Review: The Bourgeois Virtues, by Deirdre N. McCloskey - The Objective Standard

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, by Deirdre N. McCloskey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 616 pp. $32.50 (hardcover).


As an economic historian sympathetic to free markets, McCloskey knows well that for centuries intellectuals have disdained the moneymaking orientation and commercial ethic of capitalism—and to her credit, she disdains this disdain. Capitalism deserves respect, she argues, for it “has not corrupted our souls” but instead “has improved them” (p. 23). McCloskey seeks to defend capitalism, not mainly by recounting what she acknowledges is its indisputable productive prowess, but by patiently explicating what she considers to be the “bourgeois virtues.” Yet her goal is polemical: to refute leftists who today persist in despising capitalism.

She is concerned that her critics will find her case defensive, and justifiably, because McCloskey herself accepts certain anticapitalist premises, even summarizing the theme of her book as “an apology for our bourgeois lives” (p. 56). Yet, why would a political-economic system require an “apology” unless it was presumed guilty? Instead, why would it not be positively and resolutely heralded as a moral ideal? Despite McCloskey’s view of the bourgeois life as virtuous, she insists that certain of its crucial motivating elements are decidedly un-Christian, hence suspect. Her hodgepodge of virtues makes for her less-than-emphatic case.

McCloskey begins her book by recognizing how both Kantian and utilitarian ethics have been unfriendly (if not hostile) to laissez-faire capitalism, the former by requiring man to subordinate his personal pursuit of happiness to self-sacrificial duty, the latter by condoning hedonism while dismissing man’s individual rights. For capitalism to survive and flourish, she contends, the ethics of commercialism must be defended. McCloskey attempts this by drawing on the “virtue ethics” arguments developed in academic philosophic circles since the late-1950s, which seek modernized versions of a more secular Greco-Roman ethics. While much can be said for McCloskey’s use of “virtue ethics,” her approach does not ground morality in human nature.

McCloskey divides an otherwise rambling and wide-ranging discourse of what she calls the seven main virtues into three main sections (pp. 91–302): the “Christian and Feminine Virtues” (faith, hope, and love), the “Pagan and Masculine Virtues” (courage and temperance), and the “Androgynous Virtues” (prudence and justice). The Christian and feminine virtues she also calls “theological” (p. 152) and pertinent to “the transcendent” and “sacred” (p. 304), while the pagan virtues are said to relate to “the self” and the “profane” (p. 304). Despite lengthy and digressive discussions of these seven virtues, McCloskey does not make clear why they are central to a moral case for capitalism, or why some are derivable from one gender versus another.

The fundamental defect in McCloskey’s account is the failure to conceptualize the virtues and anchor them in the facts of reality—specifically, in human nature. Instead, she treats them as concretes, primaries, and near-sensational ingredients, as mini-building blocks for (as we’ll see) a vast array of other “virtues,” even though she describes those as “sub-virtues” under the main ones. What McCloskey calls “the seven virtues” are, according to her, “ethical primary colors, the red, blue and yellow not derivable from others but themselves able to form other colors.” Continuing, she says “blue plus yellow yields green, and by analogy, “love plus faith yields loyalty. Courage plus prudence yields entrepreneurship. Temperance plus justice yields humility. Justice, courage and faith yields honesty” (p. 361). Such assertions are no substitute for argument, and nowhere does McCloskey anchor the virtues in basic facts, especially as they pertain to human nature. She tries to interrelate her basic virtues and mix them together to render others, but without rational hierarchy or consistency, and nowhere does she prove their indispensability to capitalism. In fact, she insists that the seven main virtues are “not derivable” from lesser ones. Whence, then? From mere “tradition,” she says. The virtues are supposedly justified because they are old and widely held by middle-class folk. Needless to say, this is no argument or proof of the actual moral code underlying capitalism.

At root McCloskey embraces ethical dualism, with its long and flawed intellectual history, reflecting the two-world metaphysics of a modern age unwilling to fully jettison the medieval, mystical perspective. While many people in today’s modern world have remained religious, and perhaps relatively more people than during the more enlightened eighteenth century, this is no reason to claim that religious ethics undergird capitalism. In fact, today such ethics erode capitalism, no less than they precluded its rise in medieval times.

McCloskey’s ethical dualism is made most explicit halfway through the book (p. 304), where she counterposes an ethics derived from what is “Christian/Feminine/Motherly/Saintly/Sacrificial/Sacred” with an ethics derived from what is “Ancient/Masculine/Fatherly/Heroic/Selfish/Profane.” McCloskey acknowledges that these realms conflict, and the “ethical tensions” (p. 85) can manifest in “self-loathing” and “anxiety,” but commercial society is worth the pain; the bourgeois life must be spent “navigating between the sacred and profane” virtues (p. 81). Moreover, only a mix of the dueling realms can sustain the “bourgeois virtues,” as excessive Christian virtue undermines capitalism whereas too much paganism renders it vulgar and crass.

The dualism and “tension” in McCloskey’s premises are made obvious in her numerous odd digressions on the state of the modern world, which she finds both excessively un-Christian and insufficiently egalitarian. She endorses global capitalism primarily “on egalitarian grounds, because it equalizes wealth worldwide” (p. 22); she adds that “we will never have the heaven-on-earth of perfect equality, and I lament that fact” (p. 27). For McCloskey, capitalism’s leftist critics are right to say that “production and consumption are intrinsically purposeless”(p. 23), and she joins with her critics to insist that we must “honor the poor” (p. 23). But though “capitalist man in his worst moments is greedy,” so is everyone else—even the socialist. “Much of good and evil arises” not from capitalism per se, she says, but from “our fallen natures” (p. 29). For McCloskey, man is infested with Christian original sin, regardless of the socioeconomic system in which he resides. Man is allegedly “evil” because he ate from the “tree of knowledge” and attained autonomy in moral judgment. Does McCloskey investigate or indicate how such Biblical fables bear on capitalism’s essential morality? No.

Another example of McCloskey’s worry that a proper “balance” might not obtain between the disparate virtues is her treatment of prudence, one of the seven main virtues (from the pagan side of her ledger). This virtue, in McCloskey’s scheme, is the closest to that of rational self-interest in Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, because for McCloskey the “sub-virtues” of prudence are “know-how,” “foresight,” “practical reason,” “contextual rationality,” and “self-interest.” Falsely portraying Rand as an advocate of selfishness devoid of the guide of reason, McCloskey says “some balance of virtues is in order,” and “a theory based on selfishness alone therefore cannot work scientifically,” for “if it became the way the social order actually worked, the social world would collapse” (p. 57). She condemns the “less-thoughtful” who, “by reading Ayn Rand,” embrace a “radical” and “naive individualism” that presumes “Prudence Only, Screw You, Mac” is the “operating system of capitalism” (p. 146). McCloskey had earlier expressed a “hope to remake this word of contempt [‘bourgeois’] into a word of honor” (p. 87), for it “does not have to mean ‘egotistical wretch’” (p. 85). Indeed it does not, as long as reason guides self-interest. But McCloskey assigns no priority to rationality or reason in ethics.

McCloskey further errs in defining a virtue as a mere “habit of the heart” (p. 64). This injects emotion into her account, which soon multiplies the potential list of bourgeois “virtues.” Not content merely to try melding disparate ethical systems (Christian and pagan), McCloskey then emits a bewildering list of “sub-virtues” allegedly unique to capitalism, many of which seem nothing more than personality traits. In addition to the seven main “virtues”—faith, hope, love, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence—into the ethical stew she throws “affection,” “appreciation,” “autonomy,” “chastity,” “connection,” “contextual rationality,” “daring,” “endurance,” “entrepreneurship,” “eros” (passion), “friendship,” “foresight,” “honesty,” “humility,” “identity,” “integrity,” “imagination,” “individual balance,” “individual restraint,” “love,” “loyalty,” “know-how,” “optimism,” “phronesis” (practical reason), “self-interest,” “sobriety,” “social balance,” and “steadfastness” (p. 66). Although some of these sub-virtues are grouped loosely under the seven main ones, this grouping does not help us grasp what is crucial to a moral defense of commercialism and capitalism.

Instead of a tight, logically-structured argument, McCloskey offers the reader an indiscriminate, disjointed, and all-inclusive array of nice-sounding sentiments, seemingly to achieve some kind of ethical “united front” that welcomes all possible ethical views, whether derived from facts and logic or faith and feelings. Although McCloskey means well to skirt the anticapitalist premises of Kantian-utilitarian ethics, she ends up touting a set of “bourgeois virtues” that entails only a contradictory amalgam of pagan and Christian precepts, coupled with a laundry list of what are mostly personality traits and manners posing as “virtues.”

McCloskey summarizes her account of the bourgeois virtues as a “jury-rigged combination of ‘pagan’ virtues appropriate to a free male citizen of Athens and the ‘Christian’ virtues appropriate to a belief in Our Lord and Savior”; and “jury-rigged or not,” she adds, “these seven [virtues], I will argue, cover what we need to flourish as human beings” (p. 67). Yet “so also might other ethical systems,” she further adds, “Confucianism, for example, or Talmudic Judaism, or Native American Shamanism . . . [T]here are many ways to be human. But it is natural to start and finish with the seven [virtues], since they are the ethical tradition”(p. 67). In the end, as she admits, McCloskey’s book simply recounts “ethical tradition” and suggests how various (even antithetical) ethical views may relate, however obscurely and tangentially, to a commercial-capitalist society. As such it can serve neither as a logical argument or solid proof of the validity of one ethical system as against another, nor, given its religious elements, as a set of ethical precepts essential to human nature or capitalism.

McCloskey’s deeply flawed approach also hints at “poly-ethics,” the belief that a multiplicity of legitimate ethical codes exists, none of which is valid for all humans, as each depends on the concrete contingencies of time, place, economic class, and gender. Thus, for McCloskey the “bourgeois virtues” pertain only to a commercial society dominated by a middle-class majority. Another set of virtues necessarily pertains to a society controlled by aristocrats, another by peasants, another by priests, another by warriors, another by communists, and still others by libertarians, lesbians, or vegetarians. McCloskey believes her book is unique because its particular version of ethics (“bourgeois”) has not yet enjoyed a fully sympathetic voice. Shaky and confused as the voice may be, and eager as it seems to appease capitalism’s disingenuous enemies, nevertheless it may echo for many years to come, as McCloskey pledges three more volumes on the same theme. The second appeared last year as Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.

McCloskey is right to contend that the commercial, moneymaking, world-focused capitalist system deserves a moral defense, but she only presents a verbose, conventional mixture of ethical precepts that already has eroded capitalism, leaving us the precarious, wealth-sapping system known to all as the mixed economy.

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