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Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics Paperback – January 13, 1994


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (January 13, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679748164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679748168
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #311,038 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A sometimes provocative but simplistic discussion of morality in the form of a Platonic dialogue between a Manhattan publisher and his party guests.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In her latest contribution to liberal theory, Jacobs ( Cities and the Wealth of Nations , LJ 6/15/84) argues that modern societies utilize two distinctive moral systems--one being suited to the world of commerce, the other to the world of politics. Commercial morality is unsentimental, nonpartisan, and efficacious; political morality is personalistic, expansive, and vaguely altruistic. The problem is that we don't always know which system of morality to employ in concrete situations. Furthermore, the wrong choice can have disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, Jacobs invents a rather wooden cast of characters who engage in a Socratic dialog that reproduces the author's perspective on the two fundamental types of morality. As a result, the book's credible philosophical message becomes obscured by the superficiality and hamfistedness of the characters' conversations. A few readers may find Jacobs's literary device helpful; most will find it distracting. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/92.
- Kent Worcester, Social Science Research Council, New York
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

And why the free market does good things -- and bad things.
Laurence Jarvik
The book made it clear to me that society needs both guardians and commercials (ie structure and flexibility).
Baraniecki Mark Stuart
Well researched and documented, conveyed in conversational style.
Ken Deshaies

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 15, 1999
Format: Paperback
Jane Jacobs is one of those amazing outsiders who can take a collection of clippings from the newspaper, historical texts, and conversations with friends, and identify patterns no one else has so clearly seen. Here she has pointed out an entire field for future study -- the social evolution of meme-complexes, patterns of self-reinforcing beliefs that have evolved over time in human populations. One can quibble about the undisciplined frame for the arguments, but it does make the book an exceptionally easy read (and no doubt was much easier to write than a more formal treatment would have been). I certainly recognized myself and my friends (and politcal opponents) in her syndromes, and have found the insight they provide invaluable in working with people who are "syndrome-inflexible" (cannot swing from one syndrome to the other as appropriate) -- especially on local development issues, where the clash of the syndromes is exceptionally obvious.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Laurence Jarvik on June 12, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is one of my favorite books. I have read and re-read it again and again. Jane Jacobs explains why governments do good things -- and bad things. And why the free market does good things -- and bad things. Her exposition of the conflict between the "commercial syndrome" and the "guardian syndrome" is profound and original. An exceptionally brilliant philosophical dialog in the tradition of the Greeks.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Chris Crawford on July 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
I rate this as one of the ten best books I have read in the last decade. For years I could not understand how everyday people can commit moral transgressions. Some years back, I found myself on the receiving end of some seriously unethical behavior committed by people who were my friends and whom I had always held in high regard. How could these good people involve themselves in such unethical behavior? The dysjunction between their behavior and my assessment of their characters was the source of much grief. After reading Jacobs' book, I have come to understand just how tricky some of these problems can be, and just how easy it is for good people to fall into error at the junction between commericial life and guardian life. Her book doesn't solve any problems, but it certainly makes sense of much human perfidy.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A reader on February 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is a most insightful book, in which the author convincingly expounds her thesis that the world uses two systems of ethics as systems for the survival of mankind: the commercial system, and the guardian system.

The commercial class lives by production and exchange, primarily by means of honest, binding contracts and voluntary agreements, and where initiative, inventiveness and efficiency are prized, along with industriousness, thrift and investment.

The guardian class is prevalent in governments, benevolent trusts, charity organizations, universities and schools, military and police. They shun trading and exchange, and live by taking, in the form of taxes and donations, and sometimes expropriation. They are dispensers of the good things, in the form of grants and largesse. Guardians issue commands and expect them obeyed, with courage if necessary, which they in turn are subject to themselves, for a hierarchical command structure is honored. And they use force and deception where necessary to accomplish objectives.

The greatest sin, and the cause of all corruption, according to Ms. Jacobs, is when the two systems are merged in one organization. I have read several books on ethics, but this is the first that points out that there are two systems in operation in society. And it explains so much that has been a puzzle for me. For example, we are taught to tell the truth, as in the commercial system of ethics, yet a government will lie in the interests of the state, and a general will try to deceive the enemy, and both expect to be applauded for that. This can be explained only by the distinct systems of morality that guide the guardian class and commercial classes.

The two systems explain the characteristics of nations too.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 18, 1997
Format: Paperback
Jane Jacobs' division of morality into two "syndromes", "commercial" and "guardian" has given me an enormously helpful and practical frame of reference from which to view human behavior, including my own. I especially see how I can lock into the point of view of one moral syndrome -- either one -- and judge the other syndrome to be immoral, when in fact, as Jacobs points out, immorality arises from the "monstrous hybridization" of the two. Jane Jacobs is one of my top five intellectual heroes, for this book and her several others on city economics.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Tom Gray on July 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
Our society has principles that forbid us to kill and yet our society also has principles that require it to prepare for and engage in war. Much has been made of this conflict in morality but very little light has been shed on it despite its ancient origin. Jacob's tackles this apparent contradiction and others in another of her books where her searching insight can discover ideas that have eluded others.
Jacobs resolves the apparent conflict by showing that it is no conflict at all but really the interworking of two disjoint moralities that must function interdependently to allow our society to flourish.
Our society functions to interfere with the liberty of its inhabitants as little as possible and yet it can restrict the freedom of malefactors and even sentence them to long terms of imprisonment. Jacob's identifies this as the interworking of the commercial and guardian syndromes of morality. These moralities are contradictory - what is a vice in one is a virtue in the other. And yet we need them both. The commercial syndrome abjures force and encourages voluntary agreement. This is the syndrome that characterises interpersonal interaction within our society. It is desirable and yet it is incomplete. Its success requires the confidence of all particpants that the principles of the syndrome. This is provided by the guardian syndrome which is based on coercion and strict adherence to fixed rules.
Jacobs shows how these sysndromes must be kept separate in society for just as initiayive and industry are virtues in the commercial syndrome they are vices in the guardian syndrome. Simliarly the guardian sysndrome requires largesse but the commercial requires invenstment and efficiency.
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