Does Work Have Any Morality? (2 min)


(An excerpt from upcoming book)

Jane Jacobs (1916-1996) was an expert on urban planning and the economics of cities. She was an activist who helped protect Greenwich Village in New York from being overhauled by an expressway running through Little Italy and SoHo and was arrested in the process. Through her work, she became an expert on the intersection between regulation and business and developed a framework to think about the moral dimensions of each. These were outlined in her excellent book “Systems of Survival”

She argued that there were some universal values such as cooperation, courage, patience and competence. But after these, two types of “moral syndromes” emerged in relation to the working world. By “moral syndromes”, she meant precepts that run together. One related to commercial activities, which would include businesses. The other related to territorial responsibilities, which could be called guardian responsibilities. These would include the work of regulators, police, military, government and legal system. She listed the precepts that each syndrome contained as follows:

The commercial moral syndrome

  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic

The guardian moral syndrome:

  • Shun trade/monetary gain
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Dispense largesse
  • Follow tradition
  • Show off strength
  • Be fatalistic

Jacobs said the first was linked to “trade” and the second to “taking”. Imagine two ways for a country to grow economically, one would be through commerce/trade and another through military conquest.

When seen in this light, the rebellious entrepreneurial spirit of commercial organisations makes sense, while the more bureaucratic nature of guardian organisations makes sense. If one was to introduce commercial morals into guardian organistions, such as by introducing a profit-motive, it would essentially corrupt  it. Think of FIFA allegedly accepting bribes for hosting the World Cup or judges “on the take”. Similarly, if one was to introduce guardian values such as “exert prowess” and “take vengeance” into a commercial organization, you quickly end up with the mafia or colonial East India company.

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