The Preeminence of Prudence – Part 4 (Prudence in Practice)
Updated: Apr 11
“Conservatives are guided by their principle of PRUDENCE.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
Conservative thinkers have long echoed the teachings of the ancients that, when it comes to politics, prudence is the chief among virtues. As we saw in Part 2, prudence acts as a bridge between intellectual and moral virtues—linking the head with the heart. Prudence also restrains our passions, which is an enormously important trait for the leaders we entrust with power. And, in Part 3, we saw how prudence stands between moderation and absolutism, allowing us to get things done while being mindful of what things ought to be done.
Perhaps even more importantly, prudence instructs us on what ought not to be done. For when it comes to public policy, getting things done far too often results in unintended and disastrous consequences. In his Treatise on the Virtues, St. Thomas Aquinas forewarns us against imprudent behavior such as impulsivity, thoughtlessness, or negligence. In this fourth and final post in the series we’ll examine three “justifications” for public policy that don’t pass the test of prudence.
It’s Not a Popularity Contest
It’s ironic that many who profess a sort of conservatism today channel a populist spirit that’s very much opposed to conservative notions of steady progression with respect for tradition. Much of the Right is given to advocating policy positions that are little more than bumper-sticker slogans:
Taxation is Theft
Run government like a business
Teachers should make more than politicians
Build the Wall—Deport them all
The point here isn’t whether these sentiments are right or wrong, but that they’re just that: sentiments. And the rigors of public policy require a wee bit more than sentiment for the same reason you can’t pass the CPA exam on fine feelings alone. What’s more, sentiment often leads to rash behavior—the precise opposite of what’s needed for sound policy. “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” warned British stateman Edmund Burke.
Burke was well versed in the dangers of popular sentiment directing public policy. In his day the French monarchy was deposed at the hands of popular sentiment flued by a mob mentality. Many were congratulating the French at their supposed liberation from tyranny. It was Burke who urged caution and would later be vindicated when the French Revolution descended into chaos:
“When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one.”
What Burke is calling for is a spirit of prudence—a desire to set aside the ever-changing whims of the majority and instead carefully scrutinize the likely outcome of a particular venture. Which brings us to the next imprudent “justification” for public policy.
It’s Not About Intentions, It’s About Outcomes
The blog Philosophical Conservatism states that the conservative’s method is “similar to the way that science itself works” in that the conservative “demands that things first demonstrate their effectiveness, and their validity beforehand in the real world.” Conservatives have accused the Left of praising the good intentions of their policy proposals at the expense of their actual outcomes for so long that it’s become cliché. Yet this is nonetheless a common misstep of much of the Left even today. From expanding entitlement programs to nationalizing industries to redistributing wealth, we are asked to focus our attention on what politicians are trying to do while hardly any thought is given to the actual effects.
It is no coincidence that prudence acts as a restraint upon our passions and a consideration for the likely outcomes of course of actions, for unbridled passions are often the very thing that prevent us from truly considering likely outcomes. We may have a strong desire to help the poor. But unless that strong desire is tempered with prudence, we may find it more tempting to do something that appeases the strong desire rather than actually helps the poor.
“Wealth is the only thing that can prevent poverty,” economist Thomas Sowell taught in his book Basic Economics, “Yet many people who claim to be concerned about poverty show remarkably little interest in how wealth is generated or which policies make it harder or easier to create more wealth.” Why is this so? Could it be that what some are truly interested in isn’t preventing poverty but feeling as if they are preventing poverty? Much effort, sacrifice, and knowledge is required if we’re going to begin the difficult task of alleviating poverty, and even then there’s always the possibility of failure. And while it is true no one has hit upon the precise formula for alleviating all poverty, much of the problem persists not due to a lack of knowledge but a lack of prudence. As Sowell further observed:
“Dry empirical questions are seldom as exciting as political crusades or ringing moral pronouncements. But empirical questions are questions that must be asked, if we are truly interested in the well-being of others, rather than in excitement or a sense of moral superiority for ourselves. Perhaps the most important distinction is between what sounds good and what works. The former may be sufficient for purposes of politics or moral preening, but not for the economic advancement of people in general or the poor in particular. For those who are willing to stop and think, basic economics provides some tools for evaluating policies and proposals in terms of their logical implications and empirical consequences.”
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Treatise on Cardinal Virtues that prudence “is the ability to take all relevant circumstances into account, since otherwise what seem to be a good end and a good means can be vitiated by factors that have not been considered. To be circumspect is to be on the lookout for ways in which a contemplated means to an end might turn out not to be a means to that end at all.” Prudence demands that we not allow our good intentions to override thinking through whether our actions are likely to do any good.
It’s Not About Service to an Ideology or Abstract Reasoning
The idea that prudence demands our actions not be based on their popularity or good intentions alone is self-evident. But there is a third “justification” for public policy that doesn’t pass the test of prudence that is less obvious: prudence acts against our natural impulse to rely on our ideology or abstract reasoning alone.
Let us turn again to Edmund Burke’s teachings to flesh this out. In the late eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers had spread their abstract ideas across the Western world. By “abstract” do not mean that these ideas were bad ideas or wrong ideas, but that they were just that—ideas. And as ideas alone they had not yet been fully vetted in the “real world”. Nevertheless, a strong spirit of revolution emanating first from France and eventually sparking revolutions around the world demanded that some of these ideas be put into practice immediately. The “rights of men” were too important to be held in check by tradition and careful consideration.
This approach concerned Burke greatly. “The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false,” Burke warned in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.” Modern conservatism sprang out of Burke’s warnings. Burke believed that humanity’s capacity to develop perfect political theories was limited because humans were limited. Therefore, no ideology or abstract line of thinking was every justification enough for the radical pursuit of public policy. It had to be demonstrated in the "real world" that it had actual merit.
Here is where prudence comes in; for prudence is the process whereby we think through the likely outcomes of our actions based not on their allegiance to our personal ideologies but on the practical, lived, concrete, actual results. This is why prudence is the chief political virtue. Politics deals with society in the natural world. And prudence is interested in natural outcomes. It is entirely appropriate use our metaphysical measuring stick when dealing with questions of morality, religion, purpose, and being. But it is inappropriate when dealing with the natural realities of taxation, foreign affairs, and monetary policy.
This does not make prudence greater than other virtues, it simply means prudence is uniquely qualified to deal with the actions of a nation while virtues like faith, hope, and charity are uniquely qualified to deal with the actions of the individual. As Gettysburg College professor Allen C. Guelzo eloquently put it, “Prudence is not a matter of looking for guidance from voices from the sky; it is also not about ignoring them, either.”
Chief Among Virtues
Conservative writer Avi Woolf (who appeared on a recent Saving Elephants podcast) wrote an excellent article for The Bulwark in which he argued that the conservative’s response to whether government should be involved in something is almost always “It depends”. Avi identified prudence as one of the tools conservatives use to vet governmental involvement:
“Anyone creating a tool for government to use needs to view it in the same way you would view a weapon: With great care and caution. People on both the left and right have often used the metaphor of ‘war’ to describe their policy—crusade really—to rid the world of a particular problem they have identified: a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on corruption, and so on.”
“This is actually quite an apt metaphor, since war—even when absolutely necessary—is destructive by definition. It means the tearing down of rules, of structures, of institutions. Anything to get after the devil of the day. And when the war is ended, whether successful or not, the people are left to deal with the wreckage.”
“Advocates of a policy meant to help people with a given need consider just how far they are willing to go—or to be blunter: how much they are willing to willfully destroy—in order to bring about the positive result they wish. From the get-go, there should be real red lines in the name of prudence that one agrees should not be crossed.”
Prudence grants us the patience and character to identify those ‘red lines’. Prudence allows us to contemplate the likely outcome of our actions even as our passions are screaming at us to simply act. When it comes to politics, prudence truly is the chief virtue.