Monday, February 20, 2012

The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey

So here's a big book with an interesting story, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

Deirdre McCloskey is a well-known economist, with a reputation for originality or, depending on how you like to see it, being a maverick renegade. She is a neoclassical Chicago economic historian by training. But she has been asking about the rhetorical underpinnings of economics for some time. She also, in a story well-known in the profession, used to be a he, Donald McCloskey, but has transitioned to being a woman.

She has written a bracingly well-informed and original book. She argues that capitalism, far from being immoral as much of the left think, or amoral as many libertarians believe, is in fact fully compatible with human and ethical flourishing. And its record on actually encouraging flourishing is much better than the alternatives.

"Bourgeois" has become a term of abuse in the last 150 years, she says. But it shouldn't be. The problem is that an overdose of Kantian universalism led us to forget the older ethical wisdom of humanity. Like Alisdair McIntrye, who we discussed earlier, she wants to restore the ethical tradition of the virtues.

The ethical framework, most gloriously developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the middle of the thirteenth century, assigned a place of honor among the seven virtues to Prudence-that is, to know-how, competence, a thrifty self-interest, "rationality" on a broad definition. Prudence is the storied prime virtue of a bourgeoisie. But from the time of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the time of Bentham and Thomas Gradgrind, the system of four pagan plus three Christian virtues was gradually pushed out of balance, at any rate theoretically, by the rising dominance of Prudence.

Prudence alone - the calculating homo economicus or "Max-U" of mainstream economics - is a thin and unconvincing way to see things, something that only dawned her in her 40s and 50s after years thinking in a standard Samuelsonian economics framework.
She spends much of the book discussing the older virtues. Instead of the original Aristotelian system, she adopts the seven recognized by Aquinas - courage, temperance, justice, prudence- the pagan virtues; and faith, hope and charity/love - the Christian virtues.
The problem, she says, predates current economics. It starts with Kant and Bentham, with their emphasis on universal rules and narroe utility.
That in turn produces an overreaction the other way among romantics, particularly in Germany.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the European venture, tragically, was spoiled. It was spoiled as I said by a reaction among Romantics in favor of unbalanced love and courage, by an apotheosis among Benthamites of prudence only and among Kantians of reason as justice and temperance only. The vision of a balanced ethical system was further spoiled by an enthusiastic belief in antimarket versions of faith and hope among the new evangelicals, religious and secular.
The older system of virtues promoted balance. The new ethical system did not. The "clerisy", the modern bien-pensant secular priestly class, rejects capitalism. It is boring, unsatisfying, uncool. But the alternativr secular religions produced blood and mayhem in the twentieth century.
We'll take a look at some of her themes in turn.

[other posts in this series are here, here here, here, and here]

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