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The Bourgeois Virtues

Ethics for an Age of Commerce

For a century and a half, the artists and intellectuals of Europe have scorned the bourgeoisie. And for a millennium and a half, the philosophers and theologians of Europe have scorned the marketplace. The bourgeois life, capitalism, Mencken’s “booboisie” and David Brooks’s “bobos”—all have been, and still are, framed as being responsible for everything from financial to moral poverty, world wars, and spiritual desuetude. Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us.

McCloskey’s sweeping, charming, and even humorous survey of ethical thought and economic realities—from Plato to Barbara Ehrenreich—overturns every assumption we have about being bourgeois. Can you be virtuous and bourgeois? Do markets improve ethics? Has capitalism made us better as well as richer? Yes, yes, and yes, argues McCloskey, who takes on centuries of capitalism’s critics with her erudition and sheer scope of knowledge. Applying a new tradition of “virtue ethics” to our lives in modern economies, she affirms American capitalism without ignoring its faults and celebrates the bourgeois lives we actually live, without supposing that they must be lives without ethical foundations.

High Noon, Kant, Bill Murray, the modern novel, van Gogh, and of course economics and the economy all come into play in a book that can only be described as a monumental project and a life’s work. The Bourgeois Virtues is nothing less than a dazzling reinterpretation of Western intellectual history, a dead-serious reply to the critics of capitalism—and a surprising page-turner.

Read an excerpt. An audiobook version is available.

634 pages | 3 line drawings, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: European History, History of Ideas

Philosophy: Ethics, Philosophy of Society


"Deirdre McCloskey’s unfashionable, contrarian, and compelling manifesto in favor of what she calls the bourgeois virtues starts with an uncompromising ’apology’ for how private property, free labor, free trade, and prudent calculation are the font of most ethical good in modern society, not a moral threat to it. . . . Ms McCloskey is spectacularly well read. She can pull an apposite quotation not only from her heroes, such as Adam Smith and Thomas Aquinas, but also from Thucydides and Machiavelli, or from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict and the contemporary philosopher Alistair MacIntyre, or (for that matter) from the movies ’Groundhog Day’ and ’Shane.’ What is more, she writes with wonderful ease. Her style is conversational and lively, sometimes even cheeky, so that even the toughest concepts seem palatable."

Matt Ridley | Wall Street Journal

“An impressive collection of intellectual riches.”

Alan Ryan | New York Review of Books

"The Bourgeois Virtues is the most comprehensive attempt yet published to show that Sunday and Monday virtues are compatible and complementary. Deirdre McCloskey’s grasp of history, philosophy, the social sciences and non-Christian religions makes the treatment of the classical virtues rich and deep."—James Halteman, Christian Century

James Halteman | Christian Century

"A significant contribution to the study of the moral basis of economic life and thought. McCloskey has woven many sources and a number of traditions together to provide the beginnings of an argument and discussion of the role of virtues in economic life. Her approach intersects with, but also challenges, ongoing steams of research in the areas of behavioral economics and social, cultural, and institutional economics, and her vision is original."

Jonathan S. Feinstein | Journal of Economic Literature

"This book is unfair in many ways. For all the seriousness of the content, it is written in such a beguiling manner that the reader is seduced into reading for sheer enjoyment rather than dutifully putting together wisdom and enlightenment."

Paul B. Trescott | Magill's Literary Annual

"This is an admirable start to a bold project. Readers will find the extensive citations from literature, art, and history entertaining and informative, and the scope of the study should provide food for thought on a wide range of topics.. Most importantly . . . it illuminates the question at the heart of current debates over the marklet system and how it affects people."

John D. Larrivee | Journal of Markets & Morality

Table of Contents

Apology: A Brief for the Bourgeois Virtues       

I. Exordium: The Good Bourgeois        
II. Narratio: How Ethics Fell    
III. Probatio A: Modern Capitalism Makes Us Richer  
IV. Probatio B: And Lets Us Live Longer        
V. Probatio C: And Improves Our Ethics         
VI. Refutatio: Anticapitalism Is Bad for Us       
VII. Peroratio  

1. The Very Word “Virtue”    
2. The Very Word “Bourgeois”          
3. On Not Being Spooked by the Word “Bourgeois” 

Part 1 - The Christian and Feminine Virtues: Love
4. The First Virtue: Love Profane and Sacred 
5. Love and the Transcendent
6. Sweet Love vs. Interest     
7. Bourgeois Economists against Love
8. Love and the Bourgeoisie   

Part 2 - The Christian and Feminine Virtues: Faith and Hope
10. Faith as Identity     
11. Hope and Its Banishment   
12. Against the Sacred 
13. Van Gogh and the Transcendent Profane    
14. Humility and Truth 
15. Economic Theology           

Part 3 - The Pagan and Masculine Virtues: Courage, with Temperance
16. The Good of Courage        
17. Anachronistic Courage in the Bourgeoisie   
18. Taciturn Courage against the “Feminine”     
19. Bourgeois vs. Queer          
20. Balancing Courage 
21. Prudence Is a Virtue          
22. The Monomania of Immanuel Kant
23. The Storied Character of Virtue     
24. Evil as Imbalance, Inner and Outer: Temperance and Justice           
25. The Pagan-Ethical Bourgeois         

Part 5 - Systematizing the Seven Virtues
26. The System of the Virtues  
27. A Philosophical Psychology?          
28. Ethical Striving       
29. Ethical Realism      
30. Against Reduction  
31. Character(s)          
32. Antimonism Again  
34. Dropping the Virtues, 1532–1958              
35. Other Lists            
36. Eastern and Other Ways    
37. Needing Virtues     

Part 6 - The Bourgeois Uses of the Virtues
38. P & S and the Capitalist Life          
39. Sacred Reasons     
40. Not by P Alone     
41. The Myth of Modern Rati


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award
Honorable Mention

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