Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bourgeois Virtues?

Deirdre McCloskey tells the story of preparing for a lecture at Princeton University.  An office secretary at Princeton called her to get the title for the lecture.  McCloskey said: "The Bourgeois Virtues."  After a long pause on the telephone, the secretary laughed.  Then she asked: "Isn't that an oxymoron?"

McCloskey has now completed a trilogy of big books to answer that question.  No, it's not an oxymoron, she explains.  On the contrary, the idea that the bourgeois life--the commercial life of buying and selling--can be a virtuous life is the idea that caused the world in which most of us live today: the richest, healthiest, freest, and most populous world that human beings have ever experienced in their 200,000 years of evolutionary history. 

Making deals--buying low and selling high--has always been part of human life.  Even our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged in long-distance trading networks.  So there have always been bourgeois people living a life devoted to trading.  But such a life was generally scorned as morally corrupting.  Not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (first in the Dutch Republic and then in Great Britain), McCloskey claims, did a few philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith argue that such a bourgeois life could be admirable, even virtuous.  And it was the spread of that idea that brought the Bourgeois Era in which we now live.

So what are the bourgeois virtues?  McCloskey's answer is not clear.

Sometimes she says that the bourgeois virtues embrace all of the traditional seven virtues: four profane pagan virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) and three sacred Christian virtues (faith, hope, and charity).  But she also says that the bourgeois virtues are "commercial versions" of the seven virtues or "merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society" (BE, xxi; BV, 508).  She distinguishes the "bourgeois/mercantile" virtues from the "aristocratic/patrician" and "peasant/plebeian" virtues (BE, 229).  But she says the differences are "mere verbal shading" (BV, 350).  They differ as Achilles (aristocratic/patrician) differs from St. Francis (peasant/plebeian) and Benjamin Franklin (bourgeois/mercantile).  In speaking of "a rhetorical change from aristocratic-religious values to bourgeois values" (BE, 410), McCloskey does seem to say that bourgeois virtues are separated from aristocratic and Christian virtues.  But when she says "the seven principal virtues of pagan and Christian Europe were recycled as bourgeois" (BE, 410), she seems to say that the bourgeois virtues really do include the aristocratic and Christian virtues.

The virtues of Benjamin Franklin seem very different from those of Achilles and St. Francis.  McCloskey admits that Franklin's "theorizing" about virtue includes only the virtue of prudence, and excludes all of the other virtues (BE, 214-15).  But when it is not balanced by the other virtues, the virtue of prudence becomes the vice of greed (BE, 644).  Nevertheless, McCloskey insists, Franklin's behavior as distinguishing from his theory shows more than just greed.  This is a strange argument for McCloskey, however, since she stresses the revaluation of bourgeois life as a rhetorical activity.

Adam Smith seems to be a better model than Franklin for McCloskey, because Smith was a rhetorical theorist of bourgeois ethics, she claims.  But even so, it's not clear that Smith fully supports McCloskey's argument.  Rather than embracing all seven of the traditional virtues as bourgeois virtues, McCloskey admits, Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments includes only four and a half virtues--prudence, temperance, courage, justice, and benevolence (a part of the Christian virtue of love) (BE, 191).  And thus, Smith "sidesteps" the Christian virtues.  She thinks Smith was mistaken to sidestep Christian virtues for fear of endorsing intolerant religious fanaticism (BE, 196-98).  A bourgeois life can be, and should be, open to the transcendent.  But, then, McCloskey often scorns those like Mother Theresa, who were excessively devoted to the transcendent to the point of thinking that "all that mattered, after all, was the soul's path to eternal life" (BE, 537-38).

Early in Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey devotes four chapters to Adam Smith, arguing that Smith "exhibits bourgeois theory at its ethical best" (172-209).  Only much later in the book, does she mention (in only one paragraph) that The Theory of Moral Sentiment has a long chapter (I.3.3) in which Smith rails against admiring the rich.  She does not mention that Smith identifies this admiration of the rich as the "corruption of our moral sentiments."  In her one-paragraph comment on this chapter, McCloskey observes: "That the Waltons are rich does not make them admirable people, despite the undoubted commercial savvy of Sam and his brother Jim" (BE, 564).  Doesn't this contradict McCloskey's claim that the rhetoric of the bourgeois virtues promotes "the admiration for and acceptance of trade-tested betterment" (BE, 278)?  If the success of Walmart shows "trade-tested betterment," then why doesn't this show the Waltons to be "admirable people"?  Must we say that the economic success of bourgeois businesspeople like the Waltons does not by itself show their moral success?

In his Wealth of Nations, Smith never identifies businesspeople as virtuous.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith refers to "virtue" or the "virtues" hundreds of times.  But while the Wealth of Nations is more than twice as long as The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Wealth of Nations refers only once to "virtues," and it's a lament that the "laboring poor" in a commercial society suffer a decline "in intellectual, social, and martial virtues" (WN, Liberty Fund, 782).

McCloskey says that the "main point" of her three books on the bourgeois virtues is "that markets are embedded"--that is to say, that economic life is embedded in moral life (BE, 554).  So should we say that the free markets of Smith's Wealth of Nations are embedded in the moral communities of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, although he does not explicitly say that?

The one fundamental weakness in McCloskey's argument that the Bourgeois Revaluation (beginning in the 18th century) led to a recognition of the bourgeois virtues is that she cannot cite any explicit statement in Smith (or anyone else) that the commercial life of money-making promotes the bourgeois virtues, which correspond to the four pagan virtues and the three Christian virtues.  She can point to Smith's account in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, justice, and benevolence.  But she cannot find any statement by Smith that these are the bourgeois virtues of a commercial society.

It would seem that McCloskey is saying that the commercial activity of a bourgeois life is neither inherently vicious nor inherently virtuous.  Rather, commercial activity can be judged as vicious or virtuous only insofar as it is embedded in "non-commercial realms" (BE, 559).  In a liberal bourgeois regime, we all live in at least four different realms of life (BE, 554).  We live in a marketplace governed by market prices and mutually beneficial exchanges.  We live in a family, which is a natural association where children are raised, and where we take care of one another in the household.  We live in a political community where the government exercises a monopoly of the legitimate use of violent coercion.  And we live in a civil society of voluntary associations, including neighborhoods, schools, clubs, ethnic groups, mutual aid societies, and friendships.  Different virtues are appropriate for different realms: "Prudence is indeed . . . the central virtue of the agora, as courage is of the polis, and love is of the oikos" (BE, 558).

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