Most helpful positive review
91 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2006
I find reviews very irksome when the reviewer states that the author of the book under review has failed miserably because he or she has not said what the reviewer would say had the reviewer written the book. Such reviews are as self-serving as they are silly and if I lapse into such here please dismiss my comments.
The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is at 508 pages a hefty work but it is in fact just the first of four books Professor McCloskey has planned to write on our attitudes toward how we earn a living. I am not among those McCloskey sees as her primary audience--the romantic, anti-capitalist clerisy--for I admire the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Indeed, my heroes are foremost among McCloskey's heroes--Montesquieu, David Hume, and especially Adam Smith. Yet I believe that McCloskey fails to achieve her aims of defending capitalism and bourgeois character. She does so in a way that may actually escape attention as one reads this sometimes engaging but often tedious and very long book. The book seeks to defend "virtue ethics" against Kantian, utilitarian and contractarian ethical theories and it provides a catalogue of seven "bourgeois" virtues--love, faith, hope, courage, temperance, prudence and justice. The first three virtues McCloskey associates more with women than men and she acknowledges the obvious fact that they are essentially the Christian, "sacred" virtues. The other four virtues she associates more with men than women but they are even older than the sacred virtues because they were identified and described by the ancient, pagan Greeks and Romans. So, descriptions of the "bourgeois" virtues predate the bourgeois era by some 1800 years or more. There would be no problem with such an assertion if these rather timeless virtues are grounded in the most vigorous passions of human nature but are more likely to be achieved in the capitalist bourgeois order than in other orders or eras. Nonetheless, with a few passages in the quite excellent prologue/apology and in the final chapter aside, no such case is made. It is possible that despite the impression created by the title of this book, the case for the flourishing of the sacred and pagan virtues in capitalism will finally be made in the other three books but it is not contained within the book titled The Bourgeois Virtues.
Now, I believe I can safely avoid the irksome sort of review described above because the book I believe Professor McCloskey should have written is a book she is better prepared to write than anyone else alive. What Professor McCloskey should have written is an updated and empirical case for the argument contained in one of the greatest books ever written and certainly the best book ever written on commerce and ethics--Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments. As things stand, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a vastly superior work to McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues. I say this because, like McCloskey, Smith identifies a catalogue of timeless virtues--benevolence (love), justice, prudence and self-command (temperance)--but Smith accounts for the timeless nature of the these virtues by describing the natural, universal, human sentiments or passions in which they are grounded, and yet he also accounts for changes in these virtues over time especially under the influence of commerce. Smith recommends the commercial order precisely because the "universal opulence" created by such an order facilitates the development of the virtues by the inferior and middle classes. In commercial societies common folk can be benevolent to their loved ones because they have scratch in their pockets to display liberality and the leisure that allows selfless devotion; they can develop an exact sense of justice because they have property; with money in their pockets they have decisions to make those without money and property can never make and, indeed, with the options afforded to those living comfortably beyond subsistence, certain persons can go beyond the "mere prudence" needed for day-to-day security and seek great learning and "superior prudence"; and in a commercial society, self-command shifts from a focus upon fear and anger, leading to courage and magnanimity, so important in ancient warring societies, to control of temptations such as ease, selfish gratification and pleasure. Our ancestors did not have to exert self-command over their desire for a second or third piece of cheesecake the way we do, although they may have needed self-command while standing at a rampart.
I believe the Smithian catalogue of bourgeois virtues is simply more defensible than McCloskey's catalogue. Pagan or aristocratic courage is not a virtue from a bourgeois or commercial perspective. Rather, commerce is an alternative to ancient courage and magnanimity because these are virtues needed for acquisition through war, not trade. Indeed, as Smith says in the Wealth of Nations, commerce destroyed feudalism by convincing aristocrats to trade their birthright for diamond buckles. Similarly, although Christian faith and hope may be admirable, as McCloskey herself argued in an article in 1998 "they merged in a secular form of Christianity by the name of socialism" in the nineteenth century. In my view this is reason enough to not list faith and hope among the bourgeois virtues. Still, although I believe the evidence suggests strongly that Smith's catalogue of virtues is superior to McCloskey's, it is always easy quibbling over such matters. The more important point is that Smith's work on the bourgeois virtues is superior to McCloskey's, not because of the virtues identified, but because evidence for the commercial order actually promoting the bourgeois virtues is provided in abundance.
Brad Lowell Stone