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Reviewed by:
  • The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
  • Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Deirdre N. McCloskey . The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. xviii + 616 pp. ISBN 0-226-55663-8, $32.50

When two friends eat at a restaurant and the time comes to pay the bill, if one party offers, the other might respond with anything from simple gratitude to hesitation, uncertainty, anxiety, discomfort, and even protestation (false or real, mild or angry), depending on the friendship's history, the particular situation, and personalities involved. McCloskey's book, at its highpoint, might help us consider why seemingly mundane moments like these might be so unexpectedly fraught, or at least less simple than common sense would have them. Despite the regnant philosophy of our day, so pervasive in economics and beyond, all of human behavior cannot be explained by rational choice—the reasoned pursuit of self-interest—and a resulting calculus based on self-interested acquiescence to the right of others to pursue their self-interest equally freely. Instead, people often behave in a way that can seem to defy logic and deduction. This is because [End Page 419] humans have a natural inclination toward the transcendent, the sense that some things are sacred. As sociologist Allan Silver is quoted here as saying, "Friendships are diminished in moral quality if terms of exchange between friends are consciously scrupulously monitored" (419).

That there are certain things we pursue as ends in themselves apart from the furtherance of our own pleasure and profit runs against the dominant thinking in the modern academic discipline of economics and the other social sciences and today's culture more broadly. McCloskey, who teaches economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, deliberately challenges the rational choice theorists inside and outside of the academy. Yet her challenge comes in an unexpected form, for she simultaneously attacks critics who view capitalism as the sworn enemy of such higher pursuits and values. The book presents an effusive defense of capitalism as the bearer of all that is good in modern life, from political equality to a higher life expectancy rate. Not only does capitalism fail to work against our inherited sense of moral virtue by promoting crass self-interest, McCloskey writes, but it actively promotes moral rectitude: "market society works as an ethical school" (413).

In order to defend capitalism on these grounds, rather than on the more customary grounds that self-interest is not as reprehensible or worrisome as critics would have it, or is simply the way things are, the author takes it upon herself to defend and explicate the moral virtues themselves. First in a projected four volume series on the subject, the book begins with nearly a hundred pages of introductory matter and term definitions, then revolves around what McCloskey sees as the most crucial seven virtues in the Western intellectual tradition: the "pagan" virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and justice, from ancient Greece and Rome; and the "Christian" virtues of love, faith, and hope. It ranges back and forth over centuries of ethical inquiry by philosophers and theologians to argue that we should not think of capitalism and individuals' moral, even religious, impulse as mutually exclusive but rather as naturally entwined.

McCloskey's argument is that while capitalism has added immeasurably to the life of moderns in every way, a "clerisy" of philosophers (Kant, for one) have colonized ethical thinking, insisting on a single source of the good. This moral myopia has only yielded in the late twentieth century to the forays of "virtue ethics." Drawing on the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and others, and advancing a "libertarian version of Aristotelianism" (497), McCloskey argues for the recovery of a plural set of virtues, an understanding of the ways different virtues are related to one another (or in the absence of such [End Page 420] a relation, the ways they become sinful, as when courage unmitigated by temperance devolves into violence), and a system that gives them coherence rather than a mere list.

This is a worthy task and the book has much to recommend it, despite its rambling and chatty style, confessional...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1467-2235
Print ISSN
1467-2227
Pages
pp. 419-422
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-22
Open Access
No
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