Bobos in Paradise

Published: July 30, 2006


"The heft, the air and the title of this book all promise a big thesis. But what the devil could that thesis be? At no point during my reading of the 500-plus pages — an experience by turns piquant, maddening, edifying and wearying — was I altogether sure. Sometimes the author appeared to be arguing that capitalism makes us virtuous. Sometimes she seemed to be saying that virtue is the most important ethical idea we have. And sometimes she more or less announced that Love Is Bigger Than Economics. Each of these is a potentially interesting claim. But where, amid the luxurious orgy of quotations, epigrams, pop-cultural and poetic allusions, charts, lists, etymologies, asseverations, innuendoes, zingers and brickbats, was the meticulous reasoning that might establish their truth?"



Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

By Deirdre N. McCloskey.

616 pp. University of Chicago Press. $32.50.


"Perhaps, though, such a complaint misses the point. Deirdre McCloskey is a maverick, and in more ways than one. A classically trained economist — Harvard Ph.D., junior appointment to the star-studded University of Chicago economics department, résumé packed with rigorous quantitative research — McCloskey broke ranks in 1985 with “The Rhetoric of Economics,” which mocked the pretensions of economists to scientific objectivity. What the profession needed was less highfalutin mathematics and more emphasis on persuasion, stories, rhetoric: so she argued. Or he, I should say. For, at the time, Deirdre was still a man named Donald. In 1995 McCloskey broke ranks again by choosing to undergo a sex-change operation, the central event in her memoir, “Crossing” (1999). Currently a distinguished professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, McCloskey is that rarest of things, a transexual, new-Christian, postmodern, minimal-government conservative. She is also, by her own avowal, “a tough urban girl who can take it as well as dish it out.”

And dish it out she does. Foremost among the many, many recipients of McCloskey’s abuse are those who (she thinks) misunderstand the nature of morality. How do we determine what is right and wrong? Modern moral philosophers have offered two sorts of answer. One focuses on consequences: according to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the right action is the one that results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The other focuses on the acts themselves: for Immanuel Kant, the right action is the one that conforms to a certain idea of duty, regardless of consequences. (Thus, by Kant’s lights, it is always wrong to kill an innocent person on purpose, even to save the world.) McCloskey will have neither of these; each, she thinks, wants to reduce ethics to “a quick little formula, the pocket-sized card.”

In the last few decades, however, an alternative to utilitarian and Kantian ethics has emerged, one that harks back to the ancient philosophers. It centers neither on acts nor on their consequences, but on character. According to “virtue ethics,” morality cannot be captured in a universal code; the right thing to do in a particular situation is what a virtuous person would do. And how do we identify a virtuous person? Aristotle defined virtue as a quality of character that makes for a life well lived. Then he characterized the good life as a life lived in accordance with virtue. Circular? Today’s virtue ethicists obviously don’t think so, but they have nevertheless struggled to come up with an account of human nature that would give some definite content to the idea of virtue.

McCloskey likes virtue ethics for two reasons. First, it elevates stories over abstract rules. The guide to action becomes “What would X do?” where X is to be filled in by one’s moral exemplar of choice, who might be drawn from the Bible, say, or from a Jane Austen novel. Second, virtue ethics lends a womanly touch to moral theory, which has long been a “guy thing,” with masculine notions like justice and autonomy shutting out feminine notions like caring and love. Many of the movers behind virtue ethics, she notes with satisfaction, have been women, like Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum. (On the other hand, some pretty important male philosophers — Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, John McDowell — have also played a role. One man that McCloskey decidedly does not want on her team is William J. Bennett, who, she observes with some severity, pumped his royalties from “The Book of Virtues” into slot machines.)

In taking the question “What sort of person ought I to be?” as fundamental, virtue ethics entails a richer moral psychology than its rivals. Yet it is not very useful in resolving ethical dilemmas. Should I betray my friend or my country? Utilitarianism at least yields an answer (friend). Virtue ethics tells me to do what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances — scant guidance for anyone who lacks the virtuous person’s built-in ethical know-how. And the egoistic emphasis on cultivating one’s virtue can easily lead to a preening moral vanity, not to say self-infatuation. How much more likable the Kantian ideal of doing the irksome thing simply because it’s your duty, damn it.

McCloskey does not trouble to rebut such criticisms. Instead, she submerges them in a flood-tide of contrary quotations from other thinkers. (She has read the library, and won’t let you forget it.) Her real interest is in applying virtue ethics to capitalism, and to capitalism’s distinctive product, the bourgeoisie. In “The Rhetoric of Economics,” McCloskey mocked bourgeois man as a ludicrous character, “at once master and servant, inclined therefore to hypocrisy and doubletalk, ’umble and yet pompous.” But she appears to have had a change of heart. McCloskey now sees the bourgeoisie as a noble class, the chief repository of the virtues instilled by commercial life.

Jim Holt, a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, is working on a book about the puzzle of existence.