All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1992

The Virtue of Prudence

If there is one personal moral virtue that gives support not only to our commercial activities and the profession of business, but also to the economic system of capitalism, it is the virtue of prudence. As we ordinarily think of it, prudence means caring about one’s well-being, but there is a lot more to it than that.

For one thing, in the history of human reflection about ethics and morality an interesting development has been the decline of prudence as a morally significant item. In the works of modern ethicists, being prudent is usually contrasted with being moral or ethical. For the Greeks, prudence was an important element of the moral life; whereas for moderns, it is virtually irrelevant to morality.

One result is that almost no important ethicist in our time believes that commerce, business, and capitalism are morally defensible. At most, these parts of human community life provide us with material wealth, so perhaps, as the early defenders of capitalism believed, it is a matter of “private vice, public benefit.” That is, we tolerate acting prudently simply so as to gain overall prosperity for our societies.

Professor Den Uyl’s book is a brilliant, unparalleled exploration of the details of the story I have barely hinted at. He traces its numerous intellectual elements; he analyzes all of them carefully; he then shows how mistaken moral and political philosophers have been to abandon concern for prudence. Finally, he develops the case for the reality and vital necessity of this virtue in modern life.

In his concluding sections, Professor Den Uyl shows us that not only the virtue of prudence but all the moral virtues require, for their exercise in human community life, the protection of the rights to life, liberty, and property. He gives us a brief but very powerful outline of the argument advanced by some other philosophers of the free society, namely, that it is only in the fully free society that the moral or ethical nature of human living is fully honored.

Tibor Machan is a visiting professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point. His most recent book is Capitalism and Individualism: Refraining the Argument for the Free Society (St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.