McCloskey on the Bourgeois Virtues

(Written for a panel at the American Philosophical Association Central Division Meetings, April 21, 2007)


            First, let me say how delighted I am to have the opportunity to participate in this discussion of Deirdre McCloskey’s exciting new book, The Bourgeois Virtues.  Her work intersects with mine at a number of points.  I find that I agree with much of what she has to say and, much more importantly, I find that reading her book has expanded my own thinking on these issues.  What I will do here is mainly to try to sort out the large areas of agreement and overlap from what I think (I’m really not sure about this yet) might be points of disagreement.  My main purpose, I admit, is the narrowly egoistic one of trying to figure out what, given what I have thought about these issues heretofore, I ought to think of the new ones raised in her book.  I will do my best to (altruistically?) make this interesting to you.

            Her book is a moral defense of American capitalism.  This system, she says, “does not need to be offset to be good.” By “good,” she apparently means “morally good.”  But she also says, in the same paragraph, that the system needs to be “inspirited, moralized, completed”: not offset, but completed.  She awards the system, as she puts it, “two and a half cheers.”1

            One reason I suspect that I might disagree here is that, if someone were to wake me in the middle of the night and say, “quickly, now, Three cheers for capitalism, yes or no? I would probably say Yes.  Also (possibly a minor issue) I am not as happy as she is with describing the current system as capitalist.  On a bad day, I think myself as something of a free-market anti-capitalist, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will use capitalism and the market to mean the same thing.

            Another reason to hesitate is the way in which she positions herself in the history of public discussion of the issue of the moral status of market institutions.  She contrasts her case for capitalism with that of Ayn Rand, whose defense of capitalism would imply that its critics are right, that it is “bad by any standard higher than successful greed.”2  In chapter 37 she dismisses Nietzsche and H. L. Mencken as amoral cynics.  In a single sentence, Henry David Thoreau is brushed aside as “a misanthrope” and classified, as a proponent of self-sufficiency, with the survivalists of Idaho.3  What gives me pause here is that these people have all been, at one time of my life or another, mentors of mine.  I’ve thought of them as offering in one way or another, an individualist morality that might be an alternative to the dominant collectivist morality of socialism, and a naturalistic alternative to the extreme altruism of Christianity, which seems to stack the moral deck in favor of  a socialist victory.

            As contrasted with this position, the ethical tradition that McCloskey represents is that of orthodox Christianity.  She offers a sort of middle ground between the extremes of socialist collectivism and the individualism of the authors I have just mentioned.  I suppose you could call it a non-individualist defense of capitalism.  The most important part of this middle way, as I understand it, is her distinction between “sacred” values and “profane” ones, or S and P values for short.  The P values are typified by the virtue of prudence, while the S values are related in one way or another to social “solidarity.”  Her moderate defense of capitalism really has two aspects, each based on one half of this dichotomy.  First, the prudence that is so crucial to capitalist enterprise is, contrary to some socialist thinking, a genuine virtue.  Second, the S values are compatible with P values and to some extent (but much more weakly) supported by capitalist activities and institutions.  Hence the two and a half cheers and the missing additional half.  The individualist thinkers mentioned above are interpreted either as P-only monomaniacs or as deniers of virtue altogether.

            Part of my own confusion about this project is that, as far as her positive comments about the capitalist system go, I think I am broadly in agreement with her.  In that case, why do I differ in my assessment of the more naturalistic and individualistic thinkers, whom she seems to hold in such low regard?  The most obvious explanation is the rather boring one, that I simply interpret these authors differently than she does.  I say “boring” because issues about how to read certain books are generally less interesting than substantive ones about the moral status of institutions and ways of life.  I will try to argue a little later on that this issue might actually be more interesting than it looks at first.  Before I do that, though, I would like to say more about the broad areas of agreement.

            As to the first of the two parts of her defense of capitalism, I heartily agree that prudence is a virtue.  This is important because, if one takes the contrary view that has been dominant in Western philosophy since the time of Kant, that the sphere of ethics and that of self-interest are mutually exclusive, then one has probably condemned capitalism out of court as at having no ethical value.  Capitalism on the face of it means behavior that is driven by the profit motive and, supposing that such behavior is a species of self-interested behavior, this would seem to mean that it all belongs in the non-ethical sphere.  (The main ethical issue that would seem to still be open would then be whether the behavior that is typical of capitalism is actually unethical or merely neutral, relegated to a morally gray zone.)  As McCloskey points out, the idea that prudence is ethically good seems to be typical of virtue-ethics, as distinguished from what she calls “neo-Kantian, academic ethical philosophy.”4  I can’t think of a single occurrence, in the literature of Western philosophical ethics before Kant, of the distinction between “the moral” and “the prudential,” which is so often taken as obvious in the post-Kantian world.  When, in the late fifties two English women began to bring virtue-ethics back, it coincided with one of them (Philippa Foot) also bringing back the idea that rational self-interest (which is part of what prudence is) might be the reason why justice is a virtue. 

            What is the reason for this odd coincidence between a virtue-based approach to ethics on the one hand and admitting prudence into the realm of the ethical on the other?  I think part of the connection can be grasped in terms of ideas with a certain immediate intuitive appeal.  The following, at any rate, is one way to think of it.  It seems to me that what a virtue is, in the relevant sense, is any trait that makes a person a good person, where “good” in this context means “admirable.”  There are traits that make a person a good dentist or mathematician, such as the ability to construct certain sorts of proofs or the ability to replace cavities with durable fillings, but they do not make someone admirable as a person.  The traits that do accomplish that result include justice, temperance, courage – and prudence.   I find that I admire the heroic efforts of Chris Gardner, the Will Smith character in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, though I am aware that the purpose of much of his efforts is to better his own position in life.  I am delighted to learn that he is based on a real person, because I want to know that such excellence of character exists in my world, and not merely in the fictional world of a movie.5  Now, suppose that a post-Kantian philosopher were to say to me something like this: Fine, but your admiration so far is not moral admiration.  Your admiration for the portion of Chris’s efforts that are directed toward bettering the position of his son, Chris Jr., is moral.  Your admiration for the portion that is directed toward the improvement of his own position is not.  To this I would have to reply that this, on the face of it, seems to me an utterly artificial distinction, and that the burden is on them to show why I should make and try to observe it.

            Why, indeed, should we make this sharp distinction between the moral and the prudential?  I can think of three possible reasons.  The first is that people inevitably do what is in their own interests, which would imply that prudent behavior is not admirable at all. This is obviously unsatisfactory because it contains a very implausible assumption (psychological egoism).  The second is one suggested by John Stuart Mill, that the effects that our conduct has on others justifies harsher, more coercive sorts of control on the part of others than does behavior that merely affects ourselves.6  Here the idea is that obviously “moral” responses, like blame and resentment, ought to be reserved for behavior that involves the interests of others, on the ground that such responses are more coercive than other sorts of disapproval.  This line of thinking, though sensible enough, is probably irrelevant to our purposes.  The fact that the absence of a piece of good behavior justifies a relatively coercive response is not evidence that such good behavior should be close to the core of our notion of the ethical.  If anything, it is evidence for the reverse sort of conclusion: if it is the sort of behavior that we can force you to do, that would seem to mean that it is the sort of conduct that we have a right to expect from you, and not the sort that is positively admirable.

            The third possible reason for the moral/prudential distinction is probably the real one, the one that actually does motivate the distinction in the first place.  What I have in mind is a certain substantive ethical judgment, to the effect that conduct that is meant to be good for others is, per se, much, much better than conduct that is meant to help oneself – so much better that the difference between them is not one of degree at all but really should be marked as a difference of kind.  Personally, I suspect that this is a fairly widespread attitude, and not merely among academic ethicists.  Consider the reaction of the critics to the The Pursuit of Happyness, which was surprisingly negative.  Some reviewers were clearly resisting the idea the Chris Gardner was admirable at all, and even in a number of cases seemed to be angry that the film seemed to expect them to admire him.  Obviously, this not my attitude at all.  How would one go about making a case for this sort of substantive moral view?  I have no idea, nor can I think of someone who has tried seriously to argue for it.  I suspect, however, that this view, or something very close to it, is at the bottom of the notion that market institutions, just because they rest on prudence, are thereby placed outside the sphere of the ethical.

            As to the second of the two parts of McCloskey’s defense of capitalism, the one that addresses itself to S-values, I suppose the fairest statement is that I have a great deal of sympathy for what she is doing.  In a capitalist system, a large part of one’s world is divided along property-rights lines, with cooperation between individuals taking place by means of trade.  If I want something that is not clearly mine, I offer to pay for it with something that is.  But it is also true that some very important parts of my one’s world are not organized in that way at all.  An untaken seat on a crowded bus is not allocated by being auctioned off.  Rather we decide who gets to sit there on the basis of a rule that favors the weak and infirm.  It is something like, “to each according to his needs.”  Here is another sort of case.  Everyone in my family considers her- or himself and individualist.  But on our refrigerator, there is no coin slot.  If you want something, you take it.  There is no “Who does not work shall not eat!” in our house.  In our family, where the fridge is concerned, we practice communal ownership. 

            There are people who think that market institutions necessarily undermine this part of our lives, which operates on principles so profoundly different from it (I think of this as the The Bowling Alone Theory.”) My own view is that this view simply underestimates the human capacity to compartmentalize our lives.  The spheres within which the two sorts of values reign are for the most part very clearly defined.  Within families we use S-values.  Between families we tend to use the property-rights and contractual rights principles that underwrite P-values.  The fact that the two spheres are themselves so different and easily distinguished helps to support us, I think, in our capacity to morally shift gears when we switch from one sphere to another.  This makes it possible for each set of values to have a realm in which they are supported and maintained.

            One reason this is important, as McCloskey points out, is that they two sorts of values really do support each other.  That is, each set of values is part of the reason why the other is able to exist.  If it weren’t for the P-based productive economy, there would be not be as much for the S-based part of our lives to distribute and share.  On the other hand, this P-driven economy cannot exist without shared rules about property rights and contractual rights, and rules are generated by communities of rule-followers and thus by the solidarity practiced in the other realm. 

            Like Prof. McCloskey, I would be horrified if our capacity for participating in S-values were to disappear from the earth.  But there is no reason to think the market is about to cause this to happen, or that we are headed in that direction. 

            Now I would like to try to say something intelligible and constructive about the area of potential disagreement, which I earlier associated with a difference in how we value what I have called the naturalist and individualist tradition.  I think I can best frame the difference I see in terms of a the way in which McCloskey responds to the socialist challenge to the capitalist system.  As she analyzes this challenge, the socialist in a certain sense does not propose new, unheard-of values.  What they propose is, at bottom, the constellation of S-values, such as distributive justice and sharing, to which in fact we all do adhere (albeit imperfectly) in our actual lives.  The thing that the socialist does that is and should be controversial is to claim that these values, which serve us so well on the micro-level, should be the only ones.  They should also dominate the macro-level.  The entire society should work in the way that a family works.  I do not, as I have pointed out, treat the food I put into the refrigerator as, in relation to other family members, my own private property: it is family property.  Similarly, for the socialist, we should treat the resources and the capital of the nation as the property of the national family.  So far I am, once again, in complete agreement with McCloskey’s analysis.

            From this point on, however, I begin to diverge.  The divergence as I see it affects two separate points.  First, from the idea that, described as I just have, socialist moral ideas are perfectly unexceptionable, she seems to conclude that socialism itself is morally unexceptionable.  Its error is to apply these moral ideas at the macro-level, where they really do not work happily at all:  “when a community gets big and specialized there are often better ways than loving solidarity to organize for the sacred things we want.”7  Here her idea seems to be that the criticism of socialism that is sound and well-taken is simply an economic criticism.  As Pope Leo XIII said, in a statement that McCloskey quotes with apparent approval, socialism is to be “rejected because it injures the very ones whom it seeks to help.”8 

            Second, if I understand her correctly, the ethical relationship between capitalism and socialism is as she sees it is just this: there are certain moral ideas that support socialism, true enough, but there are also moral ideas (the bourgeois virtues) which support capitalism.  Capitalism is not a sort of morally free zone: it is, or can be, ethical in its own way.

            Together, these two ideas could be taken to imply that the real reason for preferring capitalism to socialism may well be entirely economic.  It is not a case of preferring the economic (P-values) to the moral (interpreted in S-terms).  But it is still ultimately a matter of what works happily and what does not.  This of course is what the economists who give P-only defenses of capitalism say, except in a much milder form. 

            My own view is that, with respect to both of these points, she does not go far enough.  Her critique of socialism is too lenient, and her defense of capitalism is too mild.  I will try very briefly to explain why.  This is of course where the individualist tradition will come in to the picture once more.

            I think the basis of the disagreement might be my own conviction that when I described the socialist program as simply applying values that are good and indispensable in the family to the nation as a whole, the description was radically incomplete from an ethical point of view.  When we say that socialism involves “treating” certain things as the property of the national family, this is, at least in the case of state socialism, something of a euphemism.  At least from the point of view of the morality of the market, this “treating” is simply a taking of things that properly belong to others.  That is, when is forced on society by the state, the socialist program does something that family members are not doing when they help themselves to what is in the fridge: it violates rights. 

            This introduces a complication into the issue of the comparative moral evaluation of the socialist and capitalist system.  The market rests on property arrangements and the contractual nexus.  These, as I have suggested, are complicated webs of rights and obligations.  That is, morality of the market is not merely a matter of prudence and closely related values: it is also a matter of justice.  It rests on the idea that it is wrong (ie., unjust) to violate these rights and obligations.  Violating these rights of course is just what state socialism does.  From a market point of view, such a system is a giant extraction-device, which takes things from those to whom they rightfully belong in order to give them to those to whom they do not belong.  Of course, the fact that the market is based on a conception of justice is something of which McCloskey is perfectly aware, and she emphasizes it in other contexts.  What I am pointing out here is that it has implications for the comparative moral evaluation of the capitalist and socialist systems.

            There is one complicating factor, which is that the S-realm also has a conception of justice, but it is completely different from the one that supports to market.  This conception, as I think of it, is based on fairness.  That is the basis for the proper allocation of the untaken seat on the bus.  Is it more fair that a pregnant woman holding a baby should stand while I sit, or the reverse?  That is the only issue that matters.  In the market, on the other hand, whether I will get the next copy of World of Warcraft or you will depends on who has the cash to spend on it.  If you are the better player but I am the one with the money, that is unfair but, from the point of view of capitalist justice, the game goes to me and not you.  If you, on grounds of fairness, take it from me, that is an injustice.

            Of course, from the basis of the conception of justice that is native to the realm of S-values, this itself is an injustice!  Each system is unjust from the point of view of the other.  In order to justify the choice of one system or the other, we need a tie-breaker of some sort.  Are we to choose between the systems based merely on economics alone, after all?

            This is I think one point at which the individualist tradition has an important contribution to make.  Remember the third, and most likely, of the possible reasons for the prudential/moral distinction, the moral axiom that, if accepted, will banish the market from the realm of the moral.  This is the idea that those of your efforts that aim at your own good are much, much less to be admired and much, much less good than those that aim at the good of others, or at the good of the whole of society.  You know what the individualist would say about this.  Kant, who on this issue I count as one of the great exemplars of this tradition, would say that this amounts to our seeing you as a mere means to the good of others, which is a violation of your dignity.  Nietzsche speaks of the noble soul having reverence for itself.  Rand puts the point in terms of the virtue of selfishness.  The common theme is the notion that this moral axiom inverts the proper order of things.  Your own dignity, happiness, or self-development is more important than that.  Much more.9

            To say this, of course, courts the danger of falling into the P-only monomania or amoral cynicism that Prof. McCloskey rightly decries.  Whether it does, of course, depends on how the individualist point is spelled out.  It is by no means inevitable that it do so.  This leads to complex and very interesting questions, which unfortunately I will not be able to pursue here.


1.  Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 1.

2.   The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 2.

3.   The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 464.

4.   The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 255.

5.  See Chris Gardner, with Quincy Troupe, The Pursuit of Happyness (New York: Harper-Collins, 2006).

6.  This idea is fundamental to On Liberty, but comes out perhaps most explicitly in the long paragraph in Chapter IV that begins: “  The distinction between the loss of consideration which a person may rightly incur by defect of prudence or of personal dignity, and the reprobation which is due to him for an offence against the rights of others, is not a merely nominal distinction.”  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978), pp. 77.

7.  The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 465.

8.  The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 466.

9.  A comment I find interesting in this connection is a remark McCloskey quotes from the Protestant theologian and Christian socialist, Paul Tillich: “Socialism demands an economy of solidarity of all, of joy in work rather than profit.” The Bourgeois Virtues, p.  465.  This is clearly a socialist attempt to get around the individualist point: the idea is that it is human nature to find the truest joy in the service of all, so much joy as to make personal, private profit unnecessary.  But this idea is obviously false.