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The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey


I was a contrarian teen, a good thing to be. Straight-edge, socialist, feminist, poetaster-ish, an 'inverse snob' and a shunner of TV.* Call this sort of thing one level up, one step past received opinion (though on a few different axes).

At some point the observant contrarian will meet disagreement which cannot be written off as prejudice, anti-intellectualism, or ignorance. Worst-case, they will meet with a deadly meta-contrarian, someone who once held their view but who stepped past on considering some missing crucial consideration. (In dialectic, as the contrarian cognoscenti say.)

(For instance: it is common sense, or at least common practice, that it is fine to not give any money to charity. One step beyond is altruism: we have a duty to help the wretched of the earth. But then consider that one of the first things people who rise out of poverty do is increase their meat intake, and so to industrialise - that is, torture - their animals. If, as the scientists strongly agree we should, we take this seriously enough, then poverty alleviation might not be good at all! But then, consider that wild animals also suffer, millions of times more than even factory farmed animals, and that human industrialisation plausibly decreases this by removing habitat (...) )

The problem is not socialism or theism or conservativism: the problem is irrational, reflexive views with no connection to the balance of evidence: i.e. when someone has an ideology, and not a philosophy.

Anyway: I was maybe good-hearted, but neither clear nor honest. I was an ideologue. McCloskey, a Christian libertarian(!) and much else besides, got to even me via my contempt for neoclassical macroeconomics and null-hypothesis significance testing, two things she critiqued twenty years before the Great Recession and the replication crisis, respectively.

Then she shocked me with the meta-contrary title of this, the first volume in her epic economic history of moral development, a reclamation of a slur on behalf of one of the primary creators of this good modern world we enjoy. Then this was thrilling, too:
I've been most things in my life: a positivist social engineer, a Joan Baez socialist, a man. Now I'm a free-market feminist, a quantitative postmodernist, a woman. I'm not ashamed of these changes of mind.

I don't know how many iterations I'm on; it's not important, as long as I hold my views lightly enough to do one more when the evidence demands it. Meta-contrarianism is vital is because philosophy, politics and economics are littered with crucial consideration landmines. Besides long meditations on the pagan and Christian virtues, it holds a serious discussion on Groundhog Day, and is the best telling of the maligned, vital Great Transformation story. Triumphant and funny and trembling with erudition.

  • In one sentence: The origins of the modern world and its new glad heart, made by the bourgeoisie.
  • Number of reads: 2 since 2009.
  • Galef type:
    Data 3 - highlight patterns in the world, &
    Theory 2 - models of what makes something succeed or fail , &
    Values 1 - an explicit argument about values, &
    Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world.
  • To be read when: depressed about the modern world; locked in to an ideology which doesn't make your life better; if you are like most middle-class people: vaguely self-hating.



* At the time I thought being an atheist was really contrarian, but in Britain it really wasn't. (Outside an RME classroom.) The formal stats only now show a majority for stated nonbelief, but church attendance has been a minority practice since the early C20th.

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