As an act of virtue, prudence requires three mental actions: taking counsel carefully with our self and others, judging correctly from the evidence at hand, and directing the rest of our activity based on the norms we have established. Prudence is the “charioteer” of the virtues.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Prudence is concerned with the quest of truth, and fills us with the desire of fuller knowledge.” author=”St. Ambrose”/]
PRUDENCE: THE ABILITY TO JUDGE BETWEEN VIRTUOUS AND VICIOUS ACTIONS.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Who makes quick use of the moment is a genius of prudence.” author=”Johann Kaspar Lavater”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Rashness belongs to youth; prudence to old age.” author=”Marcus Tullius”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner, neither do uninterrupted prosperity and success qualify for usefulness and happiness. The storms of adversity, like those of the ocean, rouse the faculties, and excite the invention, prudence, skill and fortitude or the voyager. The martyrs of ancient times, in bracing their minds to outward calamities, acquired a loftiness of purpose and a moral heroism worth a lifetime of softness and security.” author=”Author Unknown”/]
Prudence (Lat. prudentia, contracted from providentia, seeing ahead) is the the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. It is classically considered to be a virtue, and in particular one of the four Cardinal virtues.
The word comes from Old French prudence (14th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity), a contraction of providentia, foresight. It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. In this case, the virtue is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place. Although prudence itself does not perform any actions, and is concerned solely with knowledge, all virtues had to be regulated by it. Distinguishing when acts are courageous, as opposed to reckless or cowardly, for instance, is an act of prudence, and for this reason it is classified as a cardinal (pivotal) virtue.
Although prudence would be applied to any such judgment, the more difficult tasks, which distinguish a person as prudent, are those in which various goods have to be weighed against each other, as when a person is determining what would be best to give charitable donations, or how to punish a child so as to prevent repeating an offense.
In modern English, however, the word has become increasingly synonymous with cautiousness. In this sense, prudence names a reluctance to take risks, which remains a virtue with respect to unnecessary risks, but when unreasonably extended (i.e. over-cautiousness), can become the vice of cowardice.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives a lengthy account of the virtue phronesis (Greek: ϕρονησιϛ), which has traditionally been translated as “prudence”.
Prudence as the “Father” of all virtues
Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later on by Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, as the cause, measure and form of all virtues. It is considered to be the auriga virtutum or the charioteer of the virtues.
It is the cause in the sense that the virtues, which are defined to be the “perfected ability” of man as a spiritual person (spiritual personhood in the classical western understanding means having intelligence and free will), achieve their “perfection” only when they are founded upon prudence, that is to say upon the perfected ability to make right decisions. For instance, a person can live temperance when he has acquired the habit of deciding correctly the actions to take in response to his instinctual cravings.
Prudence is considered the measure of moral virtues since it provides a model of ethically good actions. “The work of art is true and real by its correspondence with the pattern of its prototype in the mind of the artist. In similar fashion, the free activity of man is good by its correspondence with the pattern of prudence.” (Josef Pieper) For instance, a stock broker using his experience and all the data available to him decides that it is beneficial to sell stock A at 2PM tomorrow and buy stock B today. The content of the decision (e.g., the stock, amount, time and means) is the product of an act of prudence, while the actual carrying out of the decision may involve other virtues like fortitude (doing it in spite of fear of failure) and justice (doing his job well out of justice to his company and his family). The actual act’s “goodness” is measured against that original decision made through prudence.
In Greek and Scholastic philosophy, “form” is the specific characteristic of a thing that makes it what it is. With this language, prudence confers upon other virtues the form of its inner essence; that is, its specific character as a virtue. For instance, not all acts of telling the truth are considered good, considered as done with the virtue of honesty. What makes telling the truth a virtue is whether it is done with prudence. Telling a competitor the professional secrets of your company is not prudent and therefore not considered good and virtuous.
Prudence versus cunning and false prudence
In the Christian understanding, the difference between prudence and cunning lies in the intent with which the decision of the context of an action is made. The Christian understanding of the world includes the existence of God, the natural law and moral implications of human actions. In this context, prudence is different from cunning in that it takes into account the supernatural good. For instance, the decision of persecuted Christians to be martyred rather than deny their faith is considered prudent. Pretending to deny their faith could be considered prudent from the point of view of a non-believer.
Judgments using reasons for evil ends or using evil means are considered to be made through “cunning” and “false prudence” and not through prudence.
Integral Parts of Prudence
“Integral parts” of virtues, in Scholastic philosophy, are the elements that must be present for any complete or perfect act of the virtue. The following are the integral parts of prudence:
Memoria — Accurate memory; that is, memory that is true to reality
Intelligentia — Understanding of first principles
Docilitas — The kind of open-mindedness that recognizes the true variety of things and situations to be experienced, and does not cage itself in any presumption of deceptive knowledge; the ability to make use of the experience and authority of others to make prudent decisions
Shrewdness or quick-wittedness (solertia) — sizing up a situation on one’s own quickly
Discursive reasoning (ratio) — research and compare alternative possibilities
Foresight (providentia) — capacity to estimate whether a particular action will lead to the realization of our goal
Circumspection — ability to take all relevant circumstances into account
Caution — risk mitigation
In ethics, a “prudential judgment” is one where the circumstances must be weighed to determine the correct action. Generally, it applies to situations where two people could weigh the circumstances differently and ethically come to different conclusions.
For instance, in Just War theory, the government of a nation must weigh whether the harms they suffer are more than the harms that would be produced by their going to war against another nation that is harming them; the decision whether to go to war is therefore a prudential judgment.
In another case, a patient who has a terminal illness with no conventional treatment may hear of an experimental treatment. To decide whether to take it would require weighing on one hand, the cost, time, possible lack of benefit, and possible pain, disability, and hastened death, and on the other hand, the possible benefit and the benefit to others of what could be learned from his case.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” author=”Mark Twain”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” author=”Democritus”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It’s good to be silly at the right moment.” author=”Horace”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” author=”Omar Bradley”/]
“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going.’ Prudence is ‘right reason in action,’ writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.
It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called the charioteer of the virtues; it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.
What is the virtue of prudence?
Prudence is the acquired habit of right judgment. Natural prudence is about making right decisions from a purely natural perspective and supernatural prudence is about making good decisions in accordance with a higher power, which is good and the very best for me, that will benefit me now and eternally.
- The natural virtue of prudence is basically common sense in sound judgment regarding practical matters. It assists people to arrange their lives and activities in order to achieve the goal of a happy life. It is naturally prudent to look both ways before crossing the street.
- The supernatural virtue of prudence makes us order our activities, desires, resources, and behavior in accordance with a higher power so that we may come to eternal life. We must use supernatural prudence and courage when we are faced with evil. We can do many things that are imprudent from a worldly perspective but which are prudent for eternal life. Martyrs are celebrated for their living witness of supernatural prudence—they gave up their natural life for the trust in a higher powers promise.
Why do we need the virtue of prudence?
- Prudence helps the intellect to see the right thing to do and to choose the right means for achieving it. Choosing wisely involves taking good counsel while obtaining knowledge from the past and present.
- Prudence entails the application of good moral principles to particular cases assisting us to know what to seek and what to avoid.
- Prudence is necessary in order to seek the common good for all.
- Prudence helps us to see what aids our salvation and what hinders our progress. Supernatural prudence may involve a certain degree of discomfort or even risk of the things that we cherish.
- Prudence aids us in not going along with evil in the event that we do not know what to do or because we are afraid of the consequences of opposition to the prevailing point of view.
Today’s Most Devalued Virtue
What’s the most undervalued, under-discussed commodity on the leadership stock exchange today? What’s the item that is currently on no one’s list of desired qualities in a leader that once would have been consistently in the top four?
It’s not courage or willingness to risk. Every motivational speaker trumpets those.
It’s not humility or strength of will—Jim Collins has placed these squarely on the path from good to great.
It’s not creativity (think of Steve Jobs), or unleashing core competencies (think Gary Hamel), or the capacity to persist in the face of crushing failure (think Winston Churchill or the Chicago Cubs or pretty much anybody on Dancing with the Stars).
So what is today’s most undervalued leadership trait? It’s prudence.
Allen Guelzo has written a wonderful book on Abraham Lincoln, and he devotes an entire chapter to the role prudence played in the life of the man who was arguably the most influential leader in the history of America. Guelzo notes that 2,000 years ago prudence was considered one of the greatest of virtues; a hundred years ago it was part of moral philosophy; today it is the punch line of a joke. For people of a certain generation it will forever conjure up Dana Carvey impersonating George H.W. Bush: wouldn’t be wise; wouldn’t be prudent.
Why did Lincoln regard prudence as a cardinal virtue? Why has it come to be an insult rather than a compliment? And most important, why is it sorely needed by leaders in every realm today?
What prudence isn’t
We need to be reminded what prudence is, and isn’t. Prudence is not the same thing as caution. Caution is a helpful strategy when you’re crossing a minefield; it’s a disaster when you’re in a gold rush.
Prudence is not the same thing as avoiding mistakes. Our Government is full of leaders who are afraid to make mistakes, and thereby insure that their organizations will never move forward, and that our country will shrivel and grow cold from fear and avoidance. But that’s not prudence.
Prudence is not hesitation, procrastination, or moderation. It is not driving in the middle of the road. It is not the way of ambivalence, indecision, or safety.
Prudence, says Guelzo, was prized by the ancients because it was linked to shrewdness, to excellence in judgment, to the capacity to discern, to the ability to take in a situation and see it in its wholeness. Prudence is foresight and far-sightedness. It’s the ability to make immediate decisions on the basis of their longer-range effects.
Prudence is what makes someone a great leader—the capacity to face reality squarely in the eye without allowing emotion or ego to get in the way. It’s what is needed by every quarterback or battlefield general. Thomas Aquinas said it was intelligence about “things to be done.”
It is not hard to discern good from bad. But to discern the good from the best …To recognize from a number of positive options what could lead to the most outstanding outcome—this is prudence.
Sometimes we think of courageous leaders as people who are constantly willing to bet the farm against all odds. But great leaders recognize the importance, not simply of values, but also of weighing likely outcomes from concrete action.
We need leaders who have prudence:
- When we are figuring how to navigate change.
- When we are choosing which battles to fight and which battles to skip.
- When we are calculating decisions and outcomes.
- When a team member is not contributing well.
- When the team is growing restless, or complacent, or fatigued.
- When a course direction needs changing.
PRUDENCE IS THE CHARIOTEER OF THE VIRTUES
Prudence is an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances. It indicates which, here and now, is the golden mean wherein the essence of all virtue lies. It has nothing to do with directly willing the good it discerns. That is done by the particular moral virtue within whose province it falls. Prudence, therefore, has a directive capacity with regard to the other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise. The insight it confers makes one distinguish successfully between their mere semblance and their reality. It must preside over the eliciting of all acts proper to any one of them at least if they be taken in their formal sense. Thus, without prudence bravery becomes foolhardiness; mercy sinks into weakness, and temperance into fanaticism. But it must not be forgotten that prudence is a virtue adequately distinct from the others, and not simply a condition attendant upon their operation. Its office is to determine for each in practice those circumstances of time, place, manner, etc. which should be observed, and which the Scholastics comprise under the term medium rationis. So it is that whilst it qualifies immediately the intellect and not the will, it is nevertheless rightly styled a moral virtue.
This is because the moral agent finds in it, if not the eliciting, at any rate the directive principle of virtuous actions. According to St. Thomas it is its function to do three things: to take counsel, i.e. to cast about for the means suited in the particular case under consideration to reach the end of any one moral virtue; to judge soundly of the fitness of the means suggested; and, finally, to command their employment. If these are to be done well they necessarily exclude remissness and lack of concern; they demand the use of such diligence and care that the resultant act can be described as prudent, in spite of whatever speculative error may have been at the bottom of the process. Readiness in finding out and ability in adapting means to an end does not always imply prudence. If the end happens to be a vicious one, a certain adroitness or sagacity may be exhibited in its pursuit. This, however, according to St. Thomas, will only deserve to be called false prudence. Besides the prudence which is the fruit of training and experience, and is developed into a stable habit by repeated acts.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”There is a courageous wisdom; there is also a false, reptile prudence, the result not of caution but of fear.” author=”Edmund Burke”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”It is not from reason and prudence that people marry, but from inclination” author=”Samuel Johnson”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Temper your enjoyments with prudence, lest there be written on your heart that fearful word ”satiety”” author=”Francis Quarles”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Prudence and compromise are necessary means, but every man should have an impudent end which he will not compromise.” author=”Charles Horton Cooley”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”There is nothing more imprudent than excessive prudence.” author=”Charles Caleb Colton”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Genius always gives its best at first; prudence, at last.” author=”Douglas Macnanonoman”/]
The mould and mother of all the virtues is prudence
It is defined as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. Emotional well-being, we will argue, comes about through a certain structuring of the entire network of human emotions, one that results from a proper disposing of the emotions by the virtues. If we are correct, then prudence is the mother of emotional health. And if virtue is the secret to looking beautiful, then prudence is, in many ways, the mother of beautiful character. For it is prudence that determines the mean of reason in all human actions and situations.
Prudence, however, is not merely an intellectual virtue; it is also a moral virtue. A moral virtue is a habit that makes its possessor good. One may be brilliant and learned without being morally good, but it is not possible to be prudent and not morally good. The prudent man is one who does the good, as opposed to one who merely knows the good. There are many moral philosophers and theologians around, but prudent persons are probably not as common. It is much easier to talk about virtue — including prudence — than it is to actually be virtuous. And one who does not behave well cannot be said to be prudent, even though he happens to be very learned. We will understand this better as we take a closer look at just what prudence is.
The more abstractly we think, the more certain we are of our conclusion. Thus, mathematics is a very certain science, more so than say biology. When was the last time we heard of a revised mathematical equation? But theories are normally revised in the physical sciences; for the objects of mathematics are more abstracted from matter than are the objects of the science of biology. Similarly, we enjoy a relatively high level of certainty when dealing with very general moral issues such as murder, euthanasia, lying, etc, but as we approach the level of the particular, that is, a more concrete level, we very often become less certain about what we ought to do, because the concrete level contains so many variables that render decision making much more complex; for there is much more to consider.
This does not mean that there is no truth on the concrete level of moral decision making, or that on this level the moral good is merely relative (i.e., relative to how you feel or what you want). Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it means that a special virtue is required by which one might see and readily make one’s way through these murky waters to the right end. Prudence is the application of universal principles to particular situations, and so an understanding of universal moral principles is absolutely necessary. But since prudence deals in particulars, in the here and now of real situations, a number of other intellectual qualities are also necessary if one is to choose rightly, qualities that one does not necessarily acquire in a classroom setting. St. Thomas refers to these as integral parts of prudence, without which there is no prudence, just as there is no house without a roof, walls, and a foundation.
The Integral Parts of Prudence
1. To judge what is “Good” and what is “Bad”.
There are a number of human goods to which every human person is naturally inclined. These goods are not known by the senses, but by the intellect, and so they are desired not by the sense appetite, but primarily by the will (the rational appetite), thus they are not sensible goods, but intelligible goods.
Prudence begins with an understanding of the first principles of practical reason, which St. Thomas calls synderesis. Synderesis is a natural habit by which we are inclined to a number of ends. Now the good is the object of desire. Hence, the objects of these inclinations are goods. And since these goods are not outside the human person, but are aspects of the human person, they are called human goods.
There are a number of human goods to which every human person is naturally inclined. These goods are not known by the senses, but by the intellect, and so they are desired not by the sense appetite, but primarily by the will (the rational appetite), thus they are not sensible goods, but intelligible goods. These intelligible human goods include human life, the knowledge of truth, the intellectual apprehension and enjoyment of beauty, leisure (play and art), sociability, religion, integrity, and marriage.
These are the starting points of human action, the motivating principles behind every genuinely human action that we choose to perform.
Now evil is a privation, a lack of something that should be there. It is a deficiency or lack of wholeness. Thus, an evil will is one that is deficient, whereas a good will is whole and complete. Thus, a morally good action is one that involves a will open to the entire spectrum of intelligible human goods, whereas a morally evil action involves a deficient willing, a will not open to the full spectrum of human goods. A person is good if he wills the good, not merely his own good, for “human goods” are not limited to this individual instance which is himself. Nor is it limited to one’s immediate family or relatives, etc. If a person is good willed, he wills the good wherever there is an instance of it.
From these principles, more specific or secondary moral precepts can be derived and, moreover, are naturally known to some degree or another by every human person. For example, everyone (more or less mentally sound) throughout the world and throughout history understands that justice is good and ought to be done. As precepts become more specific, however, and as they are applied to specific situations, disagreements begin to arise.
Below is a summary of some of the secondary precepts derived from the first principle of morality:
- One ought not to willingly destroy an instance of an intelligible human good for the sake of some other intelligible or sensible good.
- One ought not to treat another human person as a means to an end.
- One ought not to treat certain others with a preference based purely on feeling, as well as to treat others in a way that fails to respect their status as equal in dignity to oneself.
- One ought not to willingly act alone and individualistically for human goods.
- One ought not to act purely on the basis of emotion, either on the basis of fear, aversion, hostility, or desire.
If prudence is the proper application of universal principles to particular situations, then prudence demands that one continue to ponder the implications of the first principle of morality and the secondary precepts of natural law.
There is more to memory than the simple recall of facts. Memory is more an ability to learn from experience. And so it involves an openness to reality, a willingness to allow oneself to be measured by what is real.
If prudence were merely the knowledge of universal moral principles, we could stop here. But it is much more than that. Prudence requires a sensitivity and attunement to the here and now of the real world of real people. It requires a great deal of experience. That is why Aquinas lists memory as in integral part of the virtue of prudence, for experience is the result of many memories.
There is more to memory than the simple recall of facts. Memory is more an ability to learn from experience. And so it involves an openness to reality, a willingness to allow oneself to be measured by what is real. This quality of openness is not as widespread as we might tend to believe at first. Some people just don’t seem to learn from experience, that is, they don’t seem to remember how this or that person reacted to their particular way of relating to them, for they continue to make the same mistakes in their way of relating to others. It is as if they have no memory of last week, or last month, or last year. They lack a “true to being” memory because they do not will to conform to what is real, but have made a stubborn decision to have reality conform to the way they want the world to be. That is why the study of history is so important for the development of political prudence; for how often have we heard the old adage that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes?
Docility is open-mindedness, and so it requires a recognition of one’s own limitations and ready acceptance of those limits. Proud people who hope excessively in their own excellence will tend to make imprudent decisions because they fail to rely on others by virtue of their inordinate and unrealistic self-estimation. A person with false docility seeks the advice of others, but only those deemed most likely to be in agreement with him, or of those of similar depravity and who are thus unlikely to challenge the overall orientation of his life.
Shrewdness is the ability to quickly size up a situation on one’s own, and so it involves the ability to pick up small clues and run with them. The shrewd are highly intuitive, subtle and discreet. A shrewd teacher, for example, will pick up subtle clues that reveal just who it is he is dealing with in his classroom and what the needs of his students really are, which allow him to determine quickly the approach best suited to their particular way of learning. The shrewd are also able to detect evil behind a mask of goodness, so as to be able to plan accordingly. Some people are dangerously unsuspecting of the motives of evil and so they miss the clues that suggest a more ominous picture. For we tend to see in others what we see in ourselves, and if our motives are good, it is hard to suspect others of malice. Moreover, excessive empathy has a way of clouding the intuitive light.
But just as memory and docility presuppose a good will (right appetite), so too does shrewdness. It can be the case that the inability to see is rooted in a will not to see; for sometimes people would rather not think about what the clues could mean for fear of what they might discover about someone, which in turn will affect their security in some way. As the old saying goes: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. It can also be the case that a person has not learned to listen to his intuition or perhaps confuses a negative intuition with judging the heart of another and so dismisses his intuitive insights, especially negative ones. On the other hand, it is possible that a person wants to see evil where there really is none. This is not shrewdness, but suspicion, and it is often rooted in a spirit of pride.
Once a person sizes up a particular situation, he needs to be able to investigate and compare alternative possibilities and to reason well from premises to conclusions. He will need to be able to reason about what needs to be done, that is, what the best alternative or option is that will realize the right end. Prudence thus presupposes a knowledge of the basics of logical reasoning. If a person cannot see through the most common logical fallacies, he will unlikely be able to consistently make prudent decisions. Some of these common fallacies include: Begging the Question, or assuming the point that needs to be proven, or Ignoring the Question, which consists in proving something other than the point to be established. False Cause consists in assuming that when one event precedes another, it is the cause of the succeeding event. The Fallacy of Part and Whole consists in attributing to a whole what belongs only to its parts (the fallacy of generalization), while the Fallacy of Misplaced Authority consists in concluding that something is true because somebody of authority, such as a medical doctor, said it. The Fallacy of Ad Hominem (directed to the man) involves the rejection of some person’s position not by virtue of the argument itself, but by virtue of some unlikeable aspect of the person. The Fallacy of the Double Standard consists in applying one standard for one group or individual, and another standard for an opposing group or individual. Appeal to the People occurs when a speaker attempts to get some group to agree to a particular position by appealing solely to their bigotry, biases, and prejudices or, in some cases, merely to their desire to hear what they already believe. The Fallacy of False Analogy occurs when a person argues a position merely by drawing an analogy, without justifying the use of the analogy. And the Fallacy of Novelty assumes that what is new and current is necessarily better or an improvement upon what is older. The more adept one becomes at seeing through such deceptive reasoning, the less likely will one’s decisions fall under its influence.
Foresight is the principal part of prudence, for the name itself (prudence) is derived from the Latin providential, which means “foresight”. Foresight involves rightly ordering human acts to the right end. An inordinate love of self will cause certain alternatives to have greater appeal, but these alternatives (means) will not necessarily lead to the right end. A prudent man sees that, but the imprudent do not. And if they lack true to being memory, they will continue to fail to see it.
It is possible that acts good in themselves and suitable to the end may become unsuitable in virtue of new circumstances. Circumspection is the ability to take into account all relevant circumstances. Showing affection to your spouse through a kiss is good in itself, but it might be unsuitable in certain circumstances, such as a funeral or in a public place. Telling certain jokes might be appropriate in one setting, but inappropriate in another. Circumspection is the ability to discern which is which. This too, however, presupposes right appetite. A person lacking proper restraint (temperance) will lack thoughtfulness and the ability to consider how the people around him might be made to feel should he take a certain course of action. The lustful, for example, lack counsel and tend to act recklessly. An egoist is also less focused on others and more on himself, and so he too tends to lack proper circumspection.
Good choices can often generate bad effects. To choose not to act simply because bad consequences will likely ensue is contrary to prudence. But caution takes care to avoid those evils that are likely to result from a good act that we contemplate doing. For example, a priest who is about to speak out publicly against a piece of unjust legislation might anticipate offending members of his congregation. Out of cowardice or an inordinate love of comfort, he might choose not to say anything at all and thus risk harming others through his silence. A prudent priest, on the other hand, will speak out when not doing so will harm others, yet caution will move him to prepare his congregation with a thorough preamble so as to minimize the chances of misunderstanding. One must never do evil that good may come of it, but one may at times permit evil on condition that the action one is performing is good or indifferent, that one does not will or intend the evil effect, and that the good effects of one’s action are sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the evil effect.
Prudence and Teenagers
Adolescence is a period fraught with danger because it is a very emotional stage of human development, and un-channeled emotion has led many young people to decisions that they are now forced to live with for the rest of their lives, all because they chose not to think before choosing. Today’s teenagers need prudence now more than ever. Excessive emotion tends to cloud judgment, and it affects our ability to see clearly, often inclining us to see what we want to see, and pushing us to make decisions before we have completely thought them through. And so now we have young adults who will never be parents because of scarring of their fallopian tubes, or as a result of contracting HPV, which led to cervical cancer, which in turn necessitated a radical hysterectomy. We have young adults suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because during their teenage years they regularly deprived themselves of sleep in order to get more out of life. Some adults suffer from personality arrest and have the emotional maturity level of a young adolescent because of chronic abuse of mood altering substances. Many young adult females are living below the poverty line because they are single mothers and believed it when they were told “I love you”.
It is very important that young people use the memory they already have in order to consider the possible consequences of decisions they are about to make. It is also very important to turn towards those who truly have their best interests in mind, namely parents and mentors. No matter how smart or sophisticated we might think we are, there is so much that we don’t know and that only time and experience can teach us. Those unfortunate people described in the previous paragraph, who have been irreparably damaged by bad decisions, are almost always the type of person who holds his or her parents in contempt.
Prudence requires more than an understanding of its basic concepts. It requires true to being memory, docility, circumspection, discursive reasoning, foresight, and caution as well as a shrewd mind. An expert in moral science might lack the humility to be docile, or lack experience with certain people and the intensity of charity necessary to develop a shrewd mind. His arrogance may render him relatively blind or dark of mind. He may lack patience, and he may have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a hint of narcissism typical of professors today, and he may carry a great deal of resentment. Such a lack of humility destroys virtue, and without right appetite one is not prudent, for prudence requires a just will, a patient disposition rooted in charity, a humble self-estimation, a spirit of forgiveness, honesty with oneself, self-awareness, an awareness of temptation, etc. Without these, one will lack good counsel and good judgment, and ultimately “prudence”.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”To change one’s mind is rather a sign of prudence than ignorance” author=”Spanish Proverb quotes”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by the tenderness of the best hearts” author=”Henry Fielding”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the happy impute all their success to prudence and merit” author=”Jonathan Swift”/]
A Portrait of Prudence
By T. Michael Crews
33-year-old Larry Walters was an ordinary guy who one day decided he wanted to see his neighborhood from a new perspective. He went down to the local army surplus store in a suburb of Los Angeles CA one morning and bought 45 used weather balloons. That afternoon he strapped himself into a lawn chair, and persuaded several of his friends to tie the helium-filled balloons to the lawn chair. He took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and a BB gun, figuring he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.
Mr. Walters assumed the weather balloons would lift him about 100 feet in the air, and give him a bird’s eye view. He was caught off guard when the chair soared more than 11,000 feet into the sky–smack into the middle of the air traffic pattern at Los Angeles International Airport. Too frightened to shoot any of the balloons, he stayed airborne for more than two hours, forcing the airport to shut down its runways for much of the afternoon, causing long delays in flights from across the country. They had to send a military helicopter to rescue Larry, who was, by that time, ready to come back to earth. Soon after he was safely grounded and arrested by the police, reporters asked him three questions:
“Were you scared, Mr. Walters?”
“Would you do it again, Mr. Walters?”
“Why did you do it, Mr. Walters?”
“Because,” Larry Walters replied, “you can’t just sit there.”
You probably think that Larry Walters was not the sharpest guy in his neighborhood. But you also have to admit that it took some ingenuity just to think up this scheme. It took some thinking, along with a little too much time on his hands, to plan his journey to the sky. The problem was, he didn’t think enough. He did not consider all of the consequences of his actions. Larry Walters failed to exercise a virtue known as prudence.
Prudence may not be a word you use too often. You might instead talk about “common sense; thinking things through.” One dictionary defines “prudence” as “the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason; shrewdness in the management of affairs; good judgment in the use of resources.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Who makes quick use of the moment is a genius of prudence.” author=”Johann Kaspar Lavater”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Hear the words of prudence, give heed unto her counsels, and store them in thine heart; her maxims are universal, and all the virtues lean upon her; she is the guide and the mistress of human life” author=”Akhenaton”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Self denial is not a virtue: it is only the effect of prudence on rascality” author=”George Bernard Shaw”/]
Prudence versus Greed
By Dr. Tibor Machan
Most people mean by greed an “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.” As to prudence, it is the quality of being cautious with regard to practical matters and especially in regard for one’s own economic interests, being careful in the management of resources, heeding economy and being frugal.
Why is this of any interest? Because the sense of “prudent” as used to mean being economical, frugal is now being distorted by confusing it with being greedy. When Gordon Gekko declares greed to be good in Oliver Stone’s notorious movie, Wall Street – notorious since it managed to exacerbate the already hostile attitude toward business that sadly prevails in much of the world – he doesn’t differentiate between excessive or rapacious desire for stuff and the prudent management of one’s resources. They are lumped together.
And sadly, some professional economists tend to agree. When I took my first economics course in the mid-60s at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, my econ prof was University of Chicago PhD Procter Thomson who did use to tell his classes that “greed is good.” But it was said with a mischievous look in his eyes – he didn’t really mean to say that greed as understood as a vice or sin is good, only that the pursuit of one’s self interest, as argued by Adam Smith the father of modern economic science, is useful, enhances economic productivity.
Critics of the free market system have been capitalizing on the casual identification of prudence and greed, the sort that Professor Thomson and quite a few other economists continue to indulge in. That identification has a complex history. In a nutshell, there was a time when prudence counted as one of the most important human virtues, even a moral principle, meaning living carefully, attending to one’s life in a way that will be of benefit to oneself, enhance one’s human excellence. When some girls used to be named “Prudence,” they certainly weren’t meant to be declared greedy. Even the name of that major financial company The Prudential, isn’t meant to convey that those working there are rapaciously bent on acquiring riches. No, the idea is that original one, namely, that being prudent is taking good, proper care of oneself and of one’s clients’ funds.
But then in the 16th century, mostly at the hands of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, prudence was used not so much as a term for being careful but for being ambitious, even power hungry. The drive to gain power, wealth and such was taken by Hobbes and his followers to be innate in us, the engine that moved us forward, no different from how other biological imperatives push us to behave as we do. Prudence was thus changed from a virtue to a drive or motive, from a character trait and virtue to an inborn psychological disposition.
This is where we get the idea so many of my students repeat, “Everyone is selfish.” They just cannot help it! And thus there can be no credit or blame ascribed for being prudent – it is how we simply must be, how we are, as it were, hard wired.
But the evolution of ideas is rarely smooth and seamless, so a mixture emerged in time where many, especially in the social sciences, saw prudence as both a drive and an attitude, except it stopped being a praiseworthy one. Being selfish as a prudent person would be got replaced with being selfish as an avaricious or greedy person would be. Since the latter is, of course, widely taken to be a bad trait, its association with economic ambition served the critics of the free market system very nicely: they could now link plain old, innocent economic prudence with a vice! But since the term “prudence” didn’t easily fit this idea, given its honorable original meaning – “greed” became the term which then was used to smear economic self-interest.
So nowadays even those on Wall Street and elsewhere who are trying conscientiously to increase their and their clients’ wealth are dubbed greedy, even as it’s becoming evident to most folks that without their good works the economic system is going to tank.
Just imagine all the brokers, money managers, company presidents and chief financial officers resigning their posts and joining a monastery. That would really boost employment, wouldn’t it?