Lesson 7: Prudence and the Other Virtues


Lecture 4A

In this lesson you will be introduced to the large question of the Christian virtues. According to realist moral theory, the entire subject matter of morals revolves around instruction on the virtues and growth in a virtuous life. In order to deal with the requirements of catechetical instruction, the Christian tradition customarily reduces the large number of virtues that distinguish the practice of the Christian life into two categories: the theological virtues and the cardinal moral virtues, sometimes called the human virtues. The theological virtues include faith, hope, and charity; the cardinal moral virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Aquinas, a principal exponent of virtue-centered ethics, asserts that the virtues accomplish more than provide convenient categories for moralists or catechists to organize their instruction about the moral life. Virtue, in other words, supplies more than a description of moral goodness. As developed within the Thomist tradition, the virtues comprise real sources of human action, working both in the line of efficient and final causality. They are true dispositions for action, operative habits (habitus) that energize both the quest and the attainment of a happy life. See the introduction at Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 49: "Having discussed action and feeling we now turn to the sources of human action within and without the agent. The sources of action within the agent are capacities habitus; capacities were considered in the prima pars, but habitus remain to be discussed [in the prima-secundae]. We shall deal first with habitus in general; and then turn to those particular habitus such as virtues and vices, which are sources of human action." To return to the subject of Christian freedom, only the exercise of free choice shaped by virtue guarantees that a person reaches the goal of complete happiness.

Since the virtues serve as real sources of human action, their operation observes the basic dynamic that governs all human action. The practice of the theological and moral virtues enables a person to both pursue with intelligence and embrace with discrimination the real goods of supernature and nature that are intended by God to perfect human existence. The effect of virtue on human behavior is best displayed in those moral virtues that regulate the movements of both the rational and sense appetites: justice in the will, fortitude in the contending emotions, and temperance in the impulse emotions.

Moral behavior means intelligent behavior; no virtuous behavior exists apart from conformity with a measure of moral truth. To put moral truth into human behavior is the work of the first cardinal virtue, prudence. This virtue in fact embodies a kind of knowing, as a long-standing intuition of the Christian tradition testifies. For example, the seventh-century Iberian theologian Isidore of Seville (d. 636) fittingly associates in his Etymologies the origin of the word prudentia with knowledge about provident conduct. Prudent persons look ahead in order to ensure that what they do achieves the good; put otherwise, prudence is knowing what to want and what not to want. The cardinal virtue of prudence shapes human deliberation with respect to the proper means for reaching an end, and what is equally important ensures that the person in fact embraces the end. From the perspectives of moral realism, the adjective prudential applies to every good moral action performed.

Reading Assignments

The Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics, chap. 4.

Introduction to Moral Theology, chap. 3.

Writing Assignment

Write a three-page essay that explains the central place that prudence holds in shaping the exercise of human freedom.


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