The idea of providing an exuberant defense of bourgeois virtues seems on the face of it absurd. In common parlance, “bourgeois” is synonymous with “humdrum” and “conventional.” The ideal bourgeois citizen is cautious and anxious; given to deferred gratification, to considering the rainy days ahead, and to paying the price in present pleasures foregone. The bourgeois emulates the ant, not the grasshopper, working hard during the good times to survive the bad times that must lie ahead. When critics talk of “bourgeois virtues,” it is often with a sneer. Prudence is a virtue, but “bourgeois prudence” is a synonym for timidity and meanness; and “bourgeois courage” sounds very like a contradiction in terms. Exuberance seems foreign to the bourgeois soul; but a book that opens with the ringing declaration “I bring good news about our bourgeois lives” promises to be long on exuberance and short on anxiety. And so it proves.
Whether The Bourgeois Virtuesprovides a defense of distinctively bourgeois virtues is debatable. The author herself frequently seems unsure whether she is defending a set of ethics that are identifiable with a particular stratum of society, and sometimes professes herself unconcerned if it turns out that the virtues she espouses are not in fact distinctively bourgeois. It may not matter very much—there is plainly no reason why members of the bourgeoisie cannot display the “aristocratic” virtues of generosity, courage, and a disdain for narrow self-interest or the “working-class” virtues of comradeship and solidarity—but there is a never quite resolved tension between the search for a distinctively bourgeois set of virtues and the much more plausible case that the bourgeoisie display as much (classless) virtue as anyone.
McCloskey’s case is made if she can show that the bourgeoisie—which she never strictly defines but mostly takes to be the broad middle classes whose lives are shaped by their individual enterprise in a capitalist economy—by and large lead what any serious critic would have to count as virtuous lives. Given the readiness of critics of all stripes to accuse the bourgeoisie of leading cramped, self-centered, narrowly money-grubbing lives, she has a large target to aim at. Oddly, she resorts to the simplest argument—the argument from examples of people who are impeccably bourgeois and impeccably decent—only at opposite ends of this long book. At the beginning she cites an immigrant shopkeeper in Bradford, and at the end she provides a rousing defense of the philanthropy of Carnegie, Rockefeller, George Soros, and Bill Gates, although she sees that they are perhaps better described as “good barons” than bons bourgeois. It is perhaps too easy to argue that the bourgeoisie displays all the virtues if the bourgeoisie includes everyone from Norwegian electricians in Minnesota to the Medici.
What she most consistently defends is the importance of basing morality on fostering the virtues rather than on some prescriptive ethical doctrine. Against the predilections of economists and philosophers, she argues that we should abandon the search for a single unifying moral principle such as maximizing the satisfaction…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.