Class Act

Reviewed by James R. Otteson

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
by Deirdre N. McCloskey
University of Chicago, 2006, 616 pages.

McCloskey argues that it is precisely these other, more profound motivations, encapsulated in and reflected by the seven virtues she describes at length, that are valued and encouraged by commercial society. One cannot conduct business with others, at least not successfully, unless one is a person of “character,” which for McCloskey means a person who exemplifies the seven virtues in his daily interactions-including business transactions-with others. Ultimately, she argues, it is by practicing these virtues that one can be happy, from which it follows that commercial society raises the individual’s chances of leading a happy life. The “bourgeois virtues,” therefore, are to be extolled not because they serve the ignoble end of mere accumulation for accumulation’s sake, but rather because they enable and encourage happiness. This is a powerful argument and, given the stakes, one well worth careful consideration.
Nonetheless, McCloskey’s style may prove alienating to some readers. She is prone to repetition, which is probably useful when trying to persuade a hostile audience but can lead to excessive verbosity (including notes, the book is 555 pages of small print), and McCloskey often adopts a breezy, familiar style that some might find off-putting. Nonetheless, one cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of McCloskey’s knowledge, and her ability to move effortlessly-and competently-through such disparate specialties as economics, philosophy, history, literature, and political theory. But her wide reading can also bedevil the reader, leaving the less erudite-which will include just about all of us-lost in her cataract of references to the works of philosophers, economists, writers, musicians, artists, businessmen, lawyers, and clergy, not to mention her detailed discussions of numerous historical events and both Eastern and Western intellectual ideas, moral traditions, and worldviews.
Despite its length and breadth, however, The Bourgeois Virtues is only the first of a projected four-volume series. McCloskey outlines the subsequent volumes at the end of this one, providing enough detail to suggest the comprehensiveness of her completed argument. She intends to show not only what the virtues “are and how they flourish-or wither-in a commercial society,” i.e., the present volume, but also, in volume two, “how… the virtues fared theoretically and practically in northwestern Europe”; in volume three, “the sad turn after 1848 against the bourgeoisie by the artists and intellectuals of Europe and its offshoots”; and, finally, in volume four, “how bourgeois values have on balance helped rather than hurt the poor and the culture and the environment.” If future volumes are anything like this first installment, they too will repay both systematic study and more casual reading.
The Bourgeois Virtues is a welcome and provocative addition to the discussion of capitalism and, considering the continuing debate about the economic, cultural, and psychological effects of globalization, a timely one as well. Those interested in helping to better the lot of humanity rather than nurturing lamentable, if natural, superstitions should pause and reflect on McCloskey’s argument-and look forward to the next installment.

James R. Otteson is a professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University. His book Actual Ethics (Cambridge, 2006) was the recipient of the 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award.

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