Part 6: The Virtue of Prudence, Vices Associated with Prudence


A Brief Introduction to Ethics

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.


  • The Virtue of Prudence
  • Vices Associated with Prudence

Prudence, along with fortitude and temperance, is a major or cardinal virtue upon which other virtues depend for their direction and perfection. Whereas fortitude and temperance deal with our passions or sense appetites, prudence deals with our intellect and is rightly called an intellectual virtue.

As we have seen, happiness is our ultimate end or final good in this world. The necessity of prudence derives from its essential role in directing us to the attainment of good moral living and, since our end is happiness, prudence, more than any other virtue, determines how we will realize this end by our actions.

Generally speaking, prudence is the virtue which directs us to the right way of doing something. It is the intellectual virtue which rightly directs our particular actions toward a good end, and even to lessor ends necessary to achieve the ultimate end of happiness.

It is interesting to note here just how practical the virtue of prudence is in our life. The wise guidance of family life is called domestic prudence and involves everyone in the family, children as well as parents. A prudent family life is not possible without everyone’s cooperation. Prudent family financial planning, for instance, can be undone by careless or extravagant spending on the part of a single family member. There is also political prudence which is required for the wise governing of a political community. This type of prudence involves civil authorities as well as community citizens in helping to achieve the rational aims of the community as a whole. We sometimes refer to this as civic virtue. (How long has it been since you’ve heard that term used?) Special types of prudence are also necessary for law, medicine, commerce, teaching, military functions, and so forth.

There are three actions identified with the virtue of prudence. The first of these is counsel, which consists of inquiring into the means and circumstances necessary in order than an action be done well. The second action is called practical judgment and is an agreement to a good and suitable means; it amounts to a practical decision. This decision terminates the counsel that came before it and immediately makes you disposed to make a choice leading to an action. The third action is command, the direct application of the counseling and decision-making to action. It is because of command that we actually do something or choose not to do something.

Sometimes the virtue of prudence is misinterpreted as “being cautious.” This shows how the meaning of prudence, along with fortitude and temperance, has undergone some subtle changes in the modern age (an unfortunate occurrence, by the way). Being prudent is not necessarily being cautious, even though a prudent person may exercise caution when the circumstances so dictate. The prudent person is really more a commanding person than a cautious one.

To be prudent in the full sense of the term is, first and foremost, to act in a determinate fashion, that is, to deliberate, make a judgment, and command the action to be done or not be done. The command is the most important consideration because without commanding the execution of an action, no action takes place. Deliberation and counsel of themselves need not lead to action. In fact, you can deliberate too much and never act when it is reasonable to act.

Like all the major virtues, prudence is a relative mean between extremes, one of excess and one of defect. The vice of defect in this case is called imprudence. The vice of excess is called false prudence.

There are four vices associated with imprudence. The first is called impetuosity. This is the vice of acting too quickly because of a failure to consider adequately the available means. I’m sure you’ve had some experience with an “impetuous” individual. Well, this person has failed to take good counsel or to deliberate enough about a course of action to pursue. The old adage, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” may be appropriate here in some situation. There is also a vice called thoughtlessness which is closely related. The thoughtless person doesn’t take the care and pains to form a careful judgment.

There is also the vice of inconstancy. This is directed against the act of command which is the principal action involved in the virtue of prudence. Inconstancy is the failure to complete a moral action by refusing to command that an action be done. The vice of negligence is a defect on the part of the intellect to direct the will to carry out some good action and is the most serious vice by defect because it attacks the most important act of the virtue of prudence which is the prompt execution of command. A good action is not performed when it is prudent to do so.

False prudence is the name given to the vices of excess which are opposed to prudence. Generally these refer to excessive thought and concern about obtaining various objects you may desire. Excessive concern, for instance, with power, position, wealth, or fame could be involved. A person excessively concerned with his or her physique, beauty, and so forth would be an example. But note that the key word here is “excessive.” You certainly should be reasonably concerned with your bodily health and cleanliness. Remember the phrase, “The mean between the extremes.”

There is a vice of excess associated with false prudence which may be of interest to everyone, especially today. This is because it is so easy to fall into it and we have, unfortunately, so many examples of this vice in the world around us. This vice is called astuteness and refers to the use of improper means to attain an end we desire. Even though the end we desire may be good, we cannot use an immoral means to attain it. In other words: “The end does not justify the means.” Amen to that!

The right way of doing something
Prudence of the Flesh
Excessive concern about bodily goods
Insufficient consideration of means
Use of improper means to attain end
Defect of practical judgment
Wavering resulting in refusal to command
Defect in prompt execution of command

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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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