Virtuous Markets

Business Ethics Quarterly 7 (1):17-31 (1997)
In a commercial society, said Adam Smith, “every man becomes in some measure a merchant.” If Smith is right, what does that mean for the character of the society? This paper addresses the character forming effects of the market—and, specifically its impact on the “virtues.” There is a long tradition of viewing commerce as subversive of the virtues. In this view, the market is held to have legitimated the pursuit of narrow self-interest at the expense of social and civic obligations and moral restraints. But, as Albert Hirschman has shown, many Enlightenment moralists saw commercial society as a moralizing force. Which view is right? This paper examines how many of the character traits that we commonly call virtues are rewarded— and so presumably reinforced and diffused—by the market. In this way, the market (as it were by a hidden hand) strengthens its own foundations and reproduces a moral culture that is functional to its own needs
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