Are you still deciding what your new year resolution should be?
Good decision-making is indispensable to building the life we want. However, to arrive at a good decision, we have to grow in the virtue of prudence – an essential ingredient for deciding well.
What is Prudence?
Prudence is the virtue that helps us avoid making bad decisions such as decisions based on feelings alone. Prudence is another word for wisdom. It is the most important virtue because it guides all other virtues. It is for this reason that ancient philosophers have described prudence as the charioteer of virtues.
Prudence tells us how much of each virtue is needed in a particular situation. Through prudence, I can tell when I am making a decision too quickly or if my courage is excessive such that I have shifted from being courageous to being foolhardy. Here is some basic information on prudence and some quick tips on how to apply it to your life to make good or better decisions.
Prudence is a cardinal virtue (others being fortitude, temperance and justice). The term cardinal (Latin, cardo), means “hinge” because the cardinal virtues form the primary qualities required for an upright human life.
How to Acquire Prudence for Good Decision Making
Prudence requires practice in various actions, big or small. Like any virtue, it needs to first become a habit if we are to enjoy its benefits. In other words, to be prudent you need to practice being prudent and over a significant period of time.
The conditions or foundation for prudence is the ability to reason or rationality. It also requires you to be able to recognize a good goal. Without these two elements your practice of prudence will have serious challenges from the outset and ultimately you will not make prudent or good decisions.
Tips to make Good Decisions
Good decisions require three components. The first is (1) Deliberation. At this initial stage, you weigh all your options concerning the decision you wish to make. For this, we can rely on memory or what has happened in the past including our experiences as well as precedents or experiences of others. We can also consult trustworthy information in books, and the input of wise and good friends.
In addition, to conduct good deliberation, we need to be open or docile and apply understanding so that we don’t reject advice without understanding it. It also means we listen carefully and assess teaching and guidance. We should also exercise comprehension or understanding and do some imaginative scenario planning to apply our learnings to the situation that we are facing.
Without this stage of deliberation, we can end up with the problem of rash decisions. Good deliberation should bring us to the next stage which is judgement. Note though that deliberation is sometimes not easy but remains indispensable to moving closer to a good overall decision made.
(2) Judgment is the stage where we decide what option to take from our deliberation. To achieve a well-reasoned judgment or choice, we should apply a clear criteria. We may find these in standards created by others (from people or books we encountered in the deliberation stage). If none, we may create our own criteria based on our learnings in the deliberative stage. In this process, we ought to avoid choosing just any means to achieve our goal. For good decisions to be made, the means of achieving the decision should be good also. There are exceptions to using only a good means to achieve a good end. One of such exception is the just war principle whereby you enter war to end a worse atrocity. (But I digress). It is sufficient to remember that without proper judgment, and a good means to our end or a good option, we will fail to achieve a good decision. At best our decision may be seen as thoughtless and worse still, it may leave us unhappy.
(3) The third and final stage is command, whereby the judgment made is applied. Command requires circumspection and caution as well as foresight. All of these call for great care to ensure that we proceed carefully with the judgement we made. However, we cannot let this caution cause us to be stuck or fail to act. Failure to carry out command after properly carrying out deliberation and judgement is negligence and ultimately a failure in making a good decision. Oftentimes negligence can lead to sins or crimes of commission or omission so it is definitely not the ideal end to a process of decision-making.
We try to be Prudent Most of the Time
All three stages of prudence above happen in all acts of prudence we decide to carry out Oftentimes, we go through the three steps very quickly – in a matter of seconds or over months, depending on the size and weight of the decision to be made.
How do I know whether My Decision Is Good?
Prudence presupposes the good. However, what is “good” can be challenged by anyone. This is mostly true nowadays because truth has become more individualized. We often hear people say “your truth” or “her truth.” While truth may be subjective, for example, the particular experience of one individual is indeed their truth, Christians know that there are other layers of truth in this life. The most important truth being, objective truth. The belief that stealing someone’s property is wrong is objective truth because it is seen as a general and cross-cutting principle.
Good decisions should be good both subjectively and objectively. This means that they should be good for you but also when reduced to a principle, they should be good generally and in a cross-cutting way. An example is the decision to enter the vocation or marriage. This is a good decision at the subjective level. It is also a good decision generally because it supports the objective principle that we should have grassroots stability in society where children may possibly be born in a peaceful and nurturing environment.
At times, the subjective good may be more difficult to identify. For example, whether we should quit our job or not. In such cases, we should spend a good amount of time in the deliberation stage to take a good decision. Thankfully, the Church has so many resources on what is objectively and subjectively good. We also should – hopefully – have trustworthy and wise friends in our neighborhood or Church community who could also provide good guidance.
In making good decisions, we should note that there are some acts that are intrinsically evil and known to be such through the use of a natural common sense. For instance, nearly all known civilizations of the world know it is important to respect property rights, to do good and avoid/minimize evil. Some of these universal principles were expounded upon by Pope St. John Paul in his Encyclical: Veritatis Splendor (1993).
Are You A Good Decision-Maker?
You are most likely a good decision maker if you are not afraid or worried about confronting a problem and ultimately find peaceful and reasonable solutions to them, in most cases.
The Christian Decision-Maker
The prudent Christian person does not only acquire prudence through being a normal decision-maker, he acquires prudence from an infusion of grace through the Sacraments.
Christian prudence is thus a gift which effectively builds on natural prudence, taking the latter to a higher plane. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the acts of a Christian are guided by supernatural realities, and not only natural realities. The goal of Christian prudence is not only good decisions in this life but also to choose a life of holiness – to ultimately enter life eternal with God.
The perfect prudent Christian is Jesus Christ himself, the only One known to have lived perfect prudence and is himself Wisdom incarnate (1 Cor 1:24). He encourages Christians to be as innocent as doves and yet as shrewd as servants (Mt.10:16), a paradox that he lived perfectly.
The prudent Christian, guided by the additional promise of eternal life, may make decisions that seem foolish to those without the Christian view. For example, fasting from worldly pleasures or embracing martyrdom.
A good decision-maker conceives the good and finds a good way to attain it. The acquisition of prudence or good decision-making skills adds to our freedom because it means that we can handle many situations and problem-solve without fear.
Since prudence controls other virtues, a mastery of prudence would in turn lead to the mastery of all other virtues and ultimately, make us a wise.
A wise person will master her life and the world around her. Her wisdom will not completely protect her from pain and suffering but it will give her the perspective, strength and decision-making prowess to navigate these situations healthily. She would be generally content both in this life and in the next.
10 Things to do to Grow in Prudence
Henry Bocala (2022), Cardinal Virtues in Focus: Why it Matters to Think & Act Well