The Virtue of Prudence and Lawmaking
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2009

What makes a good legislator? What makes a good citizen in a democratic society where citizens have the opportunity and duty to engage in the legislative process? What makes a good lobbyist or advocate?

Essential to Christian belief is that God respects our free will. This means, in turn, that we must act in order to do good. Doing the right thing does not just magically happen. The ancient Greeks called this virtue and the Church Fathers, drawing on St. Paul, adapted them to a Christian understanding of human nature. A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.

The Catechism calls four of these virtues “human virtues.” They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They are also called the cardinal virtues, from the Latin word for “hinge.” Think of the cardinal virtues as the hinges upon which the door of the moral life swings.

Prudence is the virtue that allows us to use practical reason to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it. St. Thomas Aquinas says that prudence is “right reason in action.” The exercise of right reason is at the core of prudence, for prudence is what ultimately should determine how we act and when we act.

For this reason, prudence is called the charioteer of the virtues. It guides the other virtues. Justice, fortitude, and temperance can veer off-track if we don’t exercise prudence. Suppose a farmer chooses a particular week to plant a particular seed. The factors going into his decision (soil conditions, growing season, market prices) are part of the act of prudence. The actual carrying out of the decision may involve other virtues like fortitude (doing it in spite of fear of failure) and justice (doing his job well).

In modern English, prudence is often viewed the same as being timid or over-cautious. But this is not what it really means. Indeed, acting timid is, by definition, not acting prudent.

Prudence is essential when making laws. Laws are not just expressions of opinion. They are concrete rules of action with real consequences. Lawmakers - which in a democracy includes all citizens - should be viewed like a surgeon operating on a patient. Bills are like the scalpel and society is like the patient. Just as a surgeon exercises prudence when deciding how to act, the legislator should exercise prudence in how to address a particular issue. Similarly, just as a surgeon uses prudence to determine when to act, legislators must consider when is the right time for a particular law.

It was not that long ago that most observers thought that the U.S. Supreme Court, if given the opportunity, would rule that school vouchers for religious schools were unconstitutional. Sending a case to the Supreme Court at that time risked having the court establish a case precedent against school vouchers. Once the court directly decides on a particular issue, it is hard to get it to reverse its position.

Advocates for parental choice decided to pursue the issue in steps, setting up cases on the periphery of the court’s religious establishment cases which they could win and which would eventually set up the conditions for a favorable ruling on vouchers. This “teeing up” strategy worked and eventually the time was right to push for a decision on vouchers. The court ruled that vouchers were constitutional. Had school choice advocates pushed for vouchers before the other cases, it might have set the school choice movement back many years. The decision to wait and act incrementally was an exercise of prudence.

Today we often think of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and forget that he was harshly criticized during his presidency by those who favored the abolition of slavery. Lincoln opposed slavery as much as they did. He thought, however, that immediate abolition could not be achieved politically or legally without negative consequences. For this, he was called “equivocating,” “vacillating,” “weak,” and “timid.” Yet, he took another, more prudent approach and eventually paved the way for emancipation.

We should be thankful that Lincoln did not cave-in to his detractors and fellow opponents of slavery and that he took time to exercise the virtue of prudence. It is a lesson every legislator and all of us must take to heart.

Future columns will address how the other human virtues impact the making of laws.