One thing all can agree on is that our leaders are in need of guidance, perhaps now more then ever, in these trying times both domestically and internationally. Thus, I find it vital that we examine a virtue that is seemingly nonexistent amongst our nations leaders: prudence.
I must first admit that I am no expert on the virtues; I am no wise man, and there have been many times that I have failed to use prudence. Nor am I morally elite compared to anyone: I am writing this based on my reflection upon on my own mistakes and failures. Maybe the task at hand is too vast, but at least young conservatives can understand (and strive for) such a crucial virtue as prudence.
Prudence is the auriga virtutum, the “charioteer of the virtues” and one of the cardinal virtues. As C.S. Lewis once said “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Likewise, prudence is not simply one of the virtues, but is the guide of all other virtues. It allows us to separate our judgement from irrational decisions based off emotions, pleasures, and impulses; this separation is a necessity for any decision maker, not just politicians.
Prudence is the ability to use insight and discernment by weighing all possible consequences during the decision making process. However, common sense and practicality are also at the heart of the prudent. Lewis’ definition was much more simple: “Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.”
Lewis, referencing Hooker, also once said “when walking on a slippery pavement, you neglect the law of Prudence, you suddenly find yourself obeying the law of gravitation.” So prudence does not always necessitate an elaborate decision making process, but can be used in the simplest decisions.
To dispute a popular misconception, prudence is not merely the avoidance of taking risks. In every decision there is some amount of risk involved, and it is always wise to understand the risks and costs/benefits involved. But a greater necessity to prudence is considering what’s right and wrong, good and bad. Since the ultimate goal of virtue is to necessitate the morally good, a prudent decision can only be one that considers (and strives for) a good or right outcome or consequence. Any decision that claims to be prudent but does not consider the good or right of a situation cannot be considered an act of virtue, but of vice, as it is surely fallacious.
There is a long history of prudence in conservatism, most notably by Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Kirk went as far as to make prudence one of the “Ten Conservative Principles” saying:
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public matter ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequence, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
Although I do not necessarily agree with him, Rod Dreher recently wrote an interesting article (very much worth the read) on the imprudence of current actions by the Republican Party that can be read here.
Good judgement presupposes good leadership; and good judgement necessitates prudence. This is why prudence is such a vital virtue for our leadership who make important policy decisions. It is a virtue all conservatives should strive for beyond politics and policy as well – when one does not use prudence in their daily lives, they often regret not doing so.
Derek Draplin | University of Michigan | @DDraps24