The Magazine

An Obvious Secret

The monumental achievements of middle-class morality.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JAMES SEATON
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The clerisy properly rejects such an impoverished view of human beings, but falsely assumes that if Bentham and his intellectual descendants are wrong, then capitalism itself is wrong. Deirdre McCloskey is out to demonstrate that life under capitalism—bourgeois life—nourishes the virtues more than life under feudalism, socialism, or any other alternative. She claims that “actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people.” Even if capitalism were not able to do what almost all observers agree it does do—deliver the goods—McCloskey argues that it would, on moral grounds, still be the best economic and social system around: “Had capitalism not enriched the world by a cent nonetheless its bourgeois, antifeudal virtues would have made us better people than in the world we have lost.”

McCloskey’s argument is, in part, historical. Against romantics of both the right and left who yearn for the alleged warmth and community of a medieval village, she points out that “the murder rate in villages in the thirteenth century, to take the English case, was higher than comparable places now.” It was, after all, the despised bourgeoisie that “ended slavery and emancipated women and founded universities and rebuilt churches, none of these for material profit and none by damaging the rest of the world.” In the long view, it has been the “bourgeois virtues [that] led us from terrified hunter bands and violent agricultural villages to peaceful suburbs and lively cities.” In traditional societies where outsiders are enemies, “one makes friends to keep from being assaulted,” while in societies where relations between individuals are governed by the infamous “cash nexus,” friendship based on personal affinities is possible: “In a world governed by markets one buys protection, one hopes, anonymously with taxes or with fees to one’s condominium association, and then is at leisure to make friends for the sake of real friendship.”

For her defense of the morality of capitalism on the basis of its encouragement of the virtues to be fully persuasive, McCloskey must first demonstrate the centrality of the seven traditional virtues—courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love—to the consideration of moral issues. Just as McCloskey criticizes the Benthamite attempt to answer all moral questions by reference to utility alone, she argues that the Kantian project to reduce all morality to “good intentions” is similarly flawed. Kantianism and utilitarianism may achieve logical consistency, which is fine for academic system-builders, but human life is too complicated to be explained by focusing on only one quality to the exclusion of all others. Hope is a virtue, certainly, but “when unbalanced by the other virtues, it produces evil, such as revolutionary socialism or revolutionary fascism.” Hitler had hope and possessed “personal courage beyond doubt,” but, McCloskey notes, he lacked “temperance and justice and prudence.” Figures even more celebrated than John Lennon have proclaimed that “love is all you need,” but unless love is guided by the other virtues, it too can be self-destructive.

Having made a strong case for the importance of the traditional virtues to moral questions, McCloskey goes on to argue that capitalism not only allows but encourages individuals to exercise the seven both in and outside the market. The qualities of the bourgeois virtues may differ in some respects from the virtues practiced in pre-capitalist societies, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Bourgeois justice emphasizes equality before the law, in contrast to the justice between unequals in traditional or feudal societies, since “two people doing business must deal with each other, not overawe or submit to each other. So bourgeois society developed a historically unique notion of justice.”

Love in bourgeois culture surely includes “the Love to take care of one’s own,” but under capitalism, society is not divided into friends and enemies, our family or tribe against the others, since the free market depends on equality under the law. Thus, “it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God.”

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