Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

The Triadic Trap

Posted May 18, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

When we think in Indo-European languages, we usually think in triads. It’s embedded in its structure. So if you are thinking in English in terms of “either-or,” you have some more thinking to do. At the same time, if you are thinking in triads, you have gone about as far as you can go. The question is whether we need to go further.

True, one finds other structures in Western thinking. The Greek four elements of air, water, wind, and earth is a good example.   Still, triadic thinking, from Plato’s triadic structure of society—ruler, military, and peasants—to the Christian trinity—Father, Son and Spirit—dominates Western thought.

The Christian trinity is an especially interesting case, since the content actually belongs to Semitic languages—Hebrew and Aramaic. The members of the Jewish Christian community believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and even though they had the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit, they never formulated a complex theory of “Three in One.” For Greek theologians, on the other hand, this probably seemed quite logical.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics triads dominate the text. There are three kinds of lives—lives of gratification, of political activity, and of study. There are three kinds of justice: distributive, retributive, and reciprocal, and there are three kinds of friendship: pleasure, utility, and virtue.   And there are three terms in a syllogism. Still, Aristotle is famous for his four, not three, causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Kenneth Burke took Aristotle’s four causes and expanded them into a pentad for understanding human action: scene, agent, act, agency, and purpose.   Years ago, I used Burke’s pentad for human action to justify using three ethical approaches: purpose, principle and consequence—as a way of covering all the essential aspects of action.

In my book, Corporate Integrity, I proposed five dimensions of organizational life: cultural, relational, organizational, social, and environmental. My colleague, Georges Enderle, argues that any adequate framework for business ethics must consider the micro, meso, and macro dimensions of business systems.   Corporations themselves are fond of the triad of economic, social, and environment as areas of responsibility. In Civilizing the Economy, I proposed that all human communities must do three things: provide for one another, protect one another, and find social meaning. This triad actually has its origin in Kenneth Boulding’s triad of three powers: integrity, exchange, and threat. I later proposed that we see these as three ways of transforming society, through persuasion, incentives, and regulation.

Perhaps the master of triadic thinking was the German philosopher, Hegel. He had various triads, but perhaps the most influential was the triad of family, civil society, and the state.   His use of these categories requires more space to explain than we have here, but his importance is that he was one of the first to use the concept of civil society as a sphere alongside other spheres. What we see most often today, in this tradition, is the triad of market, state, and civil society.

I have argued for a different view that is more contextual. Instead of spheres that overlap each other, like Venn diagrams, I have suggested that we think contextually, with one “sphere” inside another or the context for another. Almost like Russian dolls, I place the economy in the context of government, which is in the context of the civic, which itself exists in the context of nature, or the planet.

Now I am thinking about a new triad (new at least for me). It is more Hegelian than Aristotelian, which may be neither here nor there. Anyway, my triadic image is that between our common humanity and our social differences there exists a civic space where we can deliberate about how we should live together. This civic exists in conflict and disagreement, and yet it also invites us to participate—to become members of this civic: to become citizens. My thought is that this civic is the foundation for all human institutions. So we can think about the economy and the State, and even “civil society, as belonging to the social—to our social differences. We never escape the social, but we can change it, if we are invited to join in that space between our social differences and our common humanity: the civic. Is this triad the trap we want, or should we create another?

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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