I’d been feeling insufficiently empathetic recently, like there are a lot of people out there whose belief systems are alien to me; so I decided that it was time to reread Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival. It’s an interesting book: its thesis is that, while there are certain concepts that show up more or less across the board in lists of virtues (she doesn’t give an exhaustive list, but examples she gives are cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom), there are also some concepts that show up frequently but not at all universally, and that these other concepts cluster into two groups.

She labels the first cluster as the “Commercial Moral Syndrome”, though she says the precepts also show up in scientific work. Those virtues are:

  • 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

And she labels the second cluster as the “Guardian Moral Syndrome”:

  • 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 largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor

That second syndrome is, in many ways, foreign to me, and I wouldn’t associate the word “moral” with much of that. (Ostentation, obedience, hierarchy, and vengeance are not high on my list of virtues.) But that’s one of her points: not only are some moral virtues not universal, there are actually these big clumps of moral virtues that oppose each other. And her other point is that each of these clusters has its own natural space: if you’re trying to sell stuff or make stuff, then the first cluster is more likely to guide you successfully, whereas if you’re trying to protect or lead people, then the second cluster is a better fit.

And there are certain situations where I’ll slip into virtues from the second group without even thinking about it. I try to be loyal to my family and friends; or if a group that I feel like part of is threatened, I’ll at least fantasize about vengeance, and may well actually engage in it.


Certainly that second syndrome is relevant to two of the horrors that have flooded my timeline in the second half of this year: Gamergate and police killings. The most sympathetic part of Gamergate is people who feel that something important to them (traditional AAA games) is being threatened: so they want to guard that, in ways that include adhering to tradition, respecting hierarchy, taking vengeance, deceiving for the sake of the task, and so forth. And the less sympathetic part of Gamergate is misogynist assholes who also feel that something important to them (male dominance) is threatened; again, the same response. I’m sure that there are people involved in the movement who are coming from places that have no relation to any moral syndrome, and at any rate linking behavior with natural group protection reactions is not a defense of that behavior; but it’s one route into getting a picture of what’s going on that doesn’t start off with pure antagonism. (If that’s what you want; honestly, I don’t see any real reason not to be purely antagonistic towards Gamergate.)

And similarly for police killings. Again, the sympathetic picture: most policemen (I was going to use a gender neutral term there, but, well) have that job because they do want to be guardians of society, and they want that for noble reasons. And with that, they want obedience and discipline, they’ll exert prowess, they’ll show fortitude, they’ll show vengeance and deceive for the sake of the task. I’m hard pressed to say that any of those are inappropriate for police; even vengeance and deception have their place when going undercover to take down a criminal kingpin. But they all have their bad sides, too: humane, consistent obedience to laws is one thing, but obedience to police as police no matter what they do is something rather more sinister. And, of course, police killings have also shown a much worse version of guardian syndrome, namely guarding white supremacy: it’s fucked up, but fucked up in a way that’s consistent with the guardian moral syndrome.


All sympathies aside, both Gamergate and police killings are pretty messed up at their core: misogyny and white supremacy are terrible, with terrible direct consequences. And, unfortunately, my read of Jacobs’ book is that she’s helping shed light on why those problems are so deeply rooted, in the face of their immorality. And I do think that you can make a case that part of the reason why I label them as immoral is rooted in the universal virtues that Jacobs doesn’t spend much time on: e.g. probably some variant of “help people who have less power” would be on a list of generic moral virtues if she were to make one. (Though it isn’t on the list of examples that I copied from above, the closest there is probably mercy.)

But when you look at the two syndromes, neither of them does very well with that problem. The guardian moral syndrome is about guarding and leading a group; if you’re on the outside of the group, then that prowess and vengeance and deception will be used against you, largess will never be dispensed your way, and honor will be defined in a way such that you can’t satisfy it. And even if you’re in the group but are one of the people being guarded / led instead of the guardians / leaders, then your role is obedience, you’re supposed to look up when respecting the hierarchy, and the largess is dispensation that you should be grateful and even grovel for.

Of course, that’s what I would say as somebody more drawn to the commercial moral syndrome. And the commercial moral syndrome has nice things to say about problems of inequality: instead of the powerful imposing by force, you should have voluntary agreements, you should collaborate even with people outside of your group, you should be open to novelty.

But the baseline assumption of the commercial moral syndrome is that there is a level playing field: that we can come to meaningful voluntary agreements, that we can compete on a fair playing field, that we all have the capital to invest with. As a good liberal, I’d like those things to be the case; but that good liberal status, when combined with my social position, means that it’s very easy to be blind to the many many ways in which that level playing field doesn’t exist at all. And I don’t think the commercial moral syndrome gives a useful guide for how to get there: at best, it’s a picture of where I’d like us to be, but the syndrome doesn’t work to uncover differences between reality and that picture nor tell us a way to work to narrow those differences in the face of resistance. (And I suspect that narrowing those differences will require a large dose of guardian moral syndrome behavior; it took a war to make slavery illegal in the US, for example.) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations did a great job of showing how easy it is for the commercial moral syndrome to ignore these problems, to actively work in favor of inequality.


Interesting book. And a crappy half-year, though the problems that it’s brought to the fore have been around for centuries, it unfortunately sometimes takes a lot for people like me to start noticing just how bad things are.

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