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 of human needs or desires—the utilitarian recipe for moral tidiness—or conformity to a law that all rational beings might prescribe to themselves—the Kantian recipe. As pure moral philosophy, Professor McCloskey’s approach is not particularly novel. As she readily acknowledges, the philosopher Philippa Foot argued as much in the late 1950s. The piquancy lies in the fact that it is an economist who is making the case, and economists of different tendencies are generally committed to maximizing utility—“Max U.” as McCloskey puts it.
Deirdre McCloskey is a professional economist, trained in the Chicago School, and up to a point an admirer of the analytical style that it made its own; up to a point, because she has always made a specialty of emphasizing the role of rhetoric in economics, and has never been inclined to think that mathematics speaks for itself. She is a distinguished professor of economics both at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she is also a professor of rhetoric and English. For twenty-five years, she practiced economics as Professor Donald McCloskey; but in 1996 she made a widely noticed and controversial decision to abandon her identity as a male economist with a taste for cross-dressing, and to acquire a new identity as a female economist—and a historian of ideas, social theorist, and philosopher into the bargain.
Crossing, published in 1999, gives an unusually direct and unagonized account of her life before and after the change. On the way, she survived a couple of attempts on the part of colleagues and one of her sisters to have her committed to a mental hospital: “I am not crazy,” she said more than once, “I am transsexual.” Her personal history gives her incidental remarks about the male biases of her several academic professions an authoritative tartness that is as rare as it is refreshing, though some of Donald McCloskey’s women colleagues worried ten years ago at the loss of a male feminist ally.
The Bourgeois Virtues tackles so many topics, from the history of art to the philosophy of science by way of the importance of religious commitment and the civic attachments of the Dutch, that a severe reader may complain that the book lacks a unifying theme. The author’s intentions are clear enough, however. The Bourgeois Virtues is designed to be the first in an ambitious four-volume project, in which Professor McCloskey promises to tell us why capitalism is morally—not merely commercially—good for us, and why moral goodness is good for capitalism. The second and third books will trace the historical development and consequences of capitalist values from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The fourth volume of her tetralogy is to give her account of “ethical capitalism.” As she says, she has taken Daniel Bell’s famous thesis that capitalism relies on morality, honesty, and charitable behavior that it systematically undermines by its greed and has tried to turn it inside out. Capitalism is good for morality.
In 1976, Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism argued that capitalism had been created by people who were honest on principle, not because it paid off, and who worked hard because it was a duty, not because it was the way to make more money. People who are honest and hard-working out of conviction rather than self-interest create a successful economy; but a successful economy undermines those convictions. “Porntopia” was what Daniel Bell feared we were in the process of creating, a world devoted to the instant—and profitable—gratification of our lowest tastes. Greed, selfishness, and mutual exploitation seemed to be what capitalism finally led to.
The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism was a characteristic product of an unhappy decade: in the United States, the last years of the Vietnam War and an economy apparently mired in low growth and high inflation, in Europe intermittent terrorism, and in Britain a long period of uncertainty whether governments could deal with trade union militancy and solve the “British disease” of low productivity and political disaffection. The Bourgeois Virtues does not reflect current economic or political events in the same way. It is, speaking nonpejoratively, an academic work; its most obviously practical implication is the suggestion that intellectuals generally and social scientists and moral philosophers particularly are out of touch with the ordinary person’s thoughts and feelings.
The Bourgeois Virtues is thus not addressed to its heroes; it is about the virtuous middle classes, not for them. According to McCloskey, the probable response of “a Pakistani British shop owner, say, or a Norwegian American electrical contractor” to her offer to defend the bourgeois virtues and the virtuous bourgeoisie would be “What’s to apologize for? What’s to defend in our lives?” Her presumed readers are drawn from among
the theoreticians and the followers of the theoreticians, what Coleridge and I call the “clerisy,” opinion makers and opinion takers, all the reading town, the readers of the New York Times or Le Monde, listeners to Charlie Rose, book readers, or at any rate book-review readers. My people. Like me.
It is this group, she argues, who have for two centuries derided the bourgeoisie, and attacked the bourgeois virtues from all sides—from the left in the name of socialist fraternity, from the right in the name of aristocratic excellence, or from no political direction in the name of romantic self-expression. The critics, of course, are themselves middle-class intellectuals, but they are what Marxists would call class traitors, and other analysts “free-floating intellectuals.” McCloskey alternates between describing them as bourgeois and as a “clerisy.” Her determination to fight on all these fronts distracts her from the more straightforward task that she seems to set herself at the beginning, but it adds a good deal to the vitality of her book, even if it also makes one wonder how she is to fill three further volumes on the same themes without repeating herself.
As McCloskey reminds us, talk of the virtues goes back a very long way, as does the conviction that the cardinal virtues are four in number: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Perhaps the most famous discussion of this quartet occurs in Plato’s Republic. Plato presents the dialogue as an inquiry into the nature of justice; it proceeds by differentiating justice from wisdom, temperance, and courage, allocating each virtue to the social class to which it is especially appropriate—wisdom to the rulers, courage to the military, temperance to the workers—and defining justice as the virtue that preserves the whole society. Plato, she thinks, was an unhelpful monist who wanted to compress the variety of human striving into a straitjacketed search for the one true Good. Not everyone reads Plato thus, but he was certainly no enthusiast for the unfettered free market and keeping the state off the citizen’s back.
Neither, for that matter, was Aristotle, as Professor McCloskey reminds us on several occasions. She admires Aristotle’s sensitivity to the variety of human virtues and the plurality of human goods but that sensitivity had its limits. Not only were moderately well-to-do landowning Greek males the only persons fit to take part in public life; the acceptability of different ways of earning one’s living declined very swiftly from that of the gentleman farmer. Honest toil was bad for the character; trading was dubious because it encouraged us to make illicit gains from other people’s needs; and lending money at interest was a crime against nature as involving “breeding barren metal.” But Aristotle took the trouble to look at the virtues one at a time, and to analyze their nature and their place in our lives, without imposing more structure on them than they can bear. Aristotle, so interpreted, approaches moral philosophy from the right premises, but comes out on the wrong side socially and politically, failing to see the point of the bourgeois virtues and lending his authority to the tradition of aristocratic disdain for those who make a living by serving other people’s needs in the marketplace.
The classical analysis of the virtues almost always focused on the four cardinal virtues. Roman writers took over the Greek catalog, and Professor McCloskey cannot wholly resist the urge to join in the debate about how well the Greek terminology translates into Latin.
Cicero’s little book De Officiis—On Duties—was used for many centuries to teach both Latin and good morals to well-to-do schoolboys, and strikes the modern reader as an engaging mixture of the deeply commonsensical—as when Cicero reminds the reader that generosity or “liberality” is a virtue, but only when we give away what is ours rather than someone else’s—and the very alien in its unrelenting focus on the public life of Rome. It is no accident that courage in Plato’s catalog becomes “greatness of spirit” in Cicero and thus embraces ambition and the pursuit of glory in war and politics—for which Plato had no time at all—while temperance is replaced by something closer to “decorum.”
Such differences are telling for McCloskey; we take an interest in ethics in order to criticize ourselves and our society, but we do not stand outside our own time and place to do it. Like Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams, she thinks our ethical concepts are historically and socially inflected. If we understand how the virtues have looked to different thinkers and social classes, this does not provide the sort of certainty about ethics that Bentham and Kant looked for, but it tells us a good deal about the moral possibilities for persons such as ourselves in the here and now.
McCloskey is more interested in the larger shift in moral outlook that came when Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians added the three distinctively Christian virtues to the mix. As Chapter 13, verse 13 famously has it, “Now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity.” “Charity” is caritas, nowadays invariably translated as “love.” Put these together with the classical four virtues, and we have the familiar septet: wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, faith, hope, love. One might without too much of a stretch argue that Cicero’s emphasis on “liberality” had already caught the Christian emphasis on love, since love in Saint Paul’s sense is not erotic love but a concern for the well-being of others in all respects. On the other hand, we might wonder whether such distinctively Christian virtues as patience, humility, and long-sufferingness fit easily within the expanded set of seven major virtues. Cicero’s “greatness of spirit” is an awkward companion to humility, although courage was a very useful accompaniment to the sorely tried faith of the early Christians.
In fact, it turns out the different historical understandings of the virtues are not central to her case. What is most important to her is her claim that the life of the bourgeois rests on these general virtues however one describes them, and not, say, on narrow self-interest or a fastidious adherence to the terms of an imaginary social contract. This, broadly, is her argument: only broadly because she makes two large and interesting detours en route, and promises more in subsequent volumes.
The first is to make a case for the importance of religion in giving meaning to life. Although she is herself an Episcopalian, McCloskey does not claim that only a distinctively Christian understanding of the virtues makes sense of them. Her supposition is rather that everyone requires some element of, or experience of, the transcendent if their life is to have meaning. This, for her, is the realm of faith. It need not be religious faith in the usual sense; it may be no more than the faith that the world makes a certain kind of sense. It is thus the realm of art, poetry, and science as much as of religion in the usual sense: “The faith, in other words, need not be faith in God. Many secular folk believe in a transcendent without God, though approaching him.” It is a claim that is likely to evoke a nod of assent from some people, but to leave the reader less than clear about what is being assented to. To put it another way, it is the sort of claim that becomes less believable as it becomes clearer, and credible only to the degree that it is diluted.
Take David Hume, the close friend of McCloskey’s hero Adam Smith. Hume scandalized his contemporaries not only by his lighthearted skepticism about religion in general, but also by the manner of his death. When he knew he was dying, he joked that the only excuse for delay that he could think of presenting when Charon came to ferry him across the Styx to Hades was the need to continue his campaign against superstition until it was extirpated:
I thought I might say, Good Charon, I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of people; have little patience till I have the pleasure of seeing the churches shut up, and the clergy sent about their business; but Charon would reply, O you loitering rogue; that won’t happen these two hundred years; do you fancy I will give you a lease for so long a time? Get into the boat this instant.
On any ordinary understanding of transcendence, Hume lived and died without it, as did Smith.
One of the pleasures of The Authentic Adam Smith, James Buchan’s very readable brief account of the life and ideas of Adam Smith, is that he places Smith so persuasively in the social and political life of his day; and not the least important context is the religious context. Buchan’s biography is not exactly an antidote to McCloskey’s large claims about the place of faith among the virtues, but it is a useful check on them. The ideas with which McCloskey is fascinated were held by particular thinkers, and it is always useful to have a clear sense of who they really were.
Here it matters a good deal. Buchan makes Hume’s death almost the central event in Smith’s intellectual life; Smith’s two-page account of it certainly got him into more trouble with his critics than anything else he wrote. This was not an accident. Like Hume, Smith was hostile to anything he regarded as “superstition,” and like Hume he much preferred the matter- of-fact and this-worldly philosophers of the ancient world to the divines of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The reader would be hard pressed to find in Buchan any reason to challenge Professor McCloskey’s emphasis on bourgeois virtues, but might come away skeptical about their connection with Christianity, either generally or in the mind of Adam Smith.
Abandoning a narrowly religious understanding of transcendence, however, we might be persuaded of a slightly different claim. This is the thought that we can take seriously the things we most care about only if we think that what makes them worth caring about goes beyond the mere fact that we care about them. A scientist wants to discover the truth about some natural process or other, spends vast amounts of time and mental effort on the task, and for what? To reach the truth. Certainly the truth matters to her or him; but he or she must also think that the truth matters, period. It has an independent value alone and beyond the value of a particular scientific project whether you call it transcendence or not. Otherwise, it would be easier to change our tastes and stop caring about whether the answer is right. This is the case for treating truth as a transcendent value. Professor McCloskey links it to what she calls “good scientific citizenship,” something that isn’t learned from handbooks:
What prevents us from being misled by other scientists is not the National Science Foundation or the referee system or the method of science, as splendid as these all are, but the courage, hope, faith, justice, love, temperance, and prudence of our colleagues.
But Hume at least, in much the same way as his pragmatist successors, gave a persuasive account of how we come to have a sense of the transcendent in a world with nothing “objectively” transcendent about it. Because Hume wanted to undermine “superstition,” he thought of this as a deflationary account; William James and John Dewey had no such animus against religious faith and did not think their inquiries into religious experience were deflationary. It is not entirely clear where Professor McCloskey stands, because she is so eager both to emphasize the unique insights that she thinks Christianity brings to her subject and to emphasize the extent to which these insights are shared by all major religions and by secular thought as well. Even the friendliest reader may feel somewhat confused.
McCloskey’s other excursus takes her into the history of art, and a rousing defense of the proposition that being mad does nothing for artistic creation. The pretext for this excursus is the common view that bourgeois sobriety is inimical to the full, fine rapture of aesthetic intoxication. Vincent van Gogh is often cited in support of the claim, and his paintings explained as manifestations of his mental instability; the conclusion we are invited to draw is that it is better to be mad than bourgeois. McCloskey’s retort is that “van Gogh was of course bourgeois.” Van Gogh feared being mad, she suggests, and killed himself as many suicides do because madness was unbearable. One of its unbearable features was the fact that it stopped him painting. Whatever his paintings were, they were not the free expression of a madman armed with a paintbrush. On McCloskey’s view of the matter, van Gogh was Dutch and bourgeois and sometimes mentally ill, but he was a great artist only when he was sane.
Setting aside Professor McCloskey’s hankerings after the transcendent, but agreeing to dismiss with her some of the wilder excesses of Romanticism, what do we have? Not a single direct line of argument so much as the course that Ulysses was forced to steer, avoiding Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. That is, McCloskey wants to defend something close to the libertarian free-market utopia, a society where capitalists and workers are unfettered by the state in the pursuit of profit and prosperity but do so constrained by their own moral allegiances. But she wants to do it without resting her case on ahistorical theories of natural rights such as Robert Nozick provided in Anarchy, State and Utopia; without reaching for accounts of justice such as John Rawls provided in A Theory of Justice; and of course without invoking “Max U.”
Her utopia—which she insists is not a utopia, merely the best of all the imperfect solutions to the problems of human existence that we have thus far come up with—is simply the social, political, and economic arrangements that virtuous people will come up with if they stay out of war, are not bamboozled by false prophets, and do not fall victim to political elites with a vested interest in expanding the scope of the state and diminishing the ability of their subjects to look after themselves. That set of arrangements will turn out to be a substantially laissez-faire economy with a constitutional republic as its political frame. George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin would very probably have endorsed Professor McCloskey’s view of the matter.
This is the point at which we cannot escape the question whether the virtues on which such a society rests are distinctively bourgeois. Since Professor McCloskey raises most of the traditional difficulties about defining the bourgeoisie without settling on a definition of her own, it is not easy to provide an answer. There is a familiar view among historians that neither Britain nor the United States has ever possessed a bourgeoisie in the European sense of a distinct class committed to distinct values; and there has never been a consensus on the relationship between the concepts of the bourgeoisie, the middle class, and what early-nineteenth-century commentators referred to as “the virtuous middle ranks” of society. McCloskey’s most expansive view embraces her electrical contractor and Henry Frick as alike “bourgeois.” That is not inappropriate in a country where 80 percent of the population describes itself as middle class but it leaves aside the power Frick had over others—steel workers, art dealers, electrical contractors.
There are perhaps two ways of arguing that the bourgeois virtues are distinctively bourgeois. One would be to argue that there is a distinctively bourgeois understanding of the virtues; the other would be to argue that there is nothing distinctively bourgeois about the virtues we generally hold to be important, but that in a modern, commercial society, some virtues will flourish and others will not. Among the ones that will not, certain kinds of aristocratic notions of excellence such as personal heroism and defense of honor will be pushed to the margins. Both arguments are familiar in nineteenth-century social and political commentary, as are attempts by critics such as Thomas Carlyle to provide the new industrial age with a heroic and thoroughly unbourgeois ethos. So we might claim that the bourgeois interpretation of wisdom is that it is identical to prudence and the bourgeois understanding of prudence is that it is a matter of intelligent calculation about long-term advantage and disadvantage. We might argue that the bourgeois understanding of charity considers whether the poor are deserving or undeserving, and the giver of assistance will consider not whether he displays “liberality,” but whether he will really improve the condition of the beneficiary of his gift, or whether he is simply wasting resources. Justice becomes—this was Marx’s observation—the virtue attached to exchange relations; “equals for equals” in the sense of asking and paying exactly what something is worth.
The alternative view seems more nearly to be Professor McCloskey’s. It was not that the bourgeoisie introduced a new morality and new virtues to Europe; there had always been people practicing “bourgeois virtues,” but they were not the military and political leaders of their societies. The predominance of bourgeois virtues was a by-product of the growing economic and political power of the bourgeoisie. This is the case that Guizot and Tocqueville advanced in the 1830s: that all over northwestern Europe and in North America, societies had arisen devoted to the pursuit of prosperity rather than glory, to the rule of law, to probity in economic transactions, and to the science on which technological development depended. Nuances matter, however, as all readers of Tocqueville will know. Tocqueville certainly thought that there were aristocratic virtues that would be lost in the egalitarian society that he saw in the United States. Among those virtues were disdain for public opinion and a passion for liberty. Professor McCloskey seems to think that there have been fewer losses than Tocqueville feared, and there is much to be said for that view; it is at least not obvious that we live in a society where the individual imagination is in chains.
The Bourgeois Virtues is such an impressive collection of intellectual riches that it disarms criticism in the usual sense. It is a book that will thoroughly irritate some readers and will bowl many others over. But Professor McCloskey commits one large misreading that cannot be overlooked, because it goes to the heart of her analysis. She very much dislikes social contract theories; and this is partly because she treats the greatest of all such theories—Hobbes’s account of the political covenant by which individuals set up a sovereign with absolute authority to make and enforce law—as an agreement between ferociously power-hungry creatures, to whom the very notion of virtue is foreign. This is a misreading. Hobbes was careful to say that in the absence of government, each person would have to seek as much power as possible, simply for the sake of survival; and he pointed out that it was not because we were naturally insatiable, but because we were frightened. Nor did Hobbes deny that the virtues were virtues; he merely thought it was impossible to practice them in the absence of peace. Much of the world today provides evidence that he was right.
If Professor McCloskey had given more careful consideration to Hobbes’s account, it would have caused her two interesting problems. First, it would have done much to dissolve the opposition she relies on between ethical systems that attend to the virtues and those that attend to principles, rules, agreements, and the like. The common-sense view that we have to inculcate the virtues in young people if they are to grow up willing to keep agreements and see the point of an orderly existence was familiar to Hobbes. Second, and more importantly, it would have forced her to pay more attention to politics. She sees the state almost entirely as a threat, either to prosperity or to the moral autonomy of individuals. Hobbes had the deeper insight: where the state fails, so does everything else. Perhaps Professor McCloskey will take politics, and the power of the state and those who run it—bourgeois as they may be—for good and evil, more seriously in the next three volumes.
December 21, 2006