Prudence: The Lost Virtue
What does it mean to exercise “prudential judgment”? In recent years this phrase has been thrown around quite a bit in Catholic circles. I recently read a Facebook update arguing that prudential judgment is to the conservative right what “the demands of conscience” (I paraphrase) are for the liberal left. In both cases, so it is said, you have cafeteria Catholics putting politics over doctrine, and using these phrases to cover-up their misdeeds.
Of course there is some truth to this idea, but not a lot. When we speak of “prudential judgment”, we are almost always speaking of the most efficient way to attain a given objective. The moral mandate to care for the poor is non-negotiable, which is why we must reject the vicious anti-altruism of someone like Ayn Rand. Even if this is agreed to semantic disputes are unavoidable. What does it mean to “care for”, and who qualifies as “poor”? Obviously there are radically different and in some cases mutually exclusive concepts behind these words in different camps. Even if understanding can be achieved here, there will still be disputes over how this is to be done. This is where we exercise prudential judgment.
The bigger problem, in my view, is the presumption that prudence and morality are somehow distinct. Prudence is a virtue, after all. To deliberately ignore prudence and pursue whatever policy sounded the most righteous as it was being proposed isn’t moral at all – in fact, such behavior ought to be denounced as recklessly immoral. The act of prudential judgment itself is not something distinct from moral behavior, but is in fact essential to moral behavior. The possibility that more harm than good will be done if a particular policy is pursued is always worth considering, no matter how morally justifiable it appears in the heat of the moment.
Many of the problems we face are caused by activists and policymakers on both sides who believe that moral outrage is sufficient to combat social and economic problems, or even foreign policy problems. Leftists and conservatives have told me that it is immoral to consider costs and consequences (to exercise prudential judgment, in other words) when considering the poor or the merits of bring “democracy” country X. Part of the problem is that the policies of the Federal Reserve have unquestionably created the illusion that there is no problem that governments can’t hurl a seemingly infinite supply of paper money at. Just fire up another stimulus, announce unlimited quantitative easing, and all of those questions about costs and limits become pointless. Right?
Except that without a sense of limits and proportions, I don’t see how we can be a moral people at all. I suppose I could be wrong about the illusory nature of the demise of fiscal limitations – that we can afford Obamacare and/or Romney’s Pax Americana and heaven knows what other idealistic projects future cost-blind leaders will propose (while denouncing the equivalent pie-in-the-sky scheme the other party is proposing). But something tells me I am not wrong, that we are entering a phase of economic chaos fueled by currency devaluation and a global collapse of confidence not only in the dollar but in America itself.
If only we had used far more of, and not less, of that “prudential judgment” that peace-and-justice types find so distasteful. It might have actually resulted in peace. Instead it became our ideological mission to topple
geopolitically inconvenient states enemies of freedom and democracy. The day average conservatives realize that foreign policy idealism is as imprudent as left-wing domestic policy idealism is the day we might get this country back on track.
As for the dispute among Catholics, what we really have are some people, quite hungry and lustful for power, hoping to align their political preferences with infallible statements on morality made ex cathedra. What could be more intoxicating? What better weapon to bludgeon your political opponent over the head with? All of their blathering can be answered with this:
But in matters merely political, as, for instance, the best form of government, and this or that system of administration, a difference of opinion is lawful. Those, therefore, whose piety is in other respects known, and whose minds are ready to accept in all obedience the decrees of the apostolic see, cannot in justice be accounted as bad men because they disagree as to subjects We have mentioned; and still graver wrong will be done them, if – as We have more than once perceived with regret – they are accused of violating, or of wavering in, the Catholic faith. — Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, 48