Nanotechnology Now

Our NanoNews Digest Sponsors
Heifer International

Home > Introduction > Articles > Chris Phoenix > Three Systems of...

Three Systems Of Ethics For Diverse Applications

By Chris Phoenix - November 2002

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

For a soldier to offer secret information to a competing army is likely an act of treason.  In a corporate context, offering secret information to a competing corporation may simply be the first steps toward a licensing agreement that both companies are happy with.  Many people feel that downloading copyrighted music from the Internet without paying for it is fine, while they would agree that taking the same CD from a store without paying for it 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 personal 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 give arguments that are biased in favor of their clients.  In most circumstances, it's never OK to kill anyone; however, doctors are allowed to risk the death of their patients (as long as it's necessary and the patients are informed), and policemen can kill deliberately when they feel their life is threatened.  Ethics make people behave predictably--you know more or less what to expect from those you interact with.  This means that systems of ethics must also be predictable.  Sometimes new sets of ethics must be invented for new situations; however, this must be done with extreme care.

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, "Ethical Administration of Nanotechnology," also available on this site.

It is important to distinguish between ethics and morals.  For the purpose of this paper, "ethics" means the rules of behavior that are applied to a person by a system or institution they participate in.  Ethics, then, refers to situational codes of behavior.  "Morals" refers to the rules of conduct imposed by an internalized belief system.  Unlike ethics, morals are not supposed to change according to context.  If we see someone acting unethically, we may feel that they are unfair or untrustworthy.  If we see someone acting immorally, our reaction is usually stronger.  Ethics can--and should--change depending on 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 its ethics for its own convenience will probably end up with a very bad system, because 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 appalling.  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 appalling.  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 money.  For example, attempting to solve a police issue with money is called bribery.  The ethical rules adopted by a group constitute a major limitation on which kinds of problems it can handle successfully.  Bringing unsuitable ethics to bear on a problem is frequently as bad as picking and choosing ethics for convenience.  As we will see, this requires a sort of division of labor or balance of power; institutions that are successful, and are tolerated by society in the long term, have been constrained to focus on the types of goals that their ethics are appropriate for.

Before 1950: The Two Ethical Systems

In Systems of Survival(1), Jane Jacobs describes two ethical systems, Guardian and Commercial.  Guardian ethics are appropriate for governments and police forces, organizations that defend laws and land.  In such a group, betrayal can cause disaster; force is frequently necessary; 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.  Money is the lifeblood of commerce.  Innovation and efficiency are more useful than tradition, and the use of force is severely frowned on.  Trust is important in commerce, even between competing companies; by contrast, competing Guardian organizations are enemies and cannot afford to trust each other.  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: the failure of the Soviet economy is one example.

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.  A healthy flow of commerce needs 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 control of commerce, the problems of Soviet Communism arise: severe lack of competition, innovation, and incentive.  When commerce takes control of government, the result may reflect the worst abuses of the "company towns" from America's history: workers become indistinguishable from slaves.  It is also likely that consumers will suffer from higher prices, unchecked deception, and lack of competition.  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 common result of mixing ethics 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.  It's also worth noting that a large commercial monopoly may take on Guardian characteristics--using deceptive or unfair business practices, threatening legal action to harm competitors, and buying favorable laws.  If the government is willing to be bought, consumers and citizens will have no protection and unethical conditions will multiply.  "Free market" must not be implemented to the extent that Commercial entities are allowed to engage in Guardian behavior.

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 remarkably low cost.  And a wide range of things--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 created it.  The authors of scientific papers and the programmers of Open Source software(2) 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." (3)

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 are designed to entice us to copy them.  Songwriters try to make their tunes "catchy." Programmers try to make their programs useful.  The most successful information almost seems to "want" people to copy it.(4) The system of Information ethics has developed to facilitate the production and copying of freely shared information.  This ethical system is related to the hacker ethic and to the older system of academic endeavor.

Many organizations have appeared to create, promote, distribute, and use information that is freely copyable.  A computer operating system called Linux(5), a competitor to Microsoft Windows, is a good example of this.  Linux is perhaps the most famous product of the Open Source software movement.  It has no owner in the traditional sense: anyone who wants to can obtain a copy for free and use it on as many computers as they like.  The creators of Linux--thousands of programmers worldwide--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 fellow programmers(6), and they also know 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 and leads to ethical problems.  If I buy a music CD, it seems natural to copy the tunes to my computer and listen at my desk.  It's my CD, after all, and (American) copyright law contains a concept of "space-shifting."(7) But should I be able to copy "my" tunes to my friend's computer and let her listen as well? It's tempting....  But 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, lead to improvements in some areas.

Ethics Of The Three Systems

According to Jane Jacobs, the Commercial and Guardian systems each have developed a distinct and identifiable set of ethics.  You will be able to identify these ethics in governments, police departments, and a variety of commercial organizations.  The Information ethics, and this table, are a synthesis of the work of several authors.(8) If you are not familiar with any organizations that operate by creating information and then giving it away, think of your friends who are avid hobbyists--chances are that they have written articles or put up web sites without being paid.

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(9).  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 with ethics that don't fit their personalities.

Information Commercial Guardian
Cautiousness Low Medium High
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
Goals Freedom Profit Safety
Personal Identity Actions, Skills Possessions Affiliations
Organizational Structure Collaboration Loose Hierarchy, etc. Strict Hierarchy

Proper Application Of Ethical Systems

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.  Both problems arise from a Guardian entity involving itself too much with money.  Even 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 a consistent system of ethics to the wrong situation can be as bad as mixing and matching ethics for 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 government to give non-citizens the same privileges as citizens.  A corporation should not be expected to do business with people who have no money.  Information creators should not be expected to decide whether or how to restrict their work or the information they produce.  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, inefficient, 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.  Unfortunately, this means that many organizations will create problems that they not equipped to solve, and almost all organizations will confront problems that they cannot address.

Since any single organization can only deal with a fraction of the world's problems, 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.  Governments and commercial entities have had many centuries to learn how to work together.  Information ethics are somewhat newer, since they only became widespread with the availability of cheap computers and the Internet.  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(10).  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; for example, the Free Software Foundation does not approve of distributing free software together with non-free software(11).  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 rely on our Guardian legal system for protection just as much as any Commercial entity does. 

Future technologies will make it possible to manufacture or copy physical objects easily and cheaply.  This will provide a broader domain for the advantages of unlimited-sum transactions, but will also pose additional ethical problems and even tangible dangers.  An understanding of the ethical systems will help in policy-making, administering the new technologies to maximize the benefits while minimizing the problems.  For an application of these ideas to nanotechnology, see my paper titled "Ethical Administration of Nanotechnology" which will be posted soon.


(1) Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.  (bib data from
(2) "Open Source Initiative OSI - Welcome"
(3) Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy, p.  56 (bib data from
(4) According to the theory of "memes", information actually evolves and copies itself in a manner similar to genes.  See "Meme Central - Memes, Memetics, and Mind Virus Resource"
(5) "The Linux Home Page at Linux Online"
(6) "The Many Faces of Reputation", Eric S.  Raymond,
(7) "EFF Fair Use FAQ" (See question 4 for a brief discussion of space-shifting.)
(8) The table of ethics was adapted from a table produced by Tom McKendree at, who integrated the lists of ethics from Systems of Survival() and Pat Gratton's article at  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, and my emphasis on free information instead of idealism, differs somewhat from Gratton's work, being closer to the "Hacker ethic". 
(9) The table of characteristics is mine, inspired by discussions on at and 
(10) "I, Cringley | The Pulpit" (article title: "We Can Run, but We Can't Hide: How BayTSP is Enforcing the Digital Millennium")
(11) "Open Source - Gnu Project - Free Software Foundation(FSF)"

Opinions stated are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those held by 7thWave, Inc.
The latest news from around the world, FREE

  Premium Products
Only the news you want to read!
 Learn More
Full-service, expert consulting
 Learn More

Nanotechnology Now Featured Books


National Space Society

Project Mind
The Hunger Project


Building Gods

Quantum leap

Inapplicable Intuitions