Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Prudence: The Forgotten Conservative Virtue

Brad Littlejohn


By Brad Littlejohn

November 8, 2013


In my previous contributions for Capital Commentary on the drones and surveillance debates, respectively, I focused on the danger of allowing undue preoccupation with the virtue of prudence to result in neglecting the virtue of justice. When our authorities worry so much about taking pre-emptive steps to protect us—surely an exercise of prudence—that they no longer make adequate distinctions between the guilty and the innocent, then justice has been sacrificed.


The recent kerfuffle surrounding the government shutdown and debt ceiling debate furnished a sad example of the opposite phenomenon: a public stand for what we were told were principles of justice, with no thought given to considerations of prudence. Conservative leaders promised to fight tooth and nail to stop the injustices of Obamacare (and, for some, of a mounting federal debt), but with very little consideration of how the fight might end in any kind of victory, whether a legislative victory or even a mere public-relations victory. The resulting defeat highlighted how urgently conservatives today need to recover the virtue of prudence, often called the “charioteer of the virtues,” if they are to govern, or influence government, effectively. 


Prudence, unfortunately, has fallen on hard times of late. Often thought of in opposition to “principle,” prudence is sometimes misperceived as a weaselly willingness to compromise, to back down from a fight that needs fighting. Those willing (or claiming) to make uncompromising stands are much more likely to get votes. But rightly understood, prudence does not involve an abandonment of principle; rather, it is the application of principle within the constraints of concrete circumstances. Prudence means knowing how to frame means to right ends, not a willingness to compromise on those ends. It often involves compromise, but not morally culpable compromise. 


Our skepticism about compromise often stems from an ill-formed moral vision that is unable to distinguish between evil states of affairs and evil actions. We all encounter the world in terms of status quos, states of affairs—sometimes good, sometimes evil—that precede our own actions. To will rightly is to desire the complete overturning of evil states of affairs, but to act rightly is not so simple. To act rightly is to avoid exacerbating the evil state of affairs and to seek concrete ways of ameliorating it. This implies an important distinction between willing and permitting.


Suppose I witness a thug beating and robbing a pedestrian in an alleyway and do nothing to intervene. Two evils take place in this scene: the violence of the thug and my own cowardice. But although both are sins, neither the law nor a competent moralist would deem me equally guilty. Moreover, it might be the case that I am not guilty at all. Suppose I am in a wheelchair, in no position to stop the thug. In such a case, prudence might dictate non-intervention (though I should still call the police or the paramedics). 


An additional complication enters the equation when we consider people not as private individuals, but as public agents. A public agent assumes a certain responsibility for the actions of a collective, but has only a limited role in determining those actions. As such, the public agent should vocally oppose harmful or unjust policies, but once they are enacted, should operate within the constraints of the public will. This does not mean actively consenting to injustice, but rather permitting those evils to remain which cannot at present be effectively opposed or overturned. Refusing to do so is to opt out of the task of governing and the responsibility of being a public agent, and thus to lose future opportunities for beneficial influence. Sometimes evils are great enough to warrant such a stand, but those who overplay the “Here I stand, I can do no other” trump card are likely to find its value rapidly declining.


During the shutdown/debt-ceiling debacle, many conservative Republicans seemed unable or unwilling to accept the constraints within which they were operating: (1) Obamacare was the established law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court and implicitly endorsed by Obama’s re-election; (2) their cohort comprised a minority of a minority party, able to only occasionally dictate terms to the leadership of one house of the legislative branch and with little leverage over the executive. However, we can sympathize with their stand when we realize the pressure they were under from their constituents who viewed any vote that did not defund Obamacare, even to avoid default, as a capitulation, a compromise with injustice. As long as foolhardy pursuit of principle remains the best way to secure votes, we can scarcely expect our leaders to exercise much prudence; the responsibility lies with us as voters and citizens to come to a clearer sense of what we can and should realistically expect from our representatives.


-  Brad Littlejohn has just completed a Ph.D. in Reformation political theology at the University of Edinburgh. He writes frequently for a number of blogs (especially his own) on the history of Christian ethics and political thought and on contemporary Christian perspectives on politics and economics.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”