©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Eugene Heath comments on The Bourgeois Virtues

Associate Professor of Philosophy
State University of New York at New Paltz
Joint Session Sponsored by Society for Business Ethics and the International Adam Smith Society, April 21, 2007
Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues]


I discovered Professor McCloskey's work on virtue when I chanced upon an issue of the American Scholar (1994) containing her essay, "Bourgeois Virtue." I found the essay fascinating and I have since used it in almost every business ethics class that I have taught. That essay has now grown into a 500-page book, the first of four volumes on virtue and commerce. A second volume (Bourgeois Towns) will offer an account of the emergence of a capitalist ethic in Holland and England, 1600-1800; a third (The Treason of the Clerisy) will delineate the various ways in which artists and intellectuals have, at least since the middle of the 19th century, often regarded businesspersons and markets with moral derision. The last volume (Defending the Defensible) will make the argument that bourgeois values and free markets have lifted the poor, improved our treatment of nature, and bettered the culture.

This first volume is a robust, learned, informed, engaging and plausible account of bourgeois virtue. As I was reared by parents bourgeois and virtuous, McCloskey's perspective seems most welcome. Indeed, it is as welcome as going home, but finding the house remarkably refurbished, more interesting than one had remembered and well worth talking about!

(A) She opens with a well-informed and energetic appeal to what we might call, following Adam Smith, a system of natural liberty. From there Professor McCloskey undertakes a wide-ranging and spirited elucidation of the seven virtues: justice, prudence, courage, temperance, along with three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These seven she contends are the "ethical primary colors" (361) on which other traits are built, including bourgeois versions. One could live as a peasant, an aristocrat or an artist, but one can also live virtuously as a bourgeois. This point is her "main theme" (65): The virtues not only sustain commercial practices, capitalism, but are encouraged and required by capitalism.

It remains the case that prudence is the most significant of the bourgeois virtues, but the activities of commerce cannot be conducted only by prudence. For example, alongside variables affecting prudential conduct are those that affect solidarity. These variables may affect our motives in ways that are not simply or narrowly prudential. One thinks of the person who elects a certain line of work not because it will generate the greatest income but because of a love for that activity; similarly, one may think of Dorothy Sayers' recommendation that one should serve one's work by seeking to uphold the standards internal to the craft or vocation. Some of this interaction of prudence and solidarity may result from iterated encounters (buying a glazed donut from the same clerk each morning, p. 419). More generally, there is always some end for which we are acting, the content of which need not be merely selfish or materialistic.

Thus, McCloskey seeks to counter the widespread view of markets and business as, somehow, antithetical to virtue, community, friendship, and a life lived well. In so doing she broaches numerous points of fascination, including her account of the demise (if not destruction) of the virtues of faith and hope at the hands of a secular intelligentsia; the necessity of a balance of virtues (lest love run amok, or hope convert itself into a cruel utopianism); the defense of Vincent van Gogh as suffering not from madness but from porphyria; a critique of the Samuelsonian economic agent; the description of how courage, in contemporary society, too often invokes ideas of a heroic and aristocratic age; the criticism of the notion that competitiveness is unique to bourgeois society; and a defense of the importance of stories and examples to ethical education, including an examination of the extent to which the stories and rhetoric of the Gospels sanction prudence.

(B) Such a brief list conveys some of the breadth and richness of her discussion, but it does not relate to you the ease with which Professor McCloskey takes up ideas and challenges preconceptions. Yet she is not offering us a sustained philosophical argument, so if that is what you want, then you ain't getting it here! Instead the reader is invited to come along and converse with Professor McCloskey — at least to listen! In this way her work is intended for the professor but also the public. Writing in this manner, she seems to follow the counsel of Lord Shaftesbury who did not want philosophical questions to be the province only of some specialists. Shaftesbury laments that philosophy is

no longer active in the World; nor can hardly, with any advantage, be brought upon the public Stage. We have immur'd her (poor Lady!) in Colleges and Cells; and have set her servilely to such Works as those in the Mines. Empiricks [quacks], and pedantick Sophists are her chief Pupils. The School-syllogism, and the Elixir are the choicest of her Products.

Indeed, Shaftesbury recommends, further, that the very formality of "rational Discourses (especially those of a deeper Speculation) have lost their credit, and are in disgrace because of their Formality; there is reason for more allowance in the way of Humour and Gaiety. An easier Method of treating these Subjects, will make 'em more agreeable and familiar. To dispute about' em, will be the same as about other Matters. They need not spoil good Company, or take from the Ease or Pleasure of a polite Conversation. And the oftener these Conversations are renew'd, the better will be their Effect." And so, in the case of this grand treatise, the tone is conversational, sprite, and sparked by wit. For example, in writing about the acquisition of fortune and the so-called "robber barons," she states,

Yes, I understand. You are indignant that I should make such an assertion. I realize that it feels like an attack on your core beliefs, your faith. Everyone knows that the robber barons were, well, robbers.
But consider that you may be mistaken (490).

In a discussion of how others have conceived of the virtues, she notes how, William Bennett proposes, it seems again without a great deal of thought, a list of ten virtues, which seem to map into the classical seven... It reminds one of Gene Autry's 'Cowboy Commandments' of 1939: '1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage...' Autry's list in fact coheres rather better than Bennett's. I do not know why a professional philosopher...would bypass the literature on the virtues when writing a book about the virtues (382).

And of the French philosopher Comte-Sponville, she writes:

Of the thirty-one page citations to English-language writers a fifth are to Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. One is disappointed not to see more engagement with the thought of Jerry Lewis (385).

I should hope that this brief summary and these examples have provided some notion of the tenor and aim of this fine book.

In what follows I want to explore the relevance of the book for business ethics; raise a few questions about the account of the virtues; note how Adam Smith's account of sympathy might relate to Professor McCloskey's discussion of prudence and solidarity; and, in closing, point to the larger thesis of the book.

II. Business Ethics

The content and tone of much of business ethics scholarship has a strongly reformist tenor, perhaps born out of its emergence in the sixties and seventies. Many business ethicists are, in fact, part of the target audience of this book, the "clerisy" — that collection of intellectual, artistic folk who are doubtful about the moral qualities of markets, and regard commerce as vulgar or amoral (or immoral). "I am," Prof. McCloskey explains, "attempting here a Summa contra gentiles, a treatise on the virtues of capitalism directed at people who believe it has very few" (7). So in what ways does this book offer some challenge, albeit implicit, to contemporary business ethics?

(A) In the first place many business ethicists employ a vocabulary that suggests that the teaching of business ethics is, mostly, a matter of information or of adopting the appropriate theoretical framework. For example, too many assume that if there had only been greater emphasis on business ethics (e.g. a course in business ethics as a precondition for business school accreditation), recent corporate scandals would not have occurred. On this view, the only thing standing between corporate misconduct and good conduct is business ethics education: If there were business ethics education, then there would be less misconduct. "Education in philosophical business ethics is part of the moral education of business people in general." Such a perspective, in various guises, seems to ignore how the moral life is less a matter of knowing than a matter of perceiving, attending, and willing. That there have been corporate scandals--not to mention academic, political, journalistic, and diplomatic disgraces--may not be a function of a lack of business ethics courses but of a more general moral decline. I would suggest that one bit of evidence of this very decline is that too many think that we can become moral by taking a course, thereby acquiring, as Michael Oakeshott observed so presciently, "a kind of moral...outfit."

(B) Too many business ethicists accept, rhetorically and pedagogically, a set of assumptions that are more contestable than realized. Among these I would include the popular, if not ubiquitous, doctrines of stakeholder theory, corporate social responsibility, and the social contract, all of which may gain traction from a rather negative portrait of markets that lurks within many of us. Some features of this portrait include that the market is an amoral or competitive jungle, that the businessperson is not creative, and that the successful (or unregulated) businessperson could only get ahead by cheating, cutting ethical corners or fraud. Some business ethicists contend that the motives of the businessperson are radically distinct from those of other individuals: the aim of businesspeople is to make money and in this sense they are distinct from doctors and artists. One prominent ethicist concludes, "Thus, the same motives and goals that were so roundly condemned in the Bible and unheard of in most ancient societies now became virtues of the highest order." As if businesspeople would be morally bereft without the ethicists at their side, another leader in business ethics states that, "If the business ethics movement has led us anywhere in the past fifteen years, it is to the position that business has an ethical responsibility to become a more active partner in dealing with social concerns." Another professor of management and business ethics adds, "we need to design a curriculum that considers society as one coherent, effective, and efficient whole." Given these perspectives, I suggest that Professor McCloskey's book, if not just the opening chapter, is a tonic for those who assume too readily that they know what goes on in markets (lots of greed and egoism) and that they have the answer for the purported lack of ethics: business ethics classes, new laws, and regulations.

(C) But there is a more important feature of Prof. McCloskey's treatise: The subject of bourgeois virtue serves, implicitly, to refocus the ethics of business to, well, ethics. In this regard, one must distinguish questions of political philosophy, public policy, and ethical judgment. The literature of business ethics is very much concerned with the first two (and especially as these relate to corporations, but one species of business firm); however, the discipline seems only haltingly concerned with the ethical judgments involved or presupposed in ordinary business practice. McCloskey seeks to reorient our vision to the ethical issues that we face as we live our lives in commercial exchange: "Ethical choices...come up a hundred times a day, in the dilemma between doing X and doing Y, both goods" (355). These ethical choices are distinct from the application, in the corporate context, of some public policy or regulation; they are also distinct from questions of justice and political philosophy.

III. The identity of the bourgeois virtues

Prof. McCloskey contends that the bourgeois virtues are instances of the four classical virtues and the three theological virtues. There are two aspects of this claim that might be considered.

(A) The first is brief and concerns how the bourgeois virtues fit into the seven primary virtues, a discussion that one might wish developed further. That is not to say that she is wrong only that one wants the conversation to continue.

(B) A second element concerns the identity of these virtues: What is it that renders virtuous the virtues? Prof. McCloskey refers to a virtue as a "durable, educated characteristic of someone to exercise her will to be good" (64). Yet she seems wary of offering an account in which individual virtue is related to some social end or good (she does not equate individual good with a public good (248) — which seems right if only in the sense that well-intentioned individuals may generate consequences that are not foreseen). Yet the individual virtues are necessary for the good of the individual and it is not altogether clear why this is so. The ancients described virtue in relation to some substantive notion of good, a good that might differ significantly from the seeming or apparent goods of reputation, status, or wealth. But in the case at hand, it is not obvious that any such overriding good guides the virtues, certainly not some monistic good; moreover, if there is such a good it seems hardly distinct from the virtues themselves.

Yet without a more robust account of such a good, it may seem that some instances of conduct will be misleadingly described as virtuous when they are not. For example, unlike Aristotle, Prof. McCloskey would seem to allow reckless daring to be an instance of courage, for she allows that, for example, the "Cardiff City's football hooligans" (249) manifest an "addiction to courageous violence" (249). I grant that, in the context in which she is writing, she may be distinguishing the addiction to the idea of courageous violence from true courage; in other words, the young hooligans have an addiction to an idea of courageous violence that, in the absence of other virtues (temperance or justice or genuine courage, for example) generates conduct that is, in fact, less than courageous. Still, it is not entirely clear how the dispositions or acts that manifest virtue are virtuous in the absence of a more robust account of some overall good or practice.

This worry might be developed along another avenue. Daniel Bell once argued for the "cultural contradiction of capitalism": the qualities or virtues that engender wealth and commerce are, in turn, eviscerated by the way in which markets develop and prey on desire. (Bell's is not a new thesis — for Adam Ferguson (mentioned on p. 414) advocated classical virtue and expressed deep concern about the way in which luxury could corrupt.) Bell rather conveniently ignores other explanations of the phenomenon, including the rise of the first world war and the diminished importance of intermediary institutions, points very nicely described by Robert Nisbet and that might be used to counter Bell. That said, Bell's concern is genuine and is not without grounding. So, one wonders whether, in light of the possibility of corruption, whether the lack of an end that is genuinely transcendent or the lack of a unified conception of the human good, may render it more likely that we will be focused on amusement, narrow prudence, or mindless accumulation.

If we turn, again in a related vein, to other examples of virtue, one may ask whether, in some particular instances, she has characterized a virtue too broadly. In her appeal to the theological virtues, Prof. McCloskey allows that the virtue of faith "need not be faith in God" (153). The sort of faith that she counsels is, as she puts it, "a kind of spiritual courage, a willed steadfastness" (153) that requires both that we have an awareness of our identity and our own integrity, integral wholeness. I am not entirely convinced that this is faith rather than a strong notion of integrity: that this is who I am and this is what I must do and must believe (given who I am). Even so, such a virtue, if it is a virtue, is important.

Let us take another case, the theological virtue of love. Prof. McCloskey has in mind the love that abides in good families, as well as that manifest in other attachments ("the doctor's love for healing" p. 111) and in one's relations to others. The economists, or too many of them, make the mistake of thinking that society (and economics) must be understood by prudence alone. But along with prudence, a bourgeois love will entail "trust, good humor, neighborliness, respectfulness, cooperativeness, decent intentions" (127). Even if we agree with McCloskey that prudence cannot "account for all of solidarity" it is not clear how much weight we should put on the concept of love. Buying the newspaper daily, McCloskey writes, may engender "a weak form of love" (128). Although it is a mistake to suggest that the practice of business is ruled only by prudence, it is not obvious that love enters quite as strongly as McCloskey suggests. The motto of the French revolution was "liberté, egalité, fraternité," the last term suggesting love. But an alternative to such fraternal love is civilité, a virtue also consistent with "trust, good humor, neighborliness, respectfulness, cooperativeness, decent intentions."

(C) But is civilité enough? Perhaps love has another kind of relevance. In a chapter entitled "Love and the Bourgeoisie," Professor McCloskey affirms: "Humans want meaning. They just do, and they do not make an exception for capitalism" (134). This seems true, yet one of F. A. Hayek's observations about markets remains: we crave solidarity and common purposes and yet, within markets, our ends are plural and separate. Market exchanges entail that we serve others as means to their ends and they serve us as means to our ends. When I make an object or do a service for you, I am not always aware of your ends nor do I always agree with these. In general, therefore, I must be content with finding meaning in the performance of my activity as a means to my ends. Without a stronger unifying force to the account of the virtues — whether that be a metaphysical unity, human nature, or even one's own "rhetorical community" (332) — I am not fully satisfied that we know how this account of the virtues or the account of love quite solves the problem of meaning. That said, I am not confident that it is easily solved in any case.

IV. Prudence and solidarity

Throughout the book McCloskey makes plain that "Smith got it right and the later economists and calculators have got it wrong." I should not disagree with that, but I would urge that even if Smith "got it right" there is an interesting question that arises regarding the relation of prudence and solidarity (or as Smith would put it, benevolence). It has often been claimed that there is a relevant and peculiar difference between

Smith's great works. Whereas The Wealth of Nations emphasizes prudence, The Theory of Moral Sentiments celebrates benevolence. Although some scholars infer from this that there is an "Adam Smith problem," I find something else: Given Smith's account of our moral psychology, and given the circumstances of commerce, Smith cannot expect (nor should we) that persons of commerce will be exercised by the kind of benevolence that we more commonly expect within the small group: Smith cannot have such an expectation simply because his invocation of the sympathetic imagination — that operation of thought by which we represent to ourselves the circumstances and values of others and by which we generate norms of benevolence and prudence — presupposes, as a necessary condition, a degree and kind of knowledge that is not typically available in market exchanges.

Prof. McCloskey recognizes, for example, how generosity within a small group (e.g. family) does not work so well in a larger group (466). But if Smith's account of the virtues has resonance, then it may also provide an explanation of why prudence may predominate on some occasions rather than solidarity or love. It may have to do with the closeness (physical and thus psychological) that occurs within small groups rather than large. In other words, propinquity might be important to moral relations, including the relative weights of prudence or solidarity. Presumably, the propinquity of social relations has a two-fold aspect, motivational and epistemic, and it would be my contention (i) that the epistemic aspect is prior and essential to any moral motivation, and (ii) that Smith's account of sympathy and the sympathetic imagination is sufficient to account for this epistemic aspect. For it is precisely in conditions under which the epistemic aspect is weakest that one's moral relations take on a more prudential and a less benevolent aspect. And it is under the conditions of burgeoning and expanding commercial interaction that one's exchange relations may preclude the kind of knowledge essential to benevolent moral relations. Of course, if the requisite knowledge is a matter of degree, and if commercial exchanges fall along a continuum — one extreme of which occurs when neither party knows anything of the other (except the proposed terms of exchange), the other when each party knows the other in some intimate way — then the virtues of solidarity or prudence may also be a matter of degree. Even within market exchanges, as McCloskey explains (following Smith), one may acquire the sort of knowledge that would generate the call of benevolence or solidarity — perhaps even love.

V. A broader justification: Virtue and liberty

I turn now to the larger thesis of Professor McCloskey's treatise.

Aware of our vast consumption, McCloskey is not of the view that "having a lot" is necessarily "immoral" (454). Nonetheless, the acquisition of stuff is not (pace the "paradox of thrift") necessary to a robust economy: We might very well alter our patterns of consumption without damage to the economy. Instead of buying a Lexus or a pair of Prada shoes, we could buy something more meaningful. Her discussion, occurring in chapter 43, is interesting in its own right and leads to the larger thesis of the book, the defense of the ethical life (the life of virtue) under freedom. We do not have to accumulate stuff, we may engage ourselves in other ways. Ultimately, Professor McCloskey defends commerce is part of a broader defense of liberty — liberty as an instrumental condition for realizing a moral (or virtuous) life: "Choosing the system of natural liberty over the alternatives would make us richer, not poorer, in sacred things (462)." She makes this explicit at the close of the book. Liberty is often defended on grounds of utility, natural rights, or some putative contract; in contrast, Prof. McCloskey opts for virtue: "it [liberty] leads to and depends on flourishing human lives of virtue" (499). To the extent that this is the real argument, then so must it be the case that the life of virtue is the good life and that liberty, along with the companion institutions of commerce, provides a necessary condition for realizing the virtues. This is not an unappealing thesis, but it raises interesting questions and should, I surmise, give a defense of a version of classical liberalism that is historical and contingent and welcome.