ethic and a "commercial" ethic. Each of these ethics is very good at doing certain things (and very bad at doing certain other things), and a person who belongs to one of these ethics has a deeply ingrained gut reaction against doing things according to the opposing ethic.

This split between "guardian" and "commercial" may have been around since the dawn of human civilization, but apparently nobody noticed it until Jane Jacobs published her book in 1991. (For this reason, I would argue her book may have a "millennial" importance on the level of a book such as Machievelli's "The Prince" - and that it will take many years for her ideas to actually be popularized and understood.) The ideas she sets forth are so fundamental and so groundbreaking (and so central to our way life) that it's hard to put precise labels on them, but Jacobs takes her best shot at characterizing these two opposing ethics in "Systems of Survival." For easier reading, the book is structured not as an essay but as a dialog among a group of acquaintances, and it is full of examples of the two opposing "camps" as well as long lists of attributes which could be used as a starting point to begin characterizing and understanding them.

Here's a summary describing the two fundamental opposing human moralities Jacobs posits:

{Jacobs} classifies human activity (or survival patterns) into two groups: taking and trading. These two types of activities require two different systems (or syndromes) of morals to work correctly. It is this dichotomy that is the main idea of the book. ...

Some human activities can be considered to operate according to "guardian" concepts of morality. Examples include politics and government, the legal system, art and religion. All of these groups are involved in protecting, acquiring, exploiting administering and controlling territories. Guardian moral precepts include:

"Guardian" (enforcer) concepts

* Shun trading
* Exert prowess
* Be obedient and disciplined
* Adhere to tradition
* Respect hierarchy
* Be loyal
* Take vengeance
* Deceive for the sake of the task
* Make rich use of leisure
* Be ostentatious
* Dispense largesse
* Be exclusive
* Show fortitude
* Be fatalistic
* Treasure honor

In contrast, other activities follow the "commercial" moral syndrome. Examples include commerce, science and agriculture. Values such as trust between strangers and the respecting of contracts and receipts are important to the functioning of commerce. Mention was made that contractual law was invented by traders and not legislators. It was radical at the time as it applied equally to all individuals, regardless of their social standing, and was available to all individuals. Many of what we would call civil rights are the rights to enter into contracts as equals. Commercial moral precepts include:

"Commercial" (trader) concepts

* Shun force
* Come to voluntary agreements
* Be honest
* Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
* Compete
* Respect contracts
* Use initiative and enterprise
* Be open to inventiveness and novelty
* Be efficient
* Promote comfort and convenience
* Dissent for the sake of the task
* Invest for productive purposes
* Be industrious
* Be thrifty
* Be optimistic

Real-world examples of the "guardian" and "commercial" mentalities

"Commercial" (or "trader")
An example of the "commercial" (or "trader") mentality would be the business or academic world, where "making a better mousetrap" is more important than submitting to hierarchy or mindlessly repeating the mistakes of the past.

Corporations or scientists who blindly obey authority rather than questioning and innovating are less successful over time because they can't keep up with a changing world - so in this camp it's perfectly ok to strike out on your own and see if you can do better than your old boss or teacher. This camp is about adapting to a changing world, not about just obeying orders or blindly clinging to rules and traditions in the face of change. The profit motive is important in the commercial world - those who aren't efficient and innovative fall by the wayside. The commercial mentality innovates and trades - and within its sphere of application, it works quite well.

(If you are a life-long conservative with a passion for obeying authority, it may come as a sort of relief to just be able to recognize this fact - innovation and questioning DOES have its place in the world of human endeavors. Science and commerce would not be where there are today if somebody didn't "break the rules".)

"Guardian" (or "enforcer")
An example of the "guardian" (or "enforcer") mentality would be the police or the military, where following orders is more important than being creative or questioning authority.

In that sort of world, being able to rely on a "chain of command" is more important than being able to "question authority," because without authority, these sorts of hierarchies fall apart or enforce the wrong rules. The police or the military wouldn't function very well if each member were able to question or make up the rules as they went along - which means that when there's a conflict between "obeying orders" and "being right", "obeying orders" wins. This camp is about obeying and enforcing the existing rules, not about finding alternative or better ways of doing things. The profit motive is unheard-of in the "enforcer" camp - soldiers and police do what they do out of a sense of duty, not out of a desire for booty. The enforcer mentality just enforces the rules - and within its sphere, it also works quite well.

(If you are a life-long liberal who loves to question everything, it may come as a sort of relief to just be able to recognize this fact - knee-jerk obedience and submission to authority DOES have its place in the world of human endeavors. When you dial 911 in order to report a crime, you don't expect the cop who shows up to "break the rules".)

As we can see, both types of morality have their place in the world, and things run pretty smoothly if each minds its own business.

"Monstrous hybrids"
Jacobs also points out examples where the two camps sometimes merge, producing what she calls a "monstrous hybrid".

An example was cited where a police force adopted a number of performance indicators, including the number of arrests made. Individual police officers were paid on this basis. However some police were unfairly arresting people to boost their own salaries. In this case, a productivity measure such as the number of arrests made is appropriate for a commercial outfit but not a guardian institution, such as a police force.

(The RICO laws, which reward police by letting them KEEP confiscated assets, may be another example of this kind of "monstrous hybrid".)

Another monstrous hybrid Jane Jacobs cites is the Mafia - a police organization with a profit motive.

One interesting historical example Jacobs cites to support her proposal is the ancient taboo on "nobility" (the "enforcers") dabbling in "trade" ("commerce"). She theorizes that this long-standing taboo may have been intended to prevent just such a "monstrous hybrid" from occurring: knights of old were part of the military, and their job was simply to enforce - not to go around plundering and succumbing to a profit motive (which they did of course do sometimes, with the well-known negative results).

Shouldn't the "guardian" and the "commercial" camps co-exist in American society?
American society is going through some very difficult times today - and much of it may be due to a failure to recognize as legitimate both the "guardian"/"enforcer" and the "commercial"/"trader" impulses in human nature.

These two moral camps seem to be very ingrained in the human psyche, and it does seem to be very hard to talk a person from one camp over to the other side - or even for a person from one camp to talk to a person from the other. But it may be that we need BOTH mentalities in order to function as a society. If the enforcers would stay in their place and the innovators would stay in theirs, maybe things would work a whole lot better - and we could stop shouting at each other, trying in vain to unite the two opposing and necessary camps into one.

If these two moral mindsets characterize human nature and have their place in human society, what does that say about the debates we are now seeing between "conservatives" and "liberals"? Do we have to all go over to one side or the other - or would it be better to just recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each school of morality, and divvy up the tasks accordingly? Let the hierarchical "enforcers" run our military and our police, and let the free-wheeling "innovators" run our businesses and schools.

If both of camps are useful "systems of survival" for the human race (provided each ethic is applied to the right area - guardians for enforcement, innovators for efficiency), shouldn't we be looking at ways to acknowledge the differences between the two, accept them, and accommodate them both in our society where appropriate?

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