Notes on Prudence

This post ex­am­ines the virtue of pru­dence. It is meant mostly as an ex­plo­ra­tion of what other peo­ple have learned about this virtue, rather than as me ex­press­ing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been se­lec­tive about what I found in­ter­est­ing or cred­ible, ac­cord­ing to my own in­cli­na­tions. I wrote this not as an ex­pert on the topic, but as some­one who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to peo­ple who want to know more about this virtue and how to nur­ture it.

What is pru­dence?

Pru­dence is one of the four car­di­nal virtues. From there it be­came part of the seven tra­di­tional Chris­tian virtues. It turns up again and again in virtue tra­di­tions. I can’t very well ig­nore it.

And yet… the word “pru­dence” has gone through such a dra­matic shift in mean­ing that it’s difficult to know how to tackle this one.

“Pru­dence” was a com­mon English trans­la­tion of the Greek word phrónē­sis, which has im­pli­ca­tions that range from hav­ing how-to skills to things like choos­ing your goals wisely and ex­er­cis­ing good judg­ment when pick­ing paths to those goals. In short, it is wis­dom ap­plied to prac­ti­cal, real-world de­ci­sion-mak­ing, where the rub­ber meets the road.

When pru­dence was in­cor­po­rated into the tra­di­tional Chris­tian virtues, it was via the Latin word pru­den­tia, which can mean things like ra­tio­nal­ity, in­sight, dis­cern­ment, fore­sight, wis­dom, or skill. Again, though, the fo­cus is on the qual­ity of your pro­cess of mak­ing prac­ti­cal de­ci­sions, so this isn’t too far off.

Dana Car­vey as Pres­i­dent G.H.W. Bush on Satur­day Night Live

But nowa­days when you call some­one “pru­dent” you usu­ally mean that they are cau­tious: they plan ahead, look be­fore they leap, avoid tak­ing un­nec­es­sary risks, save for a rainy day, and that sort of thing. The word now has an old-fash­ioned sound to it, and is rare enough as a com­pli­ment that it’s some­times even de­ployed as an in­sult, to im­ply that the “pru­dent” per­son is over-cau­tious, timid, afraid to take chances, or re­luc­tant to in­no­vate. (The re­sem­blance of the word “pru­dence” to the et­y­molog­i­cally dis­tinct word “prud­ish” has also con­tributed to giv­ing the word a stuffy con­no­ta­tion.)

Be­cause of this mean­ing shift, when you see some­one singing the praises of “pru­dence” it’s im­por­tant to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther to find out which sort of pru­dence they’re prais­ing. Some­times au­thors will even drift from one defi­ni­tion to the other with­out seem­ing to re­al­ize that they’re do­ing so (see for ex­am­ple “In Praise of Pru­dence” from Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy News).

Pru­dence as prac­ti­cal wis­dom /​ de­ci­sion theory

The sci­ence of what is a ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion to make, given cer­tain goals and con­straints and un­cer­tain­ties, is called De­ci­sion The­ory. It is com­plex and in­ter­est­ing and I am thank­ful that there is a mar­velous De­ci­sion The­ory FAQ on LW so I don’t have to try to sum­ma­rize it my­self.

Pru­dence (in the sense of “prac­ti­cal wis­dom”) might be con­sid­ered de­ci­sion the­ory put into prac­tice. Be­ing prac­ti­cally skil­led at mak­ing ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions is some­thing that goes be­yond the­o­ret­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of good de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses.

Aris­to­tle ex­plained the differ­ence this way: While it’s pos­si­ble for a young per­son to be a sa­vant with a ge­nius un­der­stand­ing of some­thing like math­e­mat­ics, pru­dence seems to be some­thing that must be ac­quired through long ex­pe­rience. This is be­cause ex­per­tise in math­e­mat­ics largely re­quires an in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing of ab­stract uni­ver­sals, while pru­dence re­quires ac­tual en­coun­ters with real-life par­tic­u­lars. When you teach a young sa­vant a math­e­mat­i­cal truth, he or she grasps it as a truth im­me­di­ately; but when you teach a truth of pru­dence, the same stu­dent may have rea­son to be skep­ti­cal and to need to see that truth ex­em­plified in real-life ex­am­ples first be­fore he or she can in­ter­nal­ize it into his or her wor­ld­view.

You ex­er­cise pru­dence when you:

  1. Rec­og­nize that you are faced with a de­ci­sion and are not in­differ­ent to the out­come.

  2. Use a skil­lful pro­cess of eval­u­at­ing your al­ter­na­tives to come up with the best choice.

  3. Fol­low through on that de­ci­sion by ac­tu­ally act­ing as you have de­cided to act. (This may also in­volve the virtue of self-con­trol.)

Psy­chol­o­gist Barry Schwartz has made pru­dence (in the sense of prac­ti­cal wis­dom) a fo­cus of his work. Here are links to videos of some of his talks on the sub­ject:

In part what Schwartz is do­ing is push­ing back against the­o­ries that what we need to do to im­prove so­ciety is to cre­ate bet­ter rules and in­sti­tu­tions on the one hand, or clev­erly ma­nipu­late in­cen­tives on the other. He be­lieves, and says that his re­search sup­ports, that those things are in­suffi­cient. To make things bet­ter, you need to im­prove not the in­cen­tives or struc­tures that peo­ple act within, but the char­ac­ters of the peo­ple them­selves.

If I squint and turn my head at an an­gle, this looks to me like the prac­ti­cal ver­sion of the the­o­ret­i­cal ethics de­bate be­tween de­on­tol­o­gists, con­se­quen­tial­ists, and virtue ethi­cists. Deon­tol­o­gists might ad­vo­cate bet­ter rules and in­sti­tu­tions; con­se­quen­tial­ists might ar­gue for the im­por­tance of in­cen­tives; and virtue ethi­cists em­pha­size the need for char­ac­ter.

Pru­dence as well-honed cau­tion /​ risk management

You of­ten hear that peo­ple have be­come too meek and risk-averse: afraid to try new things, to make bold ex­per­i­ments, to boldly go where no one has gone be­fore, and so forth. On the other hand, the VIA In­sti­tute on Char­ac­ter, which uses a virtue-ori­ented as­sess­ment test to find peo­ple’s “in­ven­tory of char­ac­ter strengths,” found that “the least preva­lent char­ac­ter strengths in [those they tested] are pru­dence, mod­esty, and self-reg­u­la­tion.” (The VIA In­sti­tute uses the pru­dence-as-cau­tion defi­ni­tion: “Pru­dence means be­ing care­ful about your choices, stop­ping and think­ing be­fore act­ing. It is a strength of re­straint.”)

Peo­ple of­ten es­ti­mate risks poorly, and plan for them badly. Lists of typ­i­cal hu­man cog­ni­tive bi­ases show few that are not also ways risk-as­sess­ment can go awry. We seem to have a va­ri­ety of con­tra­dic­tory heuris­tics that are good enough to help us make the day-to-day quick de­ci­sions we need mud­dle through life, but that re­veal them­selves to be shock­ingly ab­surd when ex­am­ined closely.

The pop­u­lar­ity of cas­ino gam­bling, and its ad­dic­tive­ness in some peo­ple, sug­gests that even when we gam­ify sim­ple sce­nar­ios of risk man­age­ment and provide prompt nega­tive feed­back for poor risk as­sess­ment, peo­ple can fail to cor­rect ap­pro­pri­ately.

Cer­tainly if the stakes are high enough and we have enough time to think about it, we would be wise to in­sist on more ra­tio­nal meth­ods than “just eye­bal­ling it” with our ramshackle in­stincts. This is es­pe­cially true in cir­cum­stances in which we are ex­posed to risks very differ­ent from those our an­ces­tors would have faced — such as driv­ing on the free­way, start­ing a course of chemother­apy, or shar­ing an un­guarded opinion on an in­ter­net fo­rum. In such cases we can ex­pect even less re­li­able help from our in­stinc­tual heuris­tics.

There is some similar­ity be­tween pru­dence in this sense (ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to risk) and courage (ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to fear). How­ever, fear and risk may be only loosely cor­re­lated be­cause of the difficul­ties we face when try­ing to as­sess risk. Much of the challenge of courage has to do with our emo­tional re­sponse to fear, whereas much of the challenge of pru­dence has to do with the cog­ni­tive challenge of as­sess­ing risk well. Still, there is some over­lap, and some peo­ple who think of them­selves as overly risk-averse may need to work on courage as much as or more than on risk-as­sess­ment.

although deer are of­ten reck­less pedes­tri­ans, deer pru­dence is cel­e­brated in song