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Comparison of Idealist, Commercial and Guardian Syndromes

from the not-just-a-comment,-it's-a-commentary dept.
Tom McKendree writes, "Pat Gratton's idea of a third moral syndrome, Idealist, to complement the Commercial and Guardian syndromes described in Jane Jacob's Systems of Survival, is sufficiently compelling to deserve further exploration. (For more discussion of this concept, see the original story on nanodot).

I've tried to compare the three syndromes, matching characteristics where I could, and guessing characteristics where there seemed to be holes. From this exercise, I would guess that the Idealist Moral Syndrome also says 'Respect truth,' 'Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens for the sake of the task,' and 'Treasure standing in the subject area community.'"

Click Read More… to view Tom's table summarizing the comparison. Pat Gratton's idea of a third moral syndrome, Idealist, to complement the Commercial and Guardian syndromes described in Jane Jacob's Systems of Survival, is sufficiently compelling to deserve further exploration. (For more discussion of this concept, see the original story on nanodot).

I've tried to compare the three syndromes, matching characteristics where I could, and guessing characteristics where there seemed to be holes. >From this exercise, I would guess that the Idealist Moral Syndrome also says "Respect truth," "Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens for the sake of the task," and "Treasure standing in the subject area community."

A table summarizing this effort is summarized below. Any words added to the characterizations of the syndromes are marked in brackets and italics [like this]–everything else is the words of Jane Jacobs or Pat Gratton. Question marks indicate particularly unsure guesses.




Shun force

Shun force

[Rely on force]

Shun trading

[Rely on trading]

Shun trading

Dedication to the Ideal [Demand purity for the sake of the task]

[Seek/accept pragmatic solutions]

[Seek/accept contingent solutions]

Exert prowess

Use initiative and enterprise

Exert prowess

[Be honest?; Respect truth?]

Be honest

Deceive for the sake of the task

Be unique [Dissent for the sake of uniqueness]

Dissent for the sake of the task

Be obedient and disciplined

[Be open to inventiveness and novelty]

Be open to inventiveness and novelty

Adhere to tradition

Shun authority

[Shun uncontracted authority]

Respect hierarchy

[Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens for the sake of the task]

Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens

Be exclusive

Shun comfort

Promote comfort and convenience

Make rich use of leisure

Be passionate

Be optimistic

Be fatalistic

Ignore ownership

Invest for productive purposes

Be ostentatious

Accept largesse

Be thrifty

Dispense largesse

Respect authorship

Respect contracts

Be loyal

[Demonstrate the superiority of your own ideal]


[Seek a monopoly on force]

[Respect joint authorship]

Come to voluntary agreements

[Negotiate when necessary]

[Be correct and true]

Be efficient

[Be superior]

[Respect joint authorship]

Be industrious

Show fortitude

Honor prowess

[Honor success]

[Honor prowess]

["One-up" slights?; Nurse grudges??]

[Write-off sunk costs]

Take vengeance

[Treasure standing in the subject area community]

[Treasure reputation]

Treasure honor

7 Responses to “Comparison of Idealist, Commercial and Guardian Syndromes”

  1. Douglas Reay Says:

    Further Correlations

    Gratton mentioned the parallels between these three syndromes and the three cultures referenced by Eric Raymond.

    • Guardian : command hierarchy
    • Commercial : exchange economy
    • Idealist : gift culture

    I think there are also parallels to how people identify. Do they respect others and get their own self esteem from:

    • What they are and represent? (Guardian)
    • What they have and can get? (Commercial)
    • What they have done and can do? (Idealist)

    Yet another factor to which one could draw parallels is the attitude to risk. Do you try doing something new:

    • only if there is a 95% certainty if won't be worse than the current outcome? (Guardian)
    • as long as there is over a 50% certainty of better outcomes over worse outcomes? (Commercial)
    • as long as there is a 5% or more chance of a better outcome? (Idealist)

    Finally, it is an interesting question to consider what the relationship is between ethics, the economics fostered by the environment and practices of subcultures and personality typings such as Myers-Briggs, and in which directions cause and effect run.

  2. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    What is monstrous

    One of Jacobs' most important ideas, I think, is the identification of the possibility of "monstrous hybrids" such as the Mafia and the Soviet Union that arise from applying ethics from one system in a context that requires the other. So I got to wondering, how do we know that the Idealist ethics won't create a monstrous hybrid?

    Well, when I look at the examples (and there are others I didn't list–read the book!), I see two common threads. One is that the systems we judge as monstrous benefit only a limited number of people, often at the direct expense of outsiders. ("Paradoxically, a tight Mafia neighborhood is a wonderfully safe place to live as long as you remain incurious why." Systems of Survival p. 95) The other is that these systems stifle a greater good that could exist but for the systems' influence.

    An ideal Guardian system is supposed to be responsible for the welfare of everyone in its sphere of influence. An ideal Commercial system is supposed to trade with everyone equally. When hybrid systems are created, it is often for the purpose of bypassing these goals–and even if not explicitly, it often has that effect.

    This may not be an earthshaking insight, but it does give us a starting point for self-examination. Is the Idealist system universally applicable? Does it benefit everyone involved? Does it hurt any class of people, inside or outside the system? Does it prevent some greater good?

    As far as I can see, the main problem with Idealist is the collection, "Shun trading, Ignore ownership, Shun authority." This could lead to a widespread destruction of property value and commercial incentive. Of course it could replace that with other value and incentive, but Idealists need to be careful to make sure we create more than we destroy.

    Even when they are carried out correctly, ethical systems are not perfect, and will appear monstrous to those who are "less equal than others". Just ask the El Salvadorans about U.S. foreign policy, or the Native Americans about U.S. domestic policy, or… (These are both Guardian examples–I'm having trouble coming up with a clear-cut Commercial example. Anyone?) In any case, the saying, "The rich and poor alike are prevented from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges" is an indictment of both the Guardian and Commercial systems.

    So… recognizing that Idealists are becoming more significant in the systems of the world, let's remember to 1) make sure that as many people as possible are included; 2) search for ways to cooperate or synergize (but not merge!) with the other systems; 3) make sure that any damage we do is outweighed by the new stuff we create.


  3. MarkGubrud Says:


    Six basic personality types, seven deadly sins, twelve astrological signs… I don't find these sorts of categorization systems particularly helpful in understanding the world, and I would suggest caution to those who do. Such a pigeonholing of social actors can have at best an approximate and limited validity. You might be able to convince yourself that everyone does fall into exactly one such category, but I think that if you are a bit more open-minded you may see lots of overlap and boundary-crossing.

    This particular pigeonholing scheme also seems to be carrying a considerable ideological freight. It's the usual Libertarian capitalism-good-government-bad rap, repackaged as "new thinking" one mo' time.

  4. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Not like the others…

    You have missed one of Jacobs' most important points. She does not say that every institution falls into only one category–quite the opposite! She gives examples of institutions that are hybrids–the Soviet Union, the Mafia, the Nazi party… She says that institutions can and do cross boundaries, and that this will have bad results.

    I have found that when I hear of a situation that I would consider an abuse of power, I can usually identify the mixture of ethical principles that allowed it to happen. In other words, I think she's right that mixing systems is frequently bad, and furthermore I think this has predictive power.

    As to the ideological freight, Jacobs wrote that she originally named her two systems Traders and Raiders, and only later realized that the Guardians (Raiders) had a valid system and a useful function, and were not inherently bad. The systems are different enough that someone who feels a strong kinship with one of them will likely disapprove of the others. But the descriptions of the systems seem to be value-neutral.

    I agree with Jacobs on another important point: that both/all of these systems have their own proper place, and that no one system is appropriate for every job. Would you agree that Guardian ethics are more appropriate for a zero-sum situation, where caution and stasis are best; Commercial ethics do well at maximizing the benefit of positive-sum interactions; and Idealist (which I'm now calling Librarian) ethics are more appropriate for an unlimited-sum situation? If not, please give a counterexample.


  5. MarkGubrud Says:

    Re:Not like the others…

    I still do not think this type of ideological construction is very helpful, except as a "new skin" to repackage the "old wine" of an otherwise very obvious ideology. It is a distraction from the real meat of a discussion. Since you are making up the definitions, you can define your way out of any exception or counterexample. If we stick to established and understood terminology, we can get on to the business of actually talking about the specifics of the way things are and the way they ought to be.

    We live in a mixed system. We have laws and we have regulations and we have taxes and commons and we have private property and private enterprise and a bustling market. I don't know if those categories correspond to your "guardian and commercial systems" they are well-understood and they make the point that we live in a mixed system. Furthermore, the desire to purify the system into either totalitarian socialism or laissez-faire capitalism is a fundamentalist impulse that, experience shows, leads to grief. No single formula works in every situation in any society, and no single ideology has all the answers. Pragmatism and pluralism are the strengths of our impure, mixed system, and puritanical ideologies which seek to negate or override the pragmatic concerns that have led to our present arrangements are a source of weakness.

  6. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Re:Not like the others…

    Yes, we do live in a mixed system. Our society has corporations, police departments, journalists, legislative bodies, etc, etc. If you think I'm saying that the whole society should follow one system, you didn't read carefully enough. In the Soviet Union, much of society–including commerce–was based on Guardian ethics. In Nazi Germany, much of society–including warfare and social policy–borrowed from the Commercial ethics of "efficiency". Jacobs uses these examples, and others, to make the point quite strongly that a society must be built of interacting organizations, each applying the proper ethics to their various problem domains.

    Within a single organization, it does make sense to ask which system of ethics it's using, and whether that system is right for the job.


  7. Ian Harris Says:

    I referenced this excellent thinking on my Gresham College lecture in London on 6 November 2008:

    I thought you’d like to know that I referenced the above excellent paper of yours in my lecture on Commercial Ethics at Gresham College in London last week.

    At the time of writing, only the transcript and PowerPoint slides are available on the above link, but within the next day or two the audio and video pod cast should also be available.

    Best wishes

    Ian Harris

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