Systems of Survival

Morality has been an issue much on my mind lately, and I have found a book with interesting things to say on the subject. Now, morality is an issue older than Plato, and so I would not think that anybody had much new to add to the discussion, but in fact this book has some astounding observations to make about the old problem.

Do not dismiss this subject as irrelevant to designers of interactive entertainment. After all, morality is a system for regulating human behavior, and interactive entertainment (aside from computer games) is about human behavior. Can you imagine any story that does not in some way present or presume notions of morality? If we designers of interactive entertainment are to include moral factors in our work, we’ll need to have some understanding of morality as a system.

The book is Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs. The core concept that Jacobs presents is the notion that there are really two fundamental moral systems at work in our culture:the commercial and the guardian, personified in the merchant the policeman, respectively. Each one is internally complete and consistent, capable alone of guiding all behavior. They are also mutually contradictory, and yet they are both essential to the survival of our society.

Most morally confusing situations arise from inappropriate mixing of the two systems. For example, the guardian syndrome (as Jacobs calls it) places great moral value on respect for social hierarchy, but the commercial syndrome places its moral emphasis on honest competition instead. At the same time, the guardian syndrome eschews commercial activity as dishonorable, and the commercial syndrome disdains the use of force. Clearly, these two syndromes contradict each other.

So long as the two systems are cleanly separated, moral issues are clearcut, but when they mix, trouble ensues. For example, the army general (guardian)who sells his power to influence weapons purchases has mixed the guardian with the commercial syndrome. The commercial corporation that becomes overly hierarchical in structure loses its nimbleness and ultimately falls prey to more competitively-minded competitors.

Jacobs argues her case with clarity and thoroughness, examining a wide variety of apparent moral anomalies that in fact buttress her thesis. She also considers objections to her arguments, and for the most part does so with great integrity (although her handling of the bleeding-heart liberal was a little heavy-handed).

This is a compelling book, and I give it my highest recommendations.My thanks go to Laura Mixon for giving me a copy.