Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

34. The Bourgeois Virtues

Note: This post is the thirty-fourth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

The Bourgeois Virtues, by Deirdre McCloskey is a wide-ranging, 500+ page book, and in this post I'm just going to pick out a few points that I found interesting and/or relevant to the current exercise.

McCloskey has a couple of main points:

1) Ethics cannot be reduced to a single measure of goodness or utility or simple self-interest that would allow a one-dimensional analysis to be carried out. Instead, McCloskey believe there are seven primary virtues: 4 pagan virtues (Courage, Temperance, Prudence and Justice) and 3 Christian virtues (Love, Faith and Hope). Like primary colours, these 7 can be mixed to form the other virtues. For example, honesty is said by McCloskey to be a combination of courage, justice and faith.

2) The Bourgeois way of life (i.e. commercial life) is neither amoral nor immoral. Instead it has its own characteristic set of virtues. McCloskey defines these as equivalent to the same seven virtues mentioned earlier:

Prudence (to trade rather than invade)
Temperance (to save and accumulate and to resist the temptation to cheat)
Justice (to value people for what they can do rather than what they are)
Courage (to venture on new ways of business, to overcome the fear of change, to resits despair and pessimism)
Love (to care for employees and partners and colleagues)
Faith (to honour one's community of business)
Hope (to imagine a better machine)

To be honest, it feels a bit like the seven virtues are being stretched to meet other notions here. It seems a bit like saying nothing at all to say that the Bourgeois virtues are the same as the virtues that exist in the rest of life as if there were no difference in the virtues of a businessman or a knight or samurai warrior, as if there was never a difference between the commercial culture of the Northern United States and the feudal culture of the South.

Comparing McCloskey's description of the commercial ethics to Jacobs' list of commercial ethics...

Shun Force
Come to Voluntary Agreements
Be Honest
Colllaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Respect Contracts
Use Initiative and Enterprise
Be Open to Inventiveness and Novelty
Be Efficient
Promote Comfort and Convenience
Dissent for the sake of the task
Invest for Productive Purposes
Be industrious
Be Thrifty
Be Optimistic

.. there is general agreement between Jacobs list and the descriptions of the uses of the seven virtues in McCloskey's description. One exception is that McCloskey says that faith, to sustain traditions of commerce is a commercial virtue, but it seems unhelpful to say that innovation and respect for tradition are both commercial virtues.

One interesting component of the book is that because McCloskey is a believer in a system of more than one virtue, she includes a number of lists of virtues compiled by herself and others.

A few of the lists of virtues are the following:

On page 348, McCloskey present a list of virtues splint into 4 classes: Aristocrat / Peasant / Bourgeois / Priest

On page 408, there is a list of 'Prudence/Profane' and 'Solidarity/Sacred' variables where the 'P' list corresponds to what we might call more practical notions and the 'S' list is more 'romantic' notions.

Finally, on page 431, there is a list taken from Irene van Staveren which splits the world into 3 spheres of ethical values: Freedom, Justice and Care

Picking out just a few elements from the complete description of the spheres provided:

The Freedom list is the domain of the market, with a primary virtue of 'prudence', and values relate to the 'individual', others are perceived as 'anonymous', rewards are 'extrinsic' and the relation to others is 'competing'

The Justice list is the domain of the state, with a primary virtue of 'propriety/justice', values relate to the 'public', others are perceived as 'equal/unequal', rewards are 'collective' and the relation to others is 'dependent'

The Care list is the domain of the 'care economy' with a primary virtue of 'benevolence/love', values relate to 'relationships', others are perceived as 'different', rewards are 'intrinsic' and the relation to others is 'interdependent'.

The spheres correspond to 'agora', 'polis' and 'oikos' in the Greek, and 'Liberté', Egalité', 'Fraternité' in French.

It's an intriguing classification system, suggesting possible avenues of inquiry into underlying sources of these differences between the spheres. I might have to add Staveren's , 'Caring for Economics' to the long list of books I still need to read as part of this series...

Anyway, I realize this isn't a great summary, but in some ways the whole point of McCloskey's rambling, meandering, 500+ page book is that virtue is not something to be easily summarized, so perhaps my lack of a concise summary is unsurprising. I guess you can read the book for yourself1.

What I took from the book is that other people who have studied virtues long and hard have come to some broadly similar conclusions as Jacobs regarding what belongs in the commercial set of ethics and what belongs outside, although the analysis here is not as clear as Jacobs', and certain other concepts such as the corruption caused by mixing ethics from different systems are missing.

For example, on page 296, McCloskey suggests that honesty, as the master commercial virtue has replaced honour which was the master virtue under an aristocratic system. It doesn't occur that the two virtues might co-exist in their respective areas of appropriateness, and what has changed is not what is virtuous behaviour but the type of activity that is most prevalent among those writing books about virtues.

1Although if you do read it I recommend skipping the first hundred pages or two and a number of later sections where McCloskey endlessly attempts to explain why Bourgeois is not a synonym for evil, relying mostly on the sort of simplistic 'markets trump communism', 'level 2 beats level 1' kind of argument that I discussed back here.

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