The Bourgeois Virtues

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To get it out of the way: the recorded author of this book is "Deirdre N. McCloskey", but for the first 53 years of life was known as "Donald". Fine. My opinion about this sort of thing is pretty much the same as that of Kevin D. Williamson: Deirdre is not a woman. But I'll give Deirdre the respect owed for writing a fantastic book, and use the feminine pronoun here, as I imagine she might wish.

It really is a fine book on a topic one might not even have recognized as important: the role of ethics and virtues in philosophy generally, and (specifically) their role in economic development and business operations. (Subtitle: "Ethics for an Age of Commerce") 400-plus pages of that sort of thing could be awful, but Professor McCloskey makes things sparkle. (I've muttered before about USA-Todayese, a kind of breezy, semi-condescending prose that seems to be the norm in popular non-fiction. McCloskey's writing is the opposite of that: personal (addressing the reader as "you" throughout, and plenty of "I"s to do the addressing), very funny in spots, fearless and aggressive in argument. And not at all condescending: although it's accessible to the average schmoe who has a nodding familiarity with economics and moral philosophy, it's very much an advanced course in the latter area.

The overall thesis is simple enough, the Bourgeois virtues are the classical ones recognized in their nearly complete form by thinkers such as Aquinas and Adam Smith: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage, Love, Faith, and Hope. The first four are the "pagan" virtues, the latter three sacred. All are necessary and balance each other; neglecting any, or over-emphasizing any, leads to bad luck and trouble. Since McCloskey's training and professional emphasis is in economics, many of the arguments presented are economic ones, prosperity vs. privation. But it's clear that a virtuous society does not merely prosper, but is a better all-around place to live. The implied insult that has historically been attached to the word "bourgeois" is not just undeserved, it's perverse.

We were led off this correct path by the serious moral philosophers post-1848, who set out (with whatever motives) to come up with alternate theories of ethical behavior. The result has been bad, ranging from the awful up to horrible. Kant gets an especially withering analysis. I haven't seen Kant beaten up so badly since I read some Ayn Rand a few decades ago.

In addition, there's a Bacon takedown. I didn't expect that. (And nothing much at all about Edward Burke, which I find puzzling.)

I am not adequately conveying how much fun the book is to read. It is filled with brilliantly pithy examples from all of history, around the world. (It is also the second book I've read in the past few months to discuss the great movie Groundhog Day.) I've put McCloskey's second book in the series (Bourgeois Dignity) into my to-be-read pile; there are two more volumes projected but not published, and they'll go in there too.