The warrior syndrome as a 3rd system of survival


One of the best books of the late, great Jane Jacobs was Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992).

In it she argued that there were two main systems of thought about political and economic ethics—what she called Guardian morality, which she named for Plato’s philosopher-kings and is the morality of those whose income comes from control of territory, and Commercial morality, which I’ll call Trading morality, the morality of those whose income comes from voluntary exchange.

Guardian morality is concerned with obeying rules and pleasing superiors.  Trading morality is concerned with creating value and pleasing a public.   A healthy society, for Jacobs, keeps these two systems of morality—or syndromes, in her terminology—in balance and in their proper place.

Jane Jacobs

A Guardian organization, such as a police department, is corrupted when it follows economic incentives, Jacobs wrote.   A Trading organization, such as a corporation, is corrupted when it seeks monopoly power instead of creating value.

I claim that what Jacobs called Guardian morality is a conflation of two syndromes.   The two are the morality of Plato’s Guardians and the morality of the “spirited” young male warriors that the Guardians used as enforcers.

I’ll call the second syndrome the Warrior syndrome.   The Guardian syndrome is an ethic of virtue, and the Warrior syndrome is an ethic of honor.  This is a deep division.  Neither “Commerce” nor “Trading” is a good word for the third syndrome, because, as I’ll discuss, it is not necessarily about money, but I’ll use it.

The three syndromes roughly correspond to the moral values of the three estates in 18th century France—the feudal lords (warrior), clergy (guardian) and urban merchants (trader).   They correspond to prevailing moralities in 17th century colonial America—Puritan Massachusetts (guardian), aristocratic Tidewater Virginia (warrior) and Dutch New Amsterdam (trader).

If you think in terms of three syndromes instead of two, some things become more clear.   The Bolsheviks were, as Jacobs wrote, a tyrannical would-be priesthood, an example of a Guardian syndrome gone wrong.

But the Mafia was not, as she said, another example of the same thing.  The Mafia is a would-be Warrior aristocracy based on a perverse code of honor.

The problem with certain American police is that they follow a Warrior syndrome when they should be Guardians.   They are more concerned with establishing dominance and punishing insults than with preserving order

Below is my revision of Jane Jacobs’ chart.   Jacobs’ original words are in italic and my substitutions are in bold-face.


Guardian: Shun sin
Warrior: Shun trading
Trader: Shun force
Guardian: Do good
Warrior: Exert prowess
Trader: Compete
Guardian: Be obedient and disciplined
Warrior: Demand respect
Trader: Create value

Guardian: Have faith
Warrior: Be loyal
Trader: Come to voluntary agreements
Guardian: Enforce laws and rules
Warrior: Take vengeance
Trader: Respect contracts
Guardian: Contend for the sake of truth
Warrior: Deceive for the sake of the mission
Trader: Dissent for the sake of the task
Guardian: Follow a routine
Warrior: Make rich use of leisure
Trader: Be industrious
Guardian: Be modest
Warrior: Be ostentatious
Trader: Be thrifty
Guardian: Minimize and share possessions
Warrior: Dispense largesse
Trader: Invest for productive purposes
Guardian: Demand conformity
Warrior: Be exclusive
Trader: Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Guardian: Be austere
Warrior: Show fortitude
Trader: Promote comfort and convenience
Guardian: Be unworldly
Warrior: Be fatalistic
Trader: Be optimistic
Guardian: Treasure virtue
Warrior: Treasure honor
Trader: Be honest 


I think the Warrior syndrome is the primal syndrome, as least for men.  It is the system of survival you would adopt if thrown into a lawless and dangerous situation, such as a prison yard.

You would try to make alliances with other men, to whom you would owe mutual loyalty.   With others, you would show that you will strike back if insulted or injured.   You might put yourself under the protection of someone more powerful, in return for accepting that person’s authority.   Similarly, you would extend protection downward to anyone who became your follower.

This is the basic morality of feudal and Warrior societies down through the ages.   In the European middle ages, warriors were tamed by priests.   The warrior’s honor is to behave in a way that others are forced to respect you.  The priestly guardians taught them to fight within rules of conduct and to show mercy to the weak.   All this is vastly over-simplified, of course.

The Trader syndrome flourished under the growth of modern business, science and democracy, especially here in the United States.

The idea of the Trader syndrome is that you offer something to a public and they have a choice to accept it or not.

The idea of free enterprise is that you offer a product or service to consumers, and they accept it or not.  The idea of science is that you offer your hypothesis to other scientists, and they accept it or not.  The idea of democracy is that you offer your program to voters and they accept it, or not.

The free market, science and democracy are all continuing processes, based—again, I say, ideally—on transparency and consent.  They always should be open to a next transaction, a next hypothesis and a next election.

All three syndromes are appropriate in certain circumstances, and not in others.  You wouldn’t want troops on a battlefield thinking like traders, looking for personal advantage.  You wouldn’t want entrepreneurs thinking like guardians, looking for rules to enforce.   And you wouldn’t want clergy thinking like warriors, looking for ways to conquer the enemy.  And there are corrupt as well as ideal versions of all three.

I don’t claim this way of thinking of things explains everything important, but I do think it captures certain realities.

I’m not sure if it would make sense to you if you haven’t read Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival.  I strongly recommend that book and her other works, especially the classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


Jane Jacobs v Robert Moses: battle of New York’s urban titans by Anthony Paletta for The Guardian.

Jane Up North: How Jane Jacobs’s spirit lives on in Toronto by Shawn Micallef for Curbed.

Traders and Raiders by Mary Ann Glendon for First Things.

Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival: a Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Robert Wechsler for City Ethics

Jane Jacobs and the Problem of Monstrous Hybrids by Timothy B. Lee for Forbes.

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2 Responses to “The warrior syndrome as a 3rd system of survival”

  1. jonolan Says:

    As a “warrior,” I say that you have the ethos down pretty well. I could argue about “forcing” respect and such but that’s likely just a connotative dissonance between us because I never demanded or forced a civilian to respect me. Why would I? They’re civilians and can’t be expected to understand…and nor would I want them to do so, that understanding having always come from my failure or the failure of my brothers and sisters under arms?

    But…about the police – Many of those police who you think should be “guardians” instead of “warriors” are operating every day in areas – theaters if you will – where they are treated exactly as an occupying enemy force is treated. I know; I’ve seen how some people in certain areas treat the police and I’ve been part of an occupying force. A police officer who is effectively “in country” is going to switch from “guardian” to “warrior” because he’s facing an actual enemy force in enemy territory.


  2. Says:

    This is the first review of yours that I’ve read and I found it interesting and well-written.

    I think I’m finding that Jacobs’ original two-part distinction might be a better fit for modern, as opposed to feudal, societies. At least in the context of the US gov’t’s checks and balances, enforcement and morality (i.e. law) although the Executive branch is assigned the first and the Supreme Court the second, the two are, if not conflated, certainly formally coordinated in the Constitution and in reality dependent on each others.

    But I thought the mentions of science and democratic elections as examples of the Trader syndrome were insightful and helpful. Science is usually considered as guided by the evidence (which it is) but the marketplace of public acceptance sometimes trumps that.

    Thanks again.



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