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?
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.
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:
- Recognize that you are faced with a decision and are not indifferent to the outcome.
- Use a skillful process of evaluating your alternatives to come up with the best choice.
- 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:
- “Our loss of wisdom” (TED talk, 2009)
- “Using our practical wisdom” (TED salon, 2011)
- “Practical Wisdom” (Talks at Google, 2011)
- “Practical Wisdom” (Knowledge at Wharton, 2012)
- “Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason” (University of British Columbia, 2012)
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.