©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Review of The Bourgeois Virtues

Sten Jönsson

by Sten Jönsson
Professor of Management, Göteborg University
Scandinavian Journal of Management, vol. 23, 2007
Filed under academic interests [bourgeois virtues] [reviews]

Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues - Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, ISBN 978-0-226-55663-8. 2006, Price (cloth) USD 32:50, (616 pp).

Having read and reflected upon this book I feel I have become a different person. It is not that the book is particularly exciting or easy to read, in fact it is quite demanding. It is that now I look differently at my empirical material. I see things in it that I did not notice before. I have already revised an article manuscript that I was about to submit. What is it? Why does this book speak to me?

We all know Deirdre McCloskey and her role to be a thorn in the flesh for all the rationalist ("prudent") economists of the world. This volume (and the three complementary ones yet to be delivered to complete the argument) is the strongest argument to date and a hopeful one because it promises to put management and economics on speaking terms with one another. That is if our friends, the thoughtful economists, come to their senses and realise that the Hobbes Problem —

"Can a group of asocial monsters, who have never been children and have never loved anything, never had faith or hope or justice or temperance, be shown on a blackboard to create out of rational self-interest a civil society?" (p. 497)

— is insoluble, at least under instrumental rationality axioms and strict self-interest, and should be recognised as such. The economists who have tried again and again to solve the problem want to found society on contract without ethics. What McCloskey proposes is to go back to Smith (whom most of us refer to without having read the relevant texts) and to do both: agreement and morals, reason and ethics.

For management scholars this is very hopeful because in our fieldwork we have found again and again that people care about each other, that organizations keep promises, and managers are honest because this is the proper way to act, even if it may be uncomfortable. Tales about such irrational behaviour are often dismissed by our journals as "anecdotal evidence" of failed management. In the rationalist science of economics there is no place for what Adam Smith called "the faculty of speech", which people can use to express all kind of concerns that are not relevant in a world of monolithic decision makers. But when we observe what managers actually do when they manage we find that talk is their business (Tengblad, 2002), and thereby they acquire a sense of community and moral responsibility however they may have started their journey.

So, what is McCloskey's argument?

Well, first and foremost the whole argument is in defence of the benefits of capitalism, which has been such a worldwide success because it develops and attends to the bourgeois virtues. This is the point, the success of capitalism is because it fosters the virtues, not because of greed. And it is virtuous to buy low and sell high because it is a virtue to be true ("Faith") to your duty to improve yourself and be alert to the opportunity to help the seller to get rid of something and the buyer to get hold of the same thing. We live in an age of commerce, which is also the age of the bourgeoisie, and to live a full and flourishing life we have to come out well on all seven bourgeois virtues. It will not do to live by prudence alone in solitary utility maximization.

McCloskey fights a battle on two fronts. She attacks Samuelsonian economics for having reduced the meaning of prudence from its original phronesis (practical wisdom/good judgement) to a calculus of pleasure and pain (utility). And she attacks the "clerisy" who view commerce, and the bourgeoisie, with disdain. "Making and selling steel or hamburgers is not the most prestigious field among intellectuals. Writing long books is" (p. 469!). On both fronts there is a distinct preference for using deductive logic to arrive at certain conclusions (our heritage from Descartes), which in turn requires that we reduce complexity either by resorting to utility calculation or by retreating to 'emotivism'. This latter doctrine, the result of philosophy falling from religious faith as a basis for ultimate values, holds that "all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference" (p. 397). There is no (rational) way to determine what goals one should strive for, so when people disagree in normative judgement the only methods left for resolving value issues is the ballot or shooting it out on the barricades. Shame on you! McCloskey's solution is to bring the values (virtue ethics) in, to bring Adam Smith back in and to recognise that these — '"bourgeois virtues" — are not contradictory. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.'

How does she organize the argument?

Well, such a long book needs a map, which is given in a summary called apology in the Greek/Christian tradition of arguing for the defendant by giving reasons. The defendant is capitalism and the reasons for its defence are that it makes us richer, it lets us live longer, and it improves our ethics — oh, and anti-capitalism is bad for us. Then comes an appeal to us to listen with an open mind, and then the basis for the argument is introduced ("virtue ethics") with the seven virtues to be dealt with in the text:
— Hope (optimism, entrepreneurship)
— Faith (identity, integrity, loyalty, honesty)
— Love (benevolence, friendship, agape)
— Justice (social balance and honesty)
— Courage (autonomy, daring, endurance)
— Temperance (individual balance and restraint, humility)
— Prudence (know-how, foresight, phronesis).

These virtues cover what we need in order to flourish as human beings living our bourgeois lives.

Then follows a thorough exposition of these seven virtues, their treatment through history, in literature, in different cultures, and in current controversies (Chapter 7 is called "Bourgeois economists against love").

"Love can be thought of as a commitment of the will to the true good of another" (p.91) Yes! Well put! Then comes the counter-argument quoted from a French author (1671) sounding like a modern (male) economist regarding love in terms of exchange: "Human civility ... is only a sort of commerce of self-love, in which one endeavours to arouse the love of others by displaying some affection towards them." No, dear! It is not!

Then comes the argument that mobilises the heroes of our culture in the defence of love — from Aristotle and Cicero to Aquinas, Grotius, Adam Smith, CS Lewis and Amartya Sen and many more. It is great reading (relaxed style) and you learn a lot along the way. One feels educated, and that is an outcome of the author's benevolence; offering us many inroads to the understanding of these virtues.

But we need to understand these virtues as a set. McCloskey quotes Alasdair MacIntyre (1999, p. 5): "The virtues that we need if we are to develop from our initial animal condition into that of independent rational agents [viz. prudence, temperance, and justice], and the virtues that we need if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both of ourselves [courage, hope] and in others [love, faith], belong to one and the same set of virtues, the distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals." McCloskey's argument is, first, that his set cannot be reduced, neither with Kantianism by elevating the analysis to the will to good in order to avoid self-contradiction, nor with utilitarianism to utility calculation. And, second, that the seven virtues are connected, in at least two dimensions; there is one dimension autonomy/freedom — connection/solidarity (community) with the ends represented by courage/hope, and faith/love/temperance, respectively. The other dimension is the scared (transcendent) — profane one, represented by Hope/Faith/Love (the Christian virtues), and Justice/Temperance/Prudence (pagan, cool virtues). Together this "spaced" set of virtues constitutes a philosophical psychology — not cognition and preferences but judgement and good reasons — one comes to think of Adam Smith's "sympathy" as a possible summary outcomes of judgement in all seven virtues. But how can we manage all these dimensions? First we need to recognise that TRUTH is an asymptote, and so is GOOD. They represent absolute limits, not achievements. In most disciplines we are not yet there — and most disciplines are well advised not to judge other disciplines by their own utopian standards. (McCloskey reminds us of how Lord Kelvin, at the apex of physics' self confidence, dismissed the absurd theory of Darwin by asserting that the sun could not possibly have had enough chemical energy to accommodate the eons necessary for Darwin's species to evolve.). Second, it is a matter of "toggling" between exemplars and rules (p. 330). We need to be ethical realists, since there is no known test for ultimate ontology, and to recognise that ethics exists because, as Nozick (2001) put it, "at least sometimes it is possible to coordinate actions to mutual benefit." The choices we make are not the result of applying a formula but of rhetorical and narrative reflection. We do 'what is appropriate for a person like me in a situation like this', and it comes out all right often enough.

We can discern some sorrow (chapter 34) over the way virtues fell into disuse between Machiavelli and Bertrand Russell but then we arrive at Part 6, starting with chapter 38, about the bourgeois uses of the virtues. Here McCloskey return to Smith, who still had the social solidarity virtues in focus (although the Christian virtues Hope and Faith were to some extent suppressed), as she prepares to demonstrate that Prudence, the major bourgeois virtue, is — and must be — tempered by the other virtues. Granted that Prudence serves as a grammar for behaviour, efficiency should be sought and waste avoided, but limitless accumulation of resources is a Weberian/Marxian myth. At the core of Kapitalismus is the purpose of becoming a respected citizen. Greenfeld (2001) argues that full citizenship in Dutch cities, i.e., with voting rights, was achieved when a man had accumulated the required capital (had become a capitalist).

After seeking to demonstrate the presence of the solidarity virtues in most of our activities — even Gary Becker accepts that bourgeois virtues are not a betrayal of the science of economics — and exposing the myth of modern rationality McCloskey comments on some "applications" of virtue reasoning to topics such as "good work", "wage slavery", "the rich", and "robber barons" who spot undervalued assets and then, like Carnegie for instance, donate their capital to good causes. (Well, there are some bad robber barons around too.)

She closes this first volume with a discussion of her point of view, which includes a revival of Smith's "almost complete" theory of bourgeois virtues. That his theory was unmoored from virtue ethics and abandoned by later exponents of contractarianism was an ethical catastrophe. The final words (to repeat): " 'Bourgeois virtues' is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays" sound like preaching. Maybe she does preach now and then, but "wow!" she certainly speaks to me! What do you think?

- Greenfeld, Liah, (2001), The Spirit of Capitalism — Nationalism and Economic Growth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- MacIntyre, Alasdair, (1999), Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago: Open Court.
- Nozick, Robert, (1989), Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Tengblad, Stefan, (2002), "Time and space in managerial work." Scandinavian Journal of Management, Vol 18(4): 543-566.