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Three Systems Of Ethics For Diverse Applications

By Chris Phoenix, November 2002

In a military context, selling secret information to competing countries is probably an act of treason.  In a corporate context, selling secret information to a competing corporation may simply be a licensing agreement that both companies are happy with.  Many people feel that downloading commercial music from the Internet is fine, while they would agree that taking the same CD from a store without paying is not OK at all.  These are questions of ethics, in the sense of "The principles of conduct governing an individual or a group" (Webster's 9th New Collegiate Dictionary).  Doctors, lawyers, journalists, policemen, soldiers, employees, and even friends are expected to follow systems of ethics.  Journalists are supposed to report the facts with as little bias as possible; lawyers are expected to twist the truth as far as possible without actually breaking it.  In most circumstances, it's never OK to kill anyone; however, doctors are allowed to risk the death of their patients (as long as the patients are informed), and policemen can kill deliberately when their life is threatened.  Ethics make people behave predictably--you know more or less what to expect from those you interact with.  Sometimes new sets of ethics must be invented for new situations; obviously this must be done with extreme care.

The verbal distinction between ethics and morals is fuzzy; even the dictionary is not much help.  For the purpose of this paper, "ethics" means the the rules of behavior that are applied to a person by a system or institution they take part in.  Ethics, then, refers to situational codes of behavior.  "Morals" refers to the rules of conduct applied by an internalized belief system.  Unlike ethics, morals are not supposed to change according to context or whim.  If we see someone being unethical, we may feel that they are unfair or untrustworthy.  If we see someone being immoral, our reaction is stronger.  Ethics can--and should--be chosen to fit the situation.  For example, a person who takes pride in being scrupulously honest may have no ethical problem with "bluffing" in poker--lying outright about the contents of his hand--or with "bargaining"--offering $5 when he intends to settle at $8.

Groups define, implicitly or explicitly, the system of ethics they will follow.  A group that attempts to pick and choose what ethics it will follow will probably end up with a very bad system.  Certain ethical rules simply cannot be mixed without creating bad results.  Consider this question: "How much should a corporation pay for the right to kill someone?"  The question is disgusting.  Obviously corporations have no right to kill anyone, under any circumstances.  Yet other institutions in our society do, sometimes, have that right.  A policeman has every right to kill a criminal who is trying to kill him.  And yet, the question, "How much should a policeman pay for the right to kill someone?" is also disgusting.  The words "pay" and "kill" simply don't belong together--unless you're in the Mafia.  An ethical system that involves the ability to kill people should not also involve questions of payment.  Similarly, certain systems should not be applied to certain problems; attempting to solve a police issue with money is called bribery.

This paper studies several common systems of ethics, two of them well-established, and one relatively new.  It points out which kinds of problems each one is suitable for, and gives some examples of what can happen when ethics are misapplied.  The new system of ethics is enabled, and made necessary, by new technology, and the lessons learned from the older systems will be applied to the new system.  Finally, some problems created by the presence of the new system will be surveyed.  This paper stands on its own, and also provides background for my paper, "Nanotechnology And Systems Of Ethics", also available on this site.

Before 1950: The Two Ethical Systems

In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs describes two ethical systems, Guardian and Commercial.  Guardian ethics are those appropriate for governments and police forces, organizations that defend laws and land.  In such a group, betrayal can cause disaster; force is frequently necessary; the opposition is the enemy; tradition is valuable; and loyalty is more important than money.  Commercial ethics are appropriate for business and trade, which seek to increase value to all parties involved.  Trust is important, even between competing organizations.  Money is the lifeblood of commerce.  Innovation and efficiency are more useful than tradition, and the use of force is severely frowned on.  It is obvious that the ethics of these organizations are different: buying products is appropriate, while buying pardons is not.  What is less obvious at first is that the sets of ethics are actually incompatible.  Many centuries of development have created distinct traditions and expectations for each kind of task.  There are strong reasons why the ethics should not be mixed, and why each system should be applied only to the tasks it is suited for.  History has shown what happens when this advice is ignored.

If someone steals my car, they have one more car and I have one less.  The thief has created no value--in fact, once the car goes to the chop shop, value is destroyed.  If Iraq annexes Kuwait, then the Kuwaiti government loses the land that Iraq gains.  These are examples of zero-sum or even negative-sum transactions.  Guardian ethics are well-suited to organizations playing zero-sum games.  According to Jacobs, Guardian ethics include "Deceive for the sake of the task," "Take vengeance," and "Shun trading"--all good advice for a group surrounded by enemies.  However, these ethics would not work well for a commercial organization.

If I have a surplus of wheat, and someone else has a surplus of eggs, we will both be better off if we trade.  This is a positive-sum transaction, and the creation of value is what drives commerce.  Commercial ethics include, "Be honest," "Be thrifty," "Compete," and "Respect contracts."  The more closely a commercial organization follows these ideals, the more trading it can engage in and the richer it will become.  Commercial ethics also include, "Shun force."  This is good advice for companies that must focus on competing in the marketplace; coercion is not usually a good way to build trading relationships.

The two systems have learned to coexist, and even to benefit each other.  Commercial activities need Guardian organizations to minimize the problems of theft, fraud, and piracy.  Guardian organizations don't actually need Commercial organizations, but without commerce the system reverts to feudalism: warlords fighting to maintain and extend their land, and peasants engaged in heavily-taxed zero-sum farming when they're not being drafted for cannon fodder.  Life without government is anarchy; life without commerce is "nasty, brutish, and short."  But--and this is crucial--the two ethical systems must be embodied in different organizations.  When government takes complete control of commerce, the problems of Soviet Communism arise: lack of competition, innovation, and incentive.  When commerce takes control of government, you get the worst abuses of the "company towns" from America's history: workers become indistinguishable from slaves.  If the ethical systems are mixed, you might get something like the Mafia: engaged in both commerce and force, willing to destroy in order to advance its goals, with no financial checks and balances on its financial activities and few legal checks on its forcible (criminal) activities.  Another possibility is a government where everything is for sale--you can literally get away with murder if you know who to bribe.

This provides a broad foundation for public policy.  To solve problems related to the minimizing of harm (theft, invasion), an organization with Guardian ethics is best.  To solve problems related to maximizing wealth (trade, invention), an organization with Commercial ethics is preferable.  And an organization that mixes the two ethics--for example, one that makes laws but is subject to financial influence--is likely to be dangerous, or at least counterproductive.

The Computer Revolution: The Third Ethical System

I have said that Guardian ethics are best for dealing with zero-sum or negative-sum situations, and Commercial ethics are best for dealing with positive-sum situations.  The invention of computers has created unlimited-sum situations.  Anything that exists in the form of computer data can be copied and e-mailed at near-zero cost.  And almost everything--music, news, blueprints, books, recipes, scientific papers--can be represented as computer data.  Of course, some things are valuable only because they are rare, so too much copying would actually reduce their value.  But some information becomes more valuable to its creators the more it is copied.  Many hobbyists would like their creations to be widely appreciated--as long as the viewer knew who had done it.  The authors of scientific papers and the programmers of Open Source software want as many people as possible to use their work--as long as they get appropriate credit.  The more such information is copied, the more benefits accrue both to the inventor and to the users.

If this mindset sounds implausible, consider this story of how it actually worked.  A hacker (the word originally meant simply a good programmer) named Peter Samson wrote a program to make primitive computers play music--and then gave it away.  "Samson proudly presented the music compiler to DEC to distribute to anyone who wanted it.  he was proud that other people would be using his program.  The team that worked on the new assembler felt likewise. .... They felt honored when DEC asked for the program so it could offer it to other PDP-1 owners. .... As for royalties, wasn't software more like a gift to the world, something that was reward in itself?  The idea was to make a computer more usable, to make it more exciting to users... When you wrote a fine program you were building a community, not churning out a product."  (Hackers, Steven Levy, p. 56)

In a system where information can be copied perfectly at low cost, it is tempting to treat all information that way.  Steven Levy asserts that the experience of working with an early computer at MIT led to the "Hacker ethic", one tenet of which was, "All information should be free."  More recently, this has mutated into the slogan, "Information wants to be free."  In a sense, this is true: some kinds of information entice us to copy them.  Songwriters try to make their tunes "catchy."  Programmers try to make their programs useful.  The most successful information "wants" people to copy it.

Many organizations have appeared to create, promote, distribute, and use information that is freely copyable.  A computer operating system called Linux, a competitor to Microsoft Windows, is a good example of this.  Linux has no owner in a traditional sense: anyone who wants to is free to obtain a copy and use it on as many computers as they like.  The creators of Linux--thousands of programmers--are quite happy with this state of affairs.  They do not want to sell the software; they simply want their name to be included in the credits.  As more people use it, the authors gain bragging rights among their peers, and the knowledge that they have made the world a better place by saving each user the hundreds of dollars it would cost to buy a competing product.  The only organization opposed to Open Source software is Microsoft, and their opinion is hardly unbiased.

As long as the owner of the information is happy to have it copied, all is well.  But when thousands of copies can be made without destroying the original, the concept of ownership becomes fuzzy.  If I buy a CD, I should be able to copy the tunes to my computer and listen at my desk.  It's my CD, after all.  But should I be able to copy "my" tunes to my friend's computer and let her listen as well?  Why not?  Who does it hurt?  Then what's wrong with putting the tunes in a file-sharing network like Napster so that everyone can enjoy them?  At some point, the ethic of free copying collides with the ethic of commercial rights.  Napster was shut down after a lengthy legal battle.  Despite the wishes of many computer programmers, hobbyists, and users of information, the new Information ethics cannot take over the world.  But it can, and should, change some parts of it.

Ethics Of The Three Systems

According to Jane Jacobs, the Commercial and Guardian systems each have developed a distinct set of ethics.  You will be able to identify these ethics in governments, police departments, corporations... in fact, in organizations of almost any purpose.  Pat Gratton extended Jacobs' work by noticing that the Information ethic was not represented, and identified a set of ethics that applies to groups and individuals who like to create information and then give it away.  (See references for a discussion of the table.)
Information - Spread Innovation Commercial - Improve the Status Quo Guardian - Maintain the Status Quo

Imagine a programmer working at 2 AM to add a feature to an Open Source program he didn't write.  The programmer is not paid for this work; he does it because he wants the program to be more usable and more popular; he has been working for ten hours without a break.  At 2:30 AM he adds his name to the list of authors, uploads the improved program to a web site for free distribution, then spends the next hour reading free articles on-line.

Imagine a small neighborhood shop.  The employees should be ready to do business with anyone who walks in, and must maintain a reputation of honesty with both suppliers and customers.  The store must continually improve, or the other stores will lure away its customers.  A small business owner does not have a lot of free time and must work efficiently.

Imagine a fortress guarding a frontier.  The soldiers must always be prepared to fight, but most of the time they are training or relaxing.  Strict discipline is necessary to make them a unified fighting force.  One traitor, or paid spy, can get them all killed.  Visiting merchants are a distraction and a security problem; too much money floating around can weaken their dedication to the task.

Shun force Shun force [Rely on force]
Shun trading [Rely on trading] Shun trading
Use intelligence  Use initiative and enterprise Exert prowess
Publish all information Be honest Deceive for the sake of the task 
Be idealistic Be optimistic Be fatalistic
Ignore comfort Promote comfort and convenience Make rich use of leisure
Respect authorship; Ignore ownership Respect contracts

[Defend your territory]

Demonstrate the superiority of your own ideal Dissent for the sake of the task Be obedient and disciplined
Invent and create Be open to inventiveness and novelty Adhere to tradition
Shun authority [Adapt to the system] Respect hierarchy
Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens Be exclusive
Accept largesse Be thrifty Dispense largesse
Be unique; Develop a reputation Be industrious Be ostentatious
Be productive Invest for productive purposes Take vengeance
Cooperate Compete [Fight, when necessary]
Be skillful Be efficient Be loyal
Gain mindshare Come to voluntary agreements  Show fortitude
Treasure reputation [Treasure financial success]  Treasure honor

Characteristics Of The Three Systems

It should not be a surprise that systems with such radically different ethics have different priorities and styles.  The following table shows some typical properties of the people, organizations, and situations associated with each of the three systems.  These are only rules of thumb, but they may be used to predict the responses of organizations of a certain type.  The table may also be applied, with caution, to people associated with the organizations--keeping in mind that people may "wear different hats" at different times and may also work for organizations they aren't fully compatible with.
Information Commercial Guardian
Risk Tolerance Very High 50% Very Low
Transaction Benefit Unlimited Sum Positive Sum Zero Sum
Planning Horizon Months Years Decades
Openness Very Open Semi-open Secretive
Use of Force Unthinkable Deprecated Common
Other Typical Attributes
Goals Freedom Profit Safety
Personal Identity Actions, Skills Possessions Affiliations
Organizational Structure Collaboration Loose Hierarchy, etc. Strict Hierarchy
Drawn to the... Future Present Past

Monstrous Moral Hybrids

One of the most important concepts in Systems of Survival is that of "Monstrous moral hybrids," which are created when an organization tries to adopt inappropriate ethics.  A government that took bribes would certainly qualify, as would a government that tried to regulate all commerce by force and central planning.  A subtle ethical problem can have distinctly bad effects.  Jacobs gives the example of a police department that tried to make itself more efficient by giving bonuses to police officers for making arrests.  Note that "Be efficient" is a Commercial and not a Guardian ethic, and Guardians are supposed to "Shun trading."  The result was predictable: many false arrests were made in order to get the bonuses.  The Mafia engages in both trade and force, using loyalty, greed, and coercion as motivators.  Most people outside of the Mafia would agree that it is monstrous.

Applying your ethics to the wrong problem can be as bad as mixing and matching ethics to suit your convenience.  Commerce stagnates if it is centrally regulated; conversely, mercenaries do not make trustworthy or effective soldiers.  Information ethics, when applied to other people's private property, result in actions that are indistinguishable from theft.  Organizations should not try to extend their influence to situations that fall outside their ability to address ethically.  The table of characteristics gives some indication of which kinds of issues are best addressed by which systems.

A corollary of this is that an organization should not be expected to solve all problems.  We should not expect a nation to give non-citizens the same rights as citizens.  A corporation should not be expected to do business with people who have no money.  Information creators cannot be expected to do a complete risk assessment of the consequences their actions.  This is probably unwelcome news; it is strongly tempting to make any powerful organization responsible for anything it touches.  However, to attempt to do this would create unhealthy or even tragic situations: a state forced to violate its own security; a corporation forced to waste money; a creator prevented from creating.  To force an organization to adopt alien ethics is to force it to act unethically.

Since any single organization can only deal with a subset of the issues it creates, the solution is to have organizations of each type working together, keeping each other in check, and letting the solution to the problems emerge from their interaction.  Computers have created a potential for unlimited copying.  Napster tried to extend this potential into the commercial realm, and was eventually shut down; it now appears that individual people who share too many files they don't own may face criminal prosecution.  The Open Source movement, on the other hand, illustrates the potential for all three systems to work together productively.  Open Source was inspired by the Free Software movement, which is militantly dedicated to purely Information ethics; the Free Software Foundation does not approve of bundling free software together with non-free software.  Open Source, by contrast, welcomes the collaboration of Commercial (non-free) software manufacturers.  Some companies such as Red Hat make money by selling and supporting Open Source software.  The Open Source licenses, which keep the software from being hijacked by commercial interests, make use of copyright law, so that Open Source (and Free Software) relies on our Guardian legal system for protection just as much as any Commercial entity does.

For an application of these ideas to nanotechnology, see my paper "Ethical Administration of Nanotechnology" on this website.


  Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival.  The Guardian and Commercial systems, and the concept and examples of "Monstrous Moral Hybrid."
  Pat Gratton, The third system
  P. Gratton et al,  Post about his paper, with discussion from several people
  Tom McKendree et al, Further discussion of the three systems, with a table of ethical rules.
  Prosecuting file sharers...
  Free Software vs. Open Source:

The table of ethics was adapted by me from the table produced by Tom McKendree, who integrated the lists of ethics from Pat Gratton and Jane Jacobs.  Ethical rules in the Commercial and Guardian columns are taken verbatim from Systems of Survival, except for the ones in [italic brackets] which were added to fill out the table and emphasize the contrast between the three groups.  My list of Information ethics is slightly different from both McKendree's and Gratton's, but I hope it follows the spirit of both.  The table of characteristics is mine, inspired by discussions on  Gratton calls the third system Idealor (originally Idealist).  In my opinion, it is the unlimited copy-ability of information that has enabled this ethical system to become influential; this is why I have chosen to call it the Information system.

Author's bio:

Chris was born on Christmas Day, 1970. As soon as he could think, he became interested in how things work, buying a pair of binoculars to look at electrical power lines, reading and re-reading a book on engines, and spending hours tinkering with digital electronics. In school he preferred to skip recess and write programs on the library's computer.

Chris' interest in nanotechnology began when he took Eric Drexler's class "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering" at Stanford University in 1988. He has followed the field continuously since then, attending numerous nanotech conferences, contributing frequently to several on-line discussion lists, and helping to review a major book and a Ph.D. thesis on nanotech. He is a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute and co-moderator of the sci.nanotech newsgroup.

After graduating from Stanford with an M.S. in Computer Science in 1991, Chris worked as an embedded software engineer for six years, then changed careers to dyslexia correction. He currently spends his time working on several inventions, writing about nanotech, and researching perceptual changes in dyslexia.

Chris is interested in almost everything, especially if it's related to science, technology, biology, or psychology. His hobbies include hang gliding, caving, singing, and stained glass. His web site is

Opinions stated in this paper are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those held by 7thWave, Inc.
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