Prudence, Practical Wisdom, and Advisors

Please indulge me in some spitballing.

I really like Deirdre McCloskey’s take on the virtue of prudence as encompassing the economist’s rational self-interest and more. I think interest—understood in a way Hirschman would approve of—is indeed a part of virtue rather than outside of it.

But there’s a problem when McCloskey attempts to equate this with Aquinas’ prudentia which is the latin translation of Aristotle’s phronesis; practical wisdom. While McCloskeyan prudence is much bigger than prudence understood by Bentham or Samuelson or even Kant, it’s still not nearly so big as phronesis. And Aristotle clearly thought interest of this sort was outside of virtue—the ancient debate centered around whether “external goods” (for instance: wealth) were part of eudaimonia (a good life). No one thought that it was part of virtue.

But I agree with McCloskey that it is. I just don’t think that prudence is phronesis. Considering your interests is a part of wisdom but nowhere near the whole of it. So prudence is a subset of phronesis, possibly a distinct enough virtue to stand on its own.

Now, consequentialists—and consequentialistic frameworks like neoclassical economics—have put a lot of thinking into their Prudence Only theories, and this need not go to waste for the virtue ethicist. Their hard work has yielded a number of useful tools to take into consideration when thinking about the most prudent path.

Moreover, deontologists have invested in a lot of theories of justice which we may also take into account when attempting to be just.

Justice is the intersection of what Oakeshott calls self-disclosure and self-enactment—the former being subscribing to a moral language which involves principles, duties, and obligations, and the latter being doing something in the right way (with the right state of character; in short, being virtuous). Justice is the intersection because having the character trait of being just involves being able to properly apply the concepts of justice that we are embedded in, given our particular community and culture.

Drawing inspiration of Adam Smith’s less famous work, I suggested that we might get better at being just if we consider our choices from at least three perspectives.There’s our own, of course, and whoever we are dealing with, whose perspective we can approximately enter into using the faculty of sympathy. Finally, there’s the impartial spectator, whom I take to be a random member of our community who does not have any stake in the outcome of our decision. In other words, they’re only operating on a shared sense of justice as well as of virtue; their interests aren’t going to be impacted by the outcome.

I actually think we can extend our panel of advisors much further than this, though for any given decision we only have so much time to deliberate, and often have to rely on habituated reactions. But when we do have time, there are all sorts of perspectives we are able to enter into. When it comes to discussion, I have a mental table at which I try to seat many different points of view.

In fact the only way we are able to aim at virtue is by emulating role models; family and friends and teachers of course, but also characters in stories (fictional and otherwise). To me, the moral theories and economic models mentioned above are another sort of advisor; rather like consulting a computer model rather than a person (though obviously you can and should consult both).

Phronesis—that is, true practical wisdom—is taking all of these ingredients and at the end of the baking process producing eudaimonia.

3 thoughts on “Prudence, Practical Wisdom, and Advisors

  1. Pingback: Reading Update | Adam Gurri

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