By Deirdre McCloskey

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.

Reviews:Thomas Wells on personal blog wrote:

"So what is capitalism if not a system of institutionalised private greed and public cynicism? In a clever move, McCloskey escapes from the trap of talking about the ‘system of capitalism’ and what it allegedly demands, and instead talks about the people who live capitalist lives. This 'bourgeoisie' is ideologically held together by three central concerns, for equality, property, and, most especially, 'honourable work'; while sociologically it stretches broadly over the corner-shop owner and the university intellectual (people like us, that is), as well as Karl Marx’s standard factory owner."

John Larrivee on Journal of Markets and Morality wrote:

"Relegating statistics on material gains to just a few pages, the book proceeds to analyze the market in light of the seven classical virtues, claiming that bourgeois work and capitalism both require and foster virtue. It also examines how both economists and philosophers commit similar errors in underestimating the importance of moral and spiritual motivations beyond utility maximization for market actions and in their fixation on calculation for decision rules in the first place. It closes by addressing several erroneous beliefs regarding capitalism, explaining why the market system does not require oppressing workers, fostering gluttony, maintaining inequality, or unjust zero-sum exchanges. [...] 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, however, it illuminates the question at the heart of current debates over the market system and how it affects people."

Jim Holt on The New York Times wrote:

"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? [...] McCloskey probably won’t sway many readers who do not already share her convictions, but for all the book’s flaws one can’t help being impressed by her verve, erudition and fitful brilliance."

Talk with the Author

The author speaking about virtues and economics in a short video from 2016:

Additional Info

About Deirdre McCloskey

Deidre McCloskey

From her own website: "Deirdre McCloskey taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. A well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, she has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. She is known as a “conservative” economist, Chicago-School style (she taught in the Economics Department there from 1968 to 1980, and in History), but protests that “I’m a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian libertarian.”"

Table of Contents of Bourgeois Virtues

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

  1. The First Virtue: Love Profane and Sacred
  2. Love and the Transcendent
  3. Sweet Love vs. Interest
  4. Bourgeois Economists against Love
  5. Love and the Bourgeoisie

Part 2 - The Christian and Feminine Virtues: Faith and Hope

  1. Faith as Identity
  2. Hope and Its Banishment
  3. Against the Sacred
  4. Van Gogh and the Transcendent Profane
  5. Humility and Truth
  6. Economic Theology

Part 3 - The Pagan and Masculine Virtues: Courage, with Temperance

  1. The Good of Courage
  2. Anachronistic Courage in the Bourgeoisie
  3. Taciturn Courage against the “Feminine”
  4. Bourgeois vs. Queer
  5. Balancing Courage
  6. Prudence Is a Virtue
  7. The Monomania of Immanuel Kant
  8. The Storied Character of Virtue
  9. Evil as Imbalance, Inner and Outer: Temperance and Justice
  10. The Pagan-Ethical Bourgeois

Part 5 - Systematizing the Seven Virtues

  1. The System of the Virtues
  2. A Philosophical Psychology?
  3. Ethical Striving
  4. Ethical Realism
  5. Against Reduction
  6. Character(s)
  7. Antimonism Again
  8. Dropping the Virtues, 1532–1958
  9. Other Lists
  10. Eastern and Other Ways
  11. Needing Virtues

Part 6 - The Bourgeois Uses of the Virtues

  1. P & S and the Capitalist Life
  2. Sacred Reasons
  3. Not by P Alone
  4. The Myth of Modern Rati