Prudence takes into account a deeper wisdom about the human condition than can be gleaned from a simple cost-benefit analysis. It understands that human communities are not merely about justice and the Gross Domestic Product, but about love. And sacrificial love doesn’t hesitate to rush in even against the worst odds.

Last week I sat at my desk on the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 bombings with many thoughts in my head. Like many people, I remembered exactly where I was when I found out about the attacks (a bookstore, which had the television on behind the counter). I remember the shock, for I had lived in New York and eaten in Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. I remembered the worry I had for friends living in Washington and New York, an emotion mixed up with guilt, relief, and (if we are being honest here) a bit of envy since my move from New York was only a little over a month before. (Readers of Walker Percy will understand the envy I speak of; we often feel better in the midst of the disaster than we do in ordinary life.) I remembered afterward the sadness for fellow Americans who died tragically and the gratitude that I (who am desperately afraid of heights) never had to make the difficult decision about whether to burn or to gamble on jumping out of a window. I remembered the subsequent history of American wars and foreign policy and the political tides that rumbled through our country and affect us even now.

But what also went through my mind was a conversation I had with a group of people thinking about politics just a short time ago. In that conversation, a very brilliant law professor asked a question that had been bugging him for a while. What do people mean when they talk about political prudence? Isn’t prudence just a fancy word for cost-benefit analysis? What’s the difference?

The conversation, like many conversations, didn’t really have a come-to-Jesus moment where my skeptical legal academic was converted to the use of prudence in his vocabulary. For one thing, I’m not sure those of us pro-prudence arguers did a great job—alas, a reality in many arguments when you know you’re right. But for another thing, I think that it is difficult to see the difference between prudence and cost-benefit analysis when examples of the former often involve objects that could be met by the latter. For instance, when I look at Wikipedia’s entry on “prudence,” I see examples such as this: “For instance, a stockbroker using his experience and all the data available to him decides that it is beneficial to sell stock A at 2PM tomorrow and buy stock B today.”

I think my friend would say to this, “See what I’m talking about?!” And I agree that when we are talking about very narrow decisions about when to buy and sell stock, the way of prudence is pretty indistinguishable from cost-benefit analysis. How much will I gain is measured against how much I will lose at a given time—the best overall measurable result I can find determines my buying and selling.

Cost-benefit analysis is often a useful form of prudential consideration because in many cases we have broad agreements about the objectives and the goals of a particular agent or activity. If a given governmental department or a corporation is dispensing a product or a service and everybody agrees that it should be open to as many people as possible, the questions about how to do it are pretty subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Delivery by truck or by drone? Do we need product or tech support in setting it up or can people just contact support if they need help? Which suppliers can get us the best materials at the lowest cost? What kind of packaging will guarantee that a product is safely and securely delivered?

In all such questions as the above, prudence has an easy task of it. But it’s when the questions get difficult that we realize that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t quite cut it. Teachers of prudence have never tried to rouse students into an appreciation of this cardinal (or “hinge”) virtue by saying, “It’s the virtue of CPAs!” Instead, as they have said for millennia, it is the virtue of charioteers. Or today we might say it’s the virtue of quarterbacks.

Why does this make a difference? Because accountants are generally hired to let you know what is the safest way to avoid risk and get good returns. Accountants assume that things will go on for some time as they are and can help you operate in the constraints of a situation that can be bad or worse. But their charter is a narrow one. To help you save and make money. Charioteers and quarterbacks know that life is not about aggregates but about living a life well and acting gloriously after being a goat. They know life often presents us with almost certain losses if we don’t act swiftly and certainly on what we think we know in a way that accountants would blanch at.

Sometimes our wide receivers are a bit on the slow side but the Hail Mary is really the prudent thing anyway.

Even more different from the green eyeshade life, true prudence takes into account goods that are really off the material measurement chart because they involve likely material losses that might have no material gains. I asked my professor friend if he would ever take a bullet for a stranger, particularly one he didn’t know and for whom he couldn’t calculate whether that person’s life would bring more worldly good than his own. He didn’t think he would.

That’s no attack on the professor. I’d like to think I would take the bullet, but I don’t really know if I would. My point, however, in bringing this up is that prudence can dictate a course of action in an emergency even in the absence of the data needed to run a cost-benefit analysis. And prudence can say to a person that the best option is to risk one’s life for a relative, a friend, or even a countryman because such a sacrifice has in mind a future that is not simply measurable in dollars and cents, potential law review articles, or other this-worldly estimates of a life. Prudence can say that the best option for a country is to risk the blood of its people and treasure in a battle to not be slaves. And prudence can even say that the best option is to risk one’s life in a case in which the chances of survival are slim to none.

The reason prudence can say this is because prudence takes into account a deeper wisdom about the human condition than accountants, quarterbacks, or even charioteers. It understands that human communities are not merely about justice and the GDP but love. Sacrificial love doesn’t hesitate to rush in even against the worst odds. Though the lover doesn’t think in these terms, this is utterly reasonable. As a Christian this reasonableness is perhaps easier for me to see because I believe that the potential benefits of self-sacrifice are visible, if only through a glass darkly, in eternity with God. But I think that many secular people can grasp this, if only through an even darker glass, when they think about their desires for their world. They want to live in a place where there are people who judge that it is wise and right to risk their lives for their fellows.

We are back to 9/11 again. Those first responders who were trudging up flights and flights of steps in a burning building that would claim their own lives were not men who did cost-benefit analyses. If they had, they would have run like hell (and I use that word for a reason). Instead, they were men in whom prudence shined forth in its true glory—not as cautiousness or risk-aversion or merely rational calculators. Instead, aided by wills set on love and that other cardinal virtue of courage, prudence shined forth as heroism.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of Firemen’s Memorial (Boston) by John Wilson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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