Jacob J. Walker's Blog

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Is Prudence Ethical?

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A good friend of mind has often said “prudence is ethical”.  As with many things, I believe this depends upon what we mean by “prudence”.

The original meaning of the word “prudence” was the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, but it now seems to have the multiple connotations: cautiousness, common sense, shrewdness, advisability, a self-interested action performed intelligently, sagacity, and/or wisdom.

The original definition is self-defined as being ethical, since it is the ability to judge what is ethical or not.  But, when I hear “prudence is ethical”, I now believe there is often a conflation with the newer meanings, which is difficult to avoid.  And this conflation may not lead to the highest form of ethics.

For example, was it advisable that Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Jesus took the stances they did?  Especially given that each of them had their lives lost because they stood up for what they believed in.  Of course, one may say they had a higher order of wisdom in their actions, but at the time to many others, it probably didn’t seem that they were doing what was wise.

But, this question of prudence being ethical is not a binary dichotomy.  I believe that even by the modern definitions, it is not generally unethical to be prudent.  Ethics may not always be simply one way or the other.  There are times, one action may be more virtuous than another, but it doesn’t mean that both actions aren’t virtuous in their own ways.

So, even with a conflated meaning of “prudence”, I would say that it is ethical to be prudent in most cases.  But, there are times when it is more virtuous to not be viewed by others as prudent, because there is a higher good beyond oneself that is worth achieving.

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Written by Jacob Walker

June 29th, 2015 at 11:59 am

Posted in Philosophy

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