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.

Not gonna do it; wouldn
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.[1]

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:[2] 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, 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 she can internalize it into 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.)

Many models of prudence emphasize not just caring about the outcome of your decision, but choosing well which decisions and outcomes to care about. In other words, skillfully making decisions that help you to realize your goal is not enough, if you have not also wisely chosen your goal.

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.

Practical techniques of practical wisdom

Decision theory can sometimes be difficult to put into day-to-day practice. The simplifications that make it easier to analyze as-theory can make it impractical to apply in real life. What stands in the way of good decision-making is often not the lack of a good theory, but human biases and blind spots that cause us to neglect or ignore relevant data or possible scenarios.

A variety of techniques have been developed that are meant to correct for this.[3] These include:

  • Recharacterize yes/​no binary decisions as decisions that may have multiple options.[4] (Prematurely framing the question as “should I do X or shouldn’t I?” may blind you to alternatives Y and Z.)

  • If some decision begins to look inevitable, imagine a world in which that decision were somehow impossible and imagine what decision you could then come to in that world.[5]

  • Conduct a “premortem”:[6] Imagine a future state in which your preferred decision has turned out to be the wrong one after all. Why did it fail? What went wrong that you failed to anticipate? Red Teams and devil’s advocates are other methods of trying to uncover unexpected weak points of what seem to be strong decisions.

  • Consider sketching out a decision tree or a decisional balance sheet to help make sure more of the factors of your decision (and the interactions between them) are salient to you.

  • The timeless folk wisdom of “sleep on it” may be helpful, particularly if you are tempted to make a decision while under the influence of powerful emotions. Make a tentative decision, give yourself some distance from the context in which you made the decision, and then evaluate your decision again.[7]

  • Other people may have a different set of biases and blind spots than you have, so if you ask a variety of other people for their opinions about your dilemma, you may be able to broaden your possible alternative courses of action beyond what you would have come up with yourself. This can be especially useful if the people you consult have encountered similar situations to the one you are confronting and so can share how their decisions played out.

  • Ask “what would Brian Boitano do?” Consider someone whose character or decision-making process you admire. Imagine how they would confront your decision in your place. This may help you break out of the status-quo bias of how you “have always done” things of this sort.

  • Imagine that instead of choosing a course of action for yourself, that you are advising a friend who is in your situation which action you would recommend they take.[8]

Measuring phrónēsis

The authors of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification[9] found such close kinship between the virtue of prudence and the five-factor personality model factor of conscientiousness that they tend to use the latter as a proxy for the former (this is also because much more psychological research has been done about the well-defined conscientiousness factor than about prudence, which lacks such a consensus definition for the psychological community to coordinate their research efforts around).

In 2022, a team of researchers began to devise an assessment method designed to measure phrónēsis itself.[10] It subdivides phrónēsis into four “functions”:

  1. constitutive (moral sensitivity)—“the ability to perceive the ethically salient elements of a situation and recognize the best response”

  2. integrative—“allows one to adjudicate the cognitive and affective aspects of situations and choose the best action when conflicting demands arise”

  3. blueprint—“overall understanding of how actions conduce to a flourishing life”

  4. emotional regulative—“the ability to infuse one’s emotional experience with reason to appropriately shape those emotional responses”

The researchers were able to use some existing tests to approximate measures of these functions, the results of this testing were promising, and they hope this leads to a more precisely-targeted test for phrónēsis (that could then presumably help us to design interventions to improve it).

However, another author expects that the nature of phrónēsis will make it challenging to measure, and warns against mistaking a set of testable necessary-but-insufficient components of phrónēsis for the real thing:

[W]e can be confident that we are measuring practical wisdom only if the measure is specified relative to success in decisions about what one ought to do, all-things-considered, in particular situations… [T]here are good philosophical reasons to say that a simple and comprehensive account of those success conditions is not possible.[11]
although deer prudence is celebrated in song, deer are notoriously incautious pedestrians
  1. ^

    see, for example, Kathryn Britton, “In Praise of Prudence” Positive Psychology News 12 March 2013

  2. ^
  3. ^

    Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (2013) is a good airport-bookstore-type overview of some of these techniques and how they have been put into practice.

    Steven Johnson, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (2018) is another.

  4. ^

    Steven Johnson Farsighted (2018) p. 67 (he refers here to the research of Paul C. Nutt on organizational decisions)

  5. ^

    Steven Johnson Farsighted (2018) p. 68

  6. ^

    Gary Klein Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (2009) pp. 235–36

    Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Decisive (2013) pp. 202–03

    Steven Johnson Farsighted (2018) p. 118

  7. ^

    e.g. Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Decisive (2013) p. 23 (and chapter 8), identify the main obstacle at the time-of-decision as “short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong [choice]” and recommend that you therefore “Attain Distance Before Deciding.”

  8. ^

    Laura Kay & Richard Gonzalez “Weighting in Choice versus Advice: I’ll Do This, You Do That” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (1999)

  9. ^

    Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004)

  10. ^

    Catherine Darnell, Blaine J. Fowers, & Kristján Kristjánsson “A multifunction approach to assessing Aristotelian phronesis (practical wisdom)” Personality and Individual Differences 196 (2022)

  11. ^

    Jason Swartwood “Can We Measure Practical Wisdom?” The Journal of Moral Education 49 (2020)