The Conservatism of Russell Kirk: Prudence

Kirk writes that prudence is chief among virtues, not only as the cause of other virtues, as Thomas Aquinas thought, but as the most important virtue to be considered by our public leaders. Our actions always have consequences we cannot foresee, but acting too hastily in favor of some more advanced time or a desire to return to a different age can bear results that we can foresee, and it is our duty to avoid all inadvertent tragedy we can. Prudence as a political virtue is founded on a recognition that the world we live in is extraordinarily complex, and what is popular in the moment may have catastrophic results for the future. Similarly, what is unpopular today may be exactly what our society needs to be prosperous and just in the future.

Our desire for change is not always a bad thing. There are injustices in the world that must be remedied by decisive action, even if those remedies are incomplete. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an order of dubious constitutionality (at least based on contemporary jurisprudence), did not help slaves in the Union states and didn’t do much for slaves in the Confederacy, at least right away. Yet ordering that Southern slaves be freed was not imprudent because the chaos of wartime demanded unilateral action.

Our founders placed a high premium on prudence. The Constitution consistently places Congress, designed to be the most deliberative of the three branches, above the Executive or Judiciary. In cases of treaty and war, it is even placed above the States with few exceptions.

While discussing the ways our government acts with a deficiency of prudence and the ways it acts with perhaps an excess of prudence and deliberation might be an easier undertaking, it will serve us better to explore the ways we treat prudence in our individual and communal lives. After all, politics is downstream from culture, so a remedy to any problem with the State must come after a remedy to the problems in ourselves and between each of us.

Today, people are imprudent on the whole. Exhortations to “follow your heart” are common in everything from counseling sessions to commencement addresses. We shouldn’t ignore the desires of our heart, but we should really be following our reason. Human beings are fickle beings, but rational thought, imperfect as it is for us, is a surer guide than the fleeting emotions and passions of our everyday.

In an imprudent society, morality is constantly being reframed, politics is a race to bring America to the next best thing and our personal decisions are often impulsive, hasty, and crudely conceived. People make important decisions like those to marry, divorce, buy cars or homes in a moment, or after minimal discernment. Prudence takes the natural human tendency to prefer immediate satisfaction over delayed gratification and restricts our appetites so that our reason can overcome the desire to have everything we want now, now, now.

College students tend to be worse on the whole. Rather than deliberate over the choices before us, too often we make choices with no more than a split second of thought. Some of these decisions don’t have long term consequences, and even have opportunities for future remediation, like course selection and the Add/Drop period at the beginning of the semester. But others can have lifelong consequences that we may not even see for decades.

There are myriad reasons that college students do not embrace prudence. Psychologists may speak of our still-developing prefrontal cortex, but this is unsatisfactory. Merely because we have trouble seeing every consequence of our actions or have a tendency to act unthinkingly does not absolve us from the obligation to take serious decisions seriously. While there are numerous possible reasons that this principle of conservatism is rejected in society as a whole and by young adults particularly, the most basic reason is the same for everyone, and the same as it has always been: prudence, like any virtue, is hard. It is hard to make measured decisions that diminish the influence of our passions. It is hard to abstain from some pleasures or decisions in favor of considering all the options.

Kirk writes that “liberals and radicals… dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.” If you are facing graduation this May, you are likely concerned about employment or graduate studies. In attempting to remedy the “evil” (or at least inconvenience) of having to move back home for a few months over the summer, do not just accept the first offer you get. Every decision we make, especially out of college, has an impact on the rest of our life in ways we may not see for decades.

While our left-leaning peers may have objections to some of these ten conservative principles, it seems that prudence should be something embraced by all. Kirk acknowledges that the complexity of human society mandates prudence in public policy; complexity in individual human lives warrants the same level of prudence in the decisions we make for ourselves. While it is certainly possible to fall into crippling indecision (think of Chidi in NBC’s The Good Place), true prudence will diminish the unintended consequences of our decisions. There are few, if any, important decisions placed before us that require immediate consideration.

Life is complicated. It is impossible for any one person to see every possible, or even every likely, thing that may come about from our decisions. When I was considering which school to attend, Trinity was not my first choice- it was my fourth. It was also not my best scholarship offer among the first round of offers. Had I merely accepted the best offer I had at the time, which was to my first choice school, I suspect I would have had a wonderful four years. But in waiting to decide until nearer to the deadline, I had the opportunity to compete for and win more money from Trinity, which has turned out to be an incredibly formative and positive experience. Running roughshod to write my deposit check to another school may not have resulted in evil, but it at least would have resulted in more college debt. The conservative believes that every decision should only be made after “sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.” The level of reflection necessary for each decision is different (obviously, as what size latte to order is less consequential than whether to propose marriage), but in every case we should reflect as much as we can on what might occur if we don’t take it seriously enough. A wholehearted embrace of prudence will yield a better life and a better society.

Editor’s Note: I want to apologize for the hiccup we experienced in publishing this series regularly. For a variety of reasons, it took longer to get this piece written and edited than we expected. We should be back on a regular schedule going forward from the fifth article in the series this coming Friday.

Author: Luke Ayers

Luke is a Senior at Trinity University, majoring in Economics and Public Policy with a minor in Latin. He is the founding President of Tigers for Life, the Trinity chapter of Students for Life of America, and co-founder and former President of the Young Conservatives of Texas at Trinity University. He is the Editor in Chief for The Tower for the 2018-19 school year, focusing on increasing the size and quality of the publication articles, as well as the influence on campus and around San Antonio.

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