Class Act

Reviewed by James R. Otteson

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
by Deirdre N. McCloskey
University of Chicago, 2006, 616 pages.

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t seems that some superstitions never die. Indeed, research suggests that an inclination to religious belief may be hard-wired into the human brain, meaning that the tendency to develop quasi-religious commitments of all kinds—even those that are not overtly religious in nature-may be an inescapable part of human nature. The question, then, is not whether people will continue to have such beliefs, but, rather, what those beliefs will be. Among the most prominent of these quasi-religious superstitions have been certain species of beliefs regarding economics.

Deirdre N. McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is a spirited defense of two related claims: First, that possessing what McCloskey calls “the bourgeois virtues” enables the individual to be not only good, but also happy; and second, that these virtues are principally encouraged by and flourish in commercial society. Much of McCloskey’s book is thus also devoted to debunking one curiously persistent strain of modern superstition: The widely held belief that commercial society limits, rather than expands, individual liberty; that it allows us to exploit rather than cooperate with one another; and that it impoverishes rather than enriches the poor. In the patient prose of someone making an honest attempt to persuade skeptics, McCloskey shows that each one of these tenets of the anti-capitalist catechism is, despite its centuries-old pedigree, demonstrably false.

James R. Otteson is a professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University. His book Actual Ethics (Cambridge, 2006) was the recipient of the 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award.

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