The Great Conversation

By Gabriel Blanchard

Prudence, as C. S. Lewis put it, is "practical common sense"; but that hardly constitutes material for philosophy. Does it?

At first glance, prudence seems like an interchangeable concept with wisdom, which appears separately in Adler’s list of the great ideas. Both are intellectual virtues, implying a certain quality of mind in a way that virtues like temperance, charity, or courage do not. The distinction some authors draw between prudence and wisdom relies on another distinction, one that is easy to grasp but harder to express succinctly. Wisdom is something acquired through study, and applies to philosophical concerns (conventionally called the “contemplative life”); conversely, prudence is gained from experience, and oriented toward practical, public affairs.

This is reflected in the idea of “prudential judgment,” a commonplace of Catholic moral theology. The code of right and wrong tells us what kinds of actions are, well, right and wrong, but that by itself only rarely serves as a basis for making a decision. This often comes up in discussions of elections: if every candidate endorses things we consider wrong or unwise, then we have a choice between not voting (which does nothing to stop a bad candidate from being elected, but might send a message about the importance of principle) and deciding which of the candidates is the least bad (which involves us in a morally flawed system, but might help to minimize the harm that system does). Which course of action we select will reflect our prudential judgment—how we rank moral values, what dangers we consider more or less acceptable, and so on.

Of course, the moral sphere is not the only one in which prudence is called for. Every kind of plan calls for thought, from preparing a meal to settling an international dispute. This makes prudence sound more like a skill than a virtue; winning a game of chess calls for intelligence and foresight, but a greedy or arrogant person could be a chess champion as much as a generous and modest person could. Here, however, the tradition of virtue ethics (with representatives like Aristotle and St. Thomas) will object. While the ability to choose the best means for your current purpose is one part of prudence, the purposes you choose are also a part of prudence; to the virtue ethicist, choosing a bad purpose (like winning at chess as a way of showing off) is an exercise in imprudence, however cunningly you play. This is true because the selection of morally right ends ultimately contributes to our happiness, which is what we are all aiming for in everything we do.

Chance always fights on the side of the prudent.

This stands in contrast to the tradition of deontology, whose most famous exponent is Kant. For him, prudence means little more than the ability to look after one’s own interests and desires intelligently. (In this way, Kant foreshadows Freud’s idea of the ego, the “reality principle” that seeks the smartest long-term methods of satisfying the appetites of the instinctive id.) Morality proper is, for him, strictly a matter of duty; where Aristotle and even St. Thomas define virtue in terms of human happiness, Kant treats this as a utilitarian approach to ethics which he rejects, insisting that morality is one thing and prudence another: “the maxim of self-love (prudence) only advises; the law of morality commands.” Even he is not so severe as to consider pragmatic self-interest wicked, but it always comes second to duty, which binds us without reference to what we desire.

Prudence is also sometimes treated as a mere synonym for caution, or even for timidity (in one of his novels, Douglas Adams amusingly writes of a character that he thought that “discretion was the better part of valor, and cowardice the better part of discretion”). This can go together with treating prudence, and sometimes other ideas like hope or temperance, as personality traits more than as virtues. In one sense, this is certainly true—people tend to behave in consistent ways, and some people are more thoughtful and risk-averse than others. However, most philosophers, even deontologists, reject the idea that prudence is simply a feature of temperament. This is partly because skills and virtues are more based in our behavior than in our dispositions; our choices, rather than our feelings, are what make us just or kind or self-controlled. But it is also because caution, whether as a trait or as an element in making decisions, is not the only aspect of prudence. Returning to the language of virtue ethics and the “golden mean,” prudence has two opposites: thoughtless impetuosity is the one we tend to think of, but anxious indecision is also the opposite of prudence, which moves us to prompt and intelligent action as much as it restrains us from prompt stupidity.

Suggested reading:
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
William Shakespeare, Othello
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of the other great ideas we’ve discussed, like the family or law. Or check out these essays from top CLT students on the forms of friendship, the verse of Edmund Spenser, and the relationship between justice and mercy.

Page image of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, painted ca. 1550-1565.

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