Bourgeois Virtue

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 2 May 1994 11:00:39 JST

Kevin Moll asks why I praise Donald McCloskey's "Bourgeois Virtue"? I
like his argument; I like where it leads; I also like his style. The
following is a sample:

"The intelligentsia thinders at the middle class but offers no advice on
how to be good within it. The only way to beomce a good bourgeois,
according to Flaubert and Sinclair Lewis and Paolo Pasolini, is to stop
being one. Not having an ideal of bourgeois virtue, or devaluing the
ideal by comparison with Christian and aristocratic virtue, leaves us
unable to talk about virtue at all. We bourgeois are left without reasons
for ethical standards. We are left with What's Profitable: "Yet a great
deal of money is made here. Good day, sir....

"The point is not to elevate bourgeois virtue over the others in some
universal sense. The point is to sidestep universal senses. In some
personal and social circumstances, [the aristocrat's] courage is a virtue.
(In others, it is a vice.) So is humility. (Likewise.) But when the class
left out by the virtue-talk is half the population, on its way to being all
the population, the vocabulary of the virtues is not doing its job. As
Richard Rorty puts it, 'detailed descriptions of particular varieties of
pain and humiliation (in, e.g., novels and ethnographies), rather than
philosophical or religious t treatises, were the modern intellectual's
prinicpal contributions to moral progress.' Chinua Achebe's _Things
Fall Apart_ or the writings of Borges inspire me to act ethically toward
Nigerians or Arentineans more than does any amount of philosophizing
about universal good. A modern society needs poetry and history and
movies about bourgeois virtue: integrity , honesty, trutworthiness,
enterprise, humor, respect, modesty, consideration, responsibility,
prodence, thirft, affection, self-possession."

As a member of the class of which McCloskey writes, I gladly shout,
"Bravo!" I wonder with some amusement if the violence of the "critical"
language in vogue these days isn't largely reflective of people who
expect to be treated as either aristocrats or monks and find the
foundations of their ivory towers dissolving. It's an interesting thought.

Cheers, John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)