Understanding Adam Smith’s Prudence
A virtue we have often forgotten
Today, we often hear a lot about the virtues of compassion, fairness, and generosity. Unfortunately, these words are often used in a political context, as a persuasion tool to frame poor policies in a more palatable way.
President Barack Obama has especially stressed “fairness” as a major theme in his policy-making. An entire column could be written about his redefining of the word, but it is clear that he has stressed fairness as an important goal in his administration, regardless of how ineffective his policies have been in achieving such a goal.
It seems that one of the most important virtues has been long forgotten – prudence. To many, prudence is a word barely uttered, generally understood to be synonymous with “good advice” (hence Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column). What exactly does this ancient word mean, and how does it apply to our lives today?
Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher and known as the “father of modern economics,” wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. He dedicated a significant section of the book to defining and identifying the role of prudence.
Smith describes a prudent man as an honest, sincere person who lives with integrity. He chooses his friends wisely and invests heavily in their relationships. According to Smith, the prudent man has
“a steady and faithful attachment to a few well-tried and well-chosen companions, in the choice of whom he is not guided by the giddy admiration of shining accomplishments, but by the sober esteem of modesty, discretion, and good conduct.”
So far, prudence already confers a feeling of respect. Smith goes on to acknowledge a prudent man’s humility, commenting “he never assumes impertinently over any body.” A prudent man is described as following all the established “decorums and ceremonials” of society. He sets an example of politeness and proper conduct.
The key purpose of prudence can be justly summarized with the terms “security” and “stewardship.” First and foremost, a prudent man’s goal should be to preserve himself before aspiring to greater ambition.
“It is averse to expose our health, our fortune, our rank, or reputation, to any sort of hazard.”
At first, it may sound a bit like selfishness. In our modern society, those with wealth, fame, or success are often admired as well as hated, praised yet vilified. These contradictory emotions arise from jealousy. We wish we had what others had, so we lift them up on a pillar. In doing so, however, we begin to resent their accomplishments.
Smith demonstrates that self-preservation, a key component of prudence, should truly be admired as one of the most honorable virtues. It is practically applicable as well. A prudent man is not loose with his money or enjoyments. Instead, he makes wise decisions concerning his own fortune and happiness:
“[The prudent man is] steadily sacrificing the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of the still greater ease and enjoyment of a more distant but more lasting period of time.”
Though a prudent man keeps his own affairs in order, he is not tempted to use his success as cause to meddle in the business of others. He attempts to stay out of disputes and only offers his advice if asked.
Finally, prudence can be combined with many greater virtues, “valour, an extensive and strong benevolence, with a sacred regard to the rules of justice, and all these supported by a proper degree of self-command.” If this is done, Smith argues one can achieve “the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and moral virtues,” the “most perfect wisdom combined with the most perfect virtue.”
Perhaps we should try to recover the long-lost virtue of prudence.