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Tuesdays With Deirdre

April 22nd, 2005 · 4 Comments

Still clearing out the backblog from Chicago: Last Wednesday I stopped by Roosevelt University for a talk by economist Deirdre (née Donald) McCloskey about her forthcoming book on “bourgeois virtues”—there’s a preliminary paper on the subject here.

The upshot is, interestingly, that both Chicago School trumpeters of “greed is good” paeans to capitalism and the most strident critics share a mistaken version of capitalism as an amoral free-for-all inherently (and, in the extreme version of the Chicago view, properly) driven strictly by untrammeled self-interest. McCloskey laid out the seven “classical virtues” on a 2-D axis (one for the sacred/profane dimension, another for the freedom/solidarity or autonomy/solidarity dimension) and suggested that these (among which are the prudence of homo economicus and the courage required for entrepreneurship, along with less traditionally “economic” sounding traits such as faith and love) can all be practiced by businessmen—and not just on Sundays.

An interesting presentation, but it got me thinking about the idea of two distinct moral “syndromes”&mddash; the “guardian” syndrome (proper to, e.g., aristocrats, clerics… possibly journalists?) and the “commercial” syndrome proper to businessfolk, presented in Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival. Pace McCloskey, Jacobs suggests that there is not one set of virtues (“classical” or otherwise) to be exercised by all persons. Indeed, Jacobs argues that the worst “moral monstrosities” occur when the separate syndromes become intermingled: When burgers adopt the rules proper to governors and politicians act like businessmen. Her case, which I won’t replicate hers (follow the link for a précis), is at least somewhat persuasive.

Now, McCloskey notes that intellectuals, initially all for the new bourgeois middle class, turned against them in the 1800s—perhaps Jacobs’ model explains why. The feudal model had everyone, in some sense, working on a variant of the “guardian” ethos (though, of course, only very few were at the top of the pyramid in the way that “guardian” implies). That is, lives were insular and status-governed. The rise of the bourgeoisie sparked a broader move, as the saying goes, “from status to contract.”

This may help to answer the question: “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” I hope my libertarian readers will not be too aghast if I suggest that the ethos of the intellectual or the artist or (perhaps to a lesser extent) the journalist is and ought to be the “guardian” ethos. Their (or, I suppose, “our”) responsibility is to give people, at least sometimes, what (we think) they need rather than what they want. Think of that CNN commercial where Paula Zahn is saying: “People ask me ‘why do I need to know this?’ Well, you do need to know, and here’s why.” Call it elitist, but I do, for instance, regard it as a journalistic responsibility to talk about, say, the Medicare crisis, ad nauseam if necessary, even if cover stories about J-Lo sell better. The model of a philospher who maximizes his economic value is Hegel, and look how he turned out. And the artists with high market value now, the ones we recognize as having contributed most to the evolution of their forms, are often those who were willing to endure years—sometimes lifetimes—of penury and obscurity.

The problem, of course, is that these aren’t necessarily the virtues proper to the good merchant. And if you don’t recognize the different demands of these different roles, the intellectuals are going to see the burgers as grossly deficient in “the” virtues, even as businesspeople are going to be apt to dismiss “ivory tower” intellectuals and other despised “elites” (though, of course, the successful merchants, even those in the salt-of-the-earth Heartland, are more likely to be among the economic elite) as frivolous.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 talboito // Apr 22, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    All these fun fit-to-wear virtues seem to place Capitalism squarely in the “dictatorship of relativism” camp all the cool kids are condemning. Which is to say less than nothing but do observe the friction between this view of capitalism and old time relgion.

    Also, this discussion seems to imply an unspoken distinction between public and private virtue. Are these virtues only those “the bravery of the entrepreneur” public type things, or do they extend to child rearing and such?

  • 2 David T // Apr 22, 2005 at 11:46 pm

    Wouldn’t it be interesing if McCloskey were to win the Nobel Prize in economics–thereby becoming the first woman (some would say “woman”) to do so?

    (And yes, there was at least one “birth” woman who deserved the prize–Joan Robinson. She did have a bizarre admiration for North Korea, but that does not take away from her earlier contributions to economics.)

  • 3 Jacob T. Levy // Apr 23, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    Interesting. The Jacobs thought tracks Walzer, and adds something distinctive as well by emphasizing personal characters and mindsets, not just principles of distribution.

  • 4 J. Goard // Apr 25, 2005 at 4:23 pm

    When he wasn’t in wildly supernatural mode, this was one of Jung’s most important themes, as well. That is, the best way to understand psychological health is: first, understanding and accepting the type of person you are; and second, finding a way (or ways) to fit into the larger systems of society. It’s fascinating how many “guardians” of my acquaintance don’t seem to get this model of self and society at all.