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Comments on McCloskey’s 2006 James Buchanan Lecture by Gary Sauer-Thompson

16 April 2006


Gary Sauer-Thompson

An interesting lecture by Deidre McCloskey — the 2006 James Buchanan one. It starts by mentioning the classical republican virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence, which are the political virtues that contribute to the ancient sense of contributing to the survival and flourishing of a polis, a small Greek city state. She then mentions the three so-called “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. Sounds so old fashioned doesn’t it, especially to those diehard positivists who reject ethical reasoning as “emotivism” — ie., good and evil are names that merely signify our desires and passions.

These seven virtues McCloskey claims, form a roughly adequate philosophical psychology, and adds that you “can test their adequacy by imagining a person or a community that notably lacks one of them. A loveless life is terrible; a community without justice is, too.” That puts a question mark under the Hobbesian contractarian tradition and the utilitarian tradition of economists and calculators, as both traditions do not acknowledge the virtues in a flourishing being; preferring instead to assume prudence as an axiom, and then derives the other virtues, such as a just polity or happiness, from that axiom. Neither lead to the ethical world of citizenship.

The second part of the Buchanan lecture makes a theroetical turn. McCloskey says:

Martha Nussbaum’s recent book, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006), attempts to add the love of others to the accepted axioms of political philosophy. It criticizes on this count the strictly Hobbesian/Gauthieresque contractarian’s assumption of Prudence Only; or the Lockean/ Rawlsian contractarian’s Prudence-With-A-Version-of-Justice. In a brief, bumper sticker version of a complicated project, Nussbaum’s book is about love-adding: bringing our care for others in at the start. She says that such a supplement will preserve the contractarian program in political philosophy—-the masculine “strength” and parsimony of which she sometimes admires — yet yield a civil society in which the severely handicapped, the old, the foreigners in poor countries, and the animals will be treated with appropriate dignity.

The strictly Hobbesian/Gauthieresque contractarian’s assumption of Prudence Only is the instrumental reason of the self-seeking individual who plays the game of maximizing the rational interest of the individual within a given constitution.

McCloskey then quotes a passage from Nussbaum’s text:

I think it implausible [she writes] to suppose that one can extract justice from a starting point that does not include it in some form,and I believe that the purely prudential starting point is likely to lead in a direction that is simply different from the direction we would take if we focused on ethical norms from the start (p. 57).

McCloskey adds that Nussbaum is right: you can’t get virtue Y from a starting point consisting only of virtue X. Y has to be in from the start. You have to put the rabbits in the hat if you are going to pull them out.That is, in order to have a society that shows prudence, justice, love, faith, hope, courage, and temperance we need to arrange to have people who are . . . . prudent, just, loving, faithful, hopeful, courageous, and temperate “from the start.”

McCloskey concludes the second section by affirming the insights of civic republican.She says that there is no point to the modern (post Machiavellian/Hobbesian) reduction of the theoretical project to a simple few of the virtues of Homo economicus. The simple few lead to societies in which free riding is rampant. If we want flourishing people we need to raise up virtuous people.