There are a great many things that are legal or arguably legal to do that are not wise to do. To the extent that we seek to live our lives according to wisdom and exercise prudence in our conduct, there is a lot of trouble we will simply never find out, and that is definitely for the best. A great deal of trouble lies in the wide gap that exists between what is possible for us to do and what is right for us to do. Once we stop thinking about what is in our own best interests or the best interests of those around us and our concern is in what we think we have a right to do, we engage in a lot of behavior that harms our own interests and harms others, even if we might technically be able to get out of some of the worst repercussions for those actions.
Why is prudence so hard to find? When I look around at the sort of behavior that is undertaken I tend to frequently see an absence of forethought and prior reflection as well as an absence of restraint. Prudence tends to be a brake on our actions, a reminder that maybe it wouldn’t be the best move to do something. Some of us–probably all of us at least sometimes–need a brake on our actions to cause us to restrain from doing something reckless or foolish that may cost us everything, and where this brake is absent we may do what we think we have a right to but that is definitely not right.
Wisdom cries aloud in the streets and no one pays heed. Prudence is a virtue that requires us to think outside of ourselves and our own wants to ponder the context in which we are acting and the dangers and risks that are involved in evil times and situations. It reminds us that we had best not be driving impaired late at night where nothing bad can happen because we may harm others or because we may get into a great deal of trouble. It tells us not to escalate a conflict with someone else because it may go badly, or that it would be best for us not to demand what we consider to be our rights in times and places where those demands are unlikely to be accepted by others, and leads us to act shrewdly and in a circumspect fashion.
It is easy to see why prudence is rare these days. For all of our talk about context, we tend to be highly selective in the way in which we mention it, seeking to use it where it absolves us or someone we consider to be an ally of personal responsibility while ignoring context when it makes things look worse for someone who we wish to support. It is our tactical use of context that amounts to an abandonment of prudence in favor of political purposes. Where context helps us be prudent is in possessing a moral imagination that allows us to foresee some of the likely consequences of what we are doing or what we are about to do that allows us to change course and avoid those negative repercussions and also provide good advice and counsel to someone else who is also heading down a dangerous road. We desperately need that understanding of what we are about and what we are heading into, yet for us to benefit from it requires that we be willing and able to restrain ourselves from evil, and that is an increasingly rare willingness.