Review: The Bourgeois Virtues, by Deirdre N. McCloskey

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. . . .

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