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The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce Hardcover – July 15, 2006

3.8 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Eschewing the notion that capitalism is evil and the middle class is soft and cowardly, University of Illinois professor McCloskey argues that bourgeois economic practices and people promote the widest possible range of virtues. An economically free and prosperous middle class is not only peaceable, law-abiding and prudent, McCloskey argues, it can also be artistic and spiritual, and support traditional cultures, protect the environment, win wars, make discoveries and care for the unfortunate better than aristocratic or proletarian social organizations. Though her overarching aim is to develop a modern theory and taxonomy of virtues, promoting libertarian economic views and summarizing 250 years of normative economic writings, McCloskey only sketches her argument here; the details will be left to three subsequent volumes. Most of this book is a technical survey of virtues that emphasizes Catholic theology, though it includes material from other traditions. The prose style is arch and obscure, often relying on brief quotations from philosophers, economists and historians and then rebutting them. Without the future volumes, these challenging 600 pages represent a highly idiosyncratic survey with no obvious focus. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Deirdre McCloskey's unfashionable, contrarian, and compelling manifesto in favor of what she calls the bourgeois virtues starts with an uncompromising 'apology' for how private property, free labor, free trade, and prudent calculation are the font of most ethical good in modern society, not a moral threat to it. . . . Ms McCloskey is spectacularly well read. She can pull an apposite quotation not only from her heroes, such as Adam Smith and Thomas Aquinas, but also from Thucydides and Machiavelli, or from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict and the contemporary philosopher Alistair MacIntyre, or (for that matter) from the movies 'Groundhog Day' and 'Shane.' What is more, she writes with wonderful ease. Her style is conversational and lively, sometimes even cheeky, so that even the toughest concepts seem palatable."
(Matt Ridley Wall Street Journal)

“An impressive collection of intellectual riches.”

(Alan Ryan New York Review of Books)

"The Bourgeois Virtues is the most comprehensive attempt yet published to show that Sunday and Monday virtues are compatible and complementary. Deirdre McCloskey's grasp of history, philosophy, the social sciences and non-Christian religions makes the treatment of the classical virtues rich and deep."—James Halteman, Christian Century
(James Halteman Christian Century)

"A significant contribution to the study of the moral basis of economic life and thought. McCloskey has woven many sources and a number of traditions together to provide the beginnings of an argument and discussion of the role of virtues in economic life. Her approach intersects with, but also challenges, ongoing steams of research in the areas of behavioral economics and social, cultural, and institutional economics, and her vision is original."
(Jonathan S. Feinstein Journal of Economic Literature)

"This book is unfair in many ways. For all the seriousness of the content, it is written in such a beguiling manner that the reader is seduced into reading for sheer enjoyment rather than dutifully putting together wisdom and enlightenment."
(Paul B. Trescott Magill's Literary Annual)

"This is an admirable start to a bold project. Readers will find the extensive citations from literature, art, and history entertaining and informative, and the scope of the study should provide food for thought on a wide range of topics.. Most importantly . . . it illuminates the question at the heart of current debates over the marklet system and how it affects people."
(John D. Larrivee Journal of Markets & Morality)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 634 pages
  • Publisher: The University of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (July 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226556638
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226556635
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #118,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. Stone on July 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
McCloskey says re why the West suddenly in the past 200 years become rich:
"I claim that the modern world was made by a new, faithful dignity accorded to the bourgeois - in assuming its proper place -and by a new, hopeful liberty - in venturing forth. To assume one's place and to venture: dignity and liberty. "
Dignity and liberty work. By now we should have ceased being shocked by their efficacy. The special development zone of Shenzen, a suburb of Hong Kong went from being a small fishing village to an 8 million soul metropolis in two decades. True, it didn't happen without some nasty rent-seeking by party officials and their friends. But out of such creative destruction are average incomes dramatically raised. Such a feat required a shift in rhetoric: stop jailing millionaires and start admiring them; stop resisting creative destruction and start speaking well of innovation; stop over-regulating markets and start letting people make deals, corrupt or not.


Until the view of the bourgeoisie suddenly changed in academic circles in Spain, then in commercial and (some) political circles in Holland and then in Britain and the United States, dignity and liberty for the bougeoisie was viewed as an outrageous absurdity. Of course, the bourgeoisie was contemptible!! In Confucianism the 4th and lowest of the social classes is the merchant, only just on a par with the carriers of night-soil; or in Christianity, the camel having a better chance of passing through the eye of the needle than a rich man entering heaven.
Around 1700, for the first time ever, deals to buy spices (or steam engines) low and sell them high were admired. The admiration overturned various anti-bourgeois stereotypes which had so long prevailed ....
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Format: Paperback
This is a tough book to get through. A hefty tome of 500+ pages, there IS a good hypothesis laid out somewhere. Bourgeois virtues define how most of us can carve out a successful living in the modern world, as opposed to the aristocratic/peasant virtues of the past. McCloskey is clearly well read, and wears her learning heavily. This book is packed full of historical cultural and economic flotsam from all over the past 500 years - the Dutch golden age, Rotterdam tram drivers, Andrew Carnegie giving a socialist $16 cents (his share of his wealth if it were divided fairly). Much of it is interesting and thought provoking. But when you encounter a clunker like, say, the misspelling of 'Wodehouse' (as in P.G - McCloskey spells it 'Woodhouse'), one can't help wondering if she is overstretching herself here. How much does she really know in terms of a depth, considered study of the canon (and much besides), and how much is she straining for effect?

Then there is the peculiar writing style. A sort of casual/highbrow mix, throwing ideas down, gathering complex conceits in folksy contrived phrases. Not much thought to whether a sentence is complete or not. Syntax is pretty casual. It's beginning to affect my own writing of this review, so I'd better stop.
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Format: Hardcover
McCloskey has written a fascinating and potentially great book, but she doesn't quite pull it off. It is a book that covers a remarkable lot of ground, and which has an important argument at its heart: namely, that the so-called bourgeois virtues are generally both treated unfairly and their value underestimated, in terms of contributing to our material well-being. She ranges far and wide, discussing Greek tragedy, character theory and films, moral agency and novels, as well as philosophers, writers, and economists (she is herself an economist, but a very learned and obviously interesting one). The problem, however, is that this book reads like the cobbled-together journal musing and responses of a remarkably talented and well-read diarist, but one that hasn't edited her work carefully enough. To say it is unsystematic is an understatement. Still, it is very much worth reading, not least because it's spontaneity is infectious. It's an exciting book. Many works on virtue theory are dry and detailed, as if the authors want to match the dryness of (most) deontological or utilitarian accounts of ethics. McCloskey's work is the opposite of dry. Think of it as (loosely) applied virtue theory. But as another reviewer says, you will want to read or re-read Adam Smith after this, just to see how an excellent and successful defence of the bourgeois virtues and the market economy is conducted. (Is it unfair to demand of McCloskey that she provide us with another, perhaps updated version of The Theory of the Moral Sentiments? Probably. But her book is good enough that it provokes this demand.)
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