In praise of moral caution

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The Article

A delicious question was asked in the Ottawa Citizen, this last week, and answered by Margaret Somerville, the McGill ethicist. It was, “What is the most dangerous idea in the world today?” Her answer—that humans deserve no more respect than other animals—is a good one. The consequences of that particular “great dumb idea” would be catastrophic to all humans—and to animals as well as men, I might add. But my own answer to the question would be different.

I think the most dangerous idea, in wide circulation today, is: “That in making a moral decision, we ought to rule out all merely prudential considerations.” Conversely, I agree with the ancient Catholic and Christian teaching that Prudence is the highest of the “cardinal” or “hinge” virtues. (The idea goes back at least to Plato; and I accepted it myself long before I was received into the Roman Church.) If the consequences of what one is doing or advocating are evil, then what one is doing or advocating is certainly wrong; and one cannot pretend not to know about consequences that are very easily foreseeable.

But in our schools, and through news and entertainment media, bureaucratic propaganda, and even the courts, the young of today are implicitly taught that Prudence has no place in the ethical order. They learn instead that goodness consists of making a parade of one’s own habitual “niceness”—of our environmental consciousness, feminist awareness, “tolerance” and verbal non-violence, inverted racism, homophilia, Islamophilia, and the various other politically correct gestures.

My impatience with political correctitude has perhaps been established in previous columns. My point today will not require that I bash it any more. Instead I am making a more subtle point, which I hope will go closer to the bone.

In almost every case—and books have already been filled with them—there are unintended consequences to these gestures. You cannot “empower A” without disempowering “B”; you cannot reward one group without penalizing another; you cannot create privileges for which no one has to pay. The result of some very public “good deed” may well be bad deeds done to others out of the spotlight.

In other words, the sane, genuinely reasonable moral operator will cost his good deeds, before proceeding with them. And I do not mean this strictly in dollars and cents, for I am neither a libertarian nor an economist. Example: granting some benefit that means freedom to “A,” may well entail imposing real slavery upon the overlooked “B.” And that is the kind of cost that needs factoring.

Yet in private as well as public discussion today, there is precious little costing. Worse, the whole idea of this broad accounting for the foreseeable, is rejected. The notion that, “We must do the right thing regardless of cost,” is even taken to be “the Christian ideal,” by progressive people who are also posing as Christians. And yet it is nearly the opposite of actual Christian moral teaching.

A question for every professional do-gooder should be: “Who is paying for your charitable act? Are you personally making the necessary sacrifice, or are you quietly transferring the cost to others? And then demonizing them, if they complain?” For when the result of all this “niceness” is shown to be, very likely, nastiness for persons unmentioned, the reply generally comes down to, “Who cares?” The do-gooder has positioned himself “on the side of the angels,” and set an example of smug self-righteousness that others may copy. And by contemporary standards, that’s the important thing. The government’s job is to “tax the rich” to pay for the fallout; the progressive citizen’s job is to strut his narcissism, and receive praise and recognition for his conformity and obedience to the latest trends.

Fashions come and go; Prudence should remain as the highest civil virtue.

But what is Prudence? A deep question that, and not one I can answer in a paragraph, except to say it isn’t what most people think it is, today. It isn’t merely a form of restraint. Nor is it limited to trying to foresee all the consequences of an action: for Prudence requires us to ignore consequences, beyond the horizon of human understanding; to avoid presuming on other free agents; and to avoid what is absolutely forbidden—what is inherently wrong—even if we can reasonably foresee a good result from breaking the moral law. Behind this teaching is the theological idea that God is not a utilitarian, and does not Himself cut corners.

In the Christian past, to which we owe such civilization as we have, Prudence was recognized as the hinge of hinges, the heart of all practical wisdom, Queen of the Cardinal Virtues, and the necessary interpreter of each of the others (Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude).

To the post-modern mind, that is “so much baggage.” Yet as Prudence herself would suggest, it is foolish to discard “baggage” without first establishing what it contains.

David Warren
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