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Moral Reasoning and the Virtue of Prudence



What is the relationship between "moral reasoning" (how we conceive what is good and bad) and the virtue of Prudence (how we decide the best choice to make). In examining this idea, I hope to gain some insight into how to help people of all ages and stages develop a better sense of prudence.


The Virtues and Prudence

Virtue, in a broad sense, can be defined simply as "a good habit". However, Thomas Aquinas outlined more specific virtues that apply to the person as a spiritual and ethical being. Aquinas stated that there are three theological virtues and four cardinal virtues. Additionally Aquinas posited over fifty other "allied" or "sub" virtues that fall under the 7 primary virtues. There are other virtues--knowledge and understanding regulate the "speculative intellect", and art and science, along with prudence, regulate the "practical intellect"--but not all virtues are "moral virtues". But most are. Virtues are the mean (middle point) between two extremes, and are habits, meaning one must typically cultivate them through years of practice. Aristotle discusses this in depth in his Nichomachean Ethics .

Three Theological Virtues

The Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love are called Theological Virtues because

1) they come from God, primarily through Baptism, and

2) they help us become better Christian Persons. Love is the highest of all virtue, and faith is the lowest of these three.

4 Cardinal Virtues

The term "Cardinal" here does not refer to the bird, but to its Latin root cardo --"that upon which something hinges or depends". Therefore, the Cardinal Virtues are called such because all other moral virtues are dependent upon them and can be categorized under one of them. They are also called "Natural Virtues" because

1) we have them from birth by the very nature of being human, and

2) they help us become better human persons.

The four Cardinal Virtues, from most important to least important, are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance.


The simplest definition of prudence is "knowing the right thing to do, and doing it". Therefore, in order to be or act prudently one must

1) know the Good,

2) know the right good to act upon, according to the situation, and

3) act upon the good.

To miss any of these aspects is to fail to act prudently. Prudence is an intellectual virtue, and thus is heavily based in experience. However, I argue that it is still possible for an inexperienced person to act prudently. It is the highest natural virtue, because it is considered "practical wisdom" and in order to judge what is Just, Fortuitous, and Temperate, one must be governed by Prudence.

Kohlberg's 6 Stages

The Developmental Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg theorized a six-stage process of moral development, which could further be categorized into three levels--Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional. He used the famous "Heinz Dilemma" to analyze children's moral reasoning, and then made sure his results were reliable and valid. This is the question Kohlberg asked to the children in his experiment:

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug-for his wife. Should the husband have done that? (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 19)


Level 1--Preconventional

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment. ( 1-7 years old).

Kohlberg called this level "preconventional" because the child sees themselves as separate from society, and morality as something external to them. This is partially because they are in the earlier stages of Piaget's cognitive development. In stage 1, the child sees morality as strictly Obedience and Punishment. To be moral is to be obedient, and the goal is to avoid punishment. Stealing becomes bad because "mommy says so", or because "you'll get punished". Children were most likely to disagree that Heinz should steal the drug.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange (7-12 Years Old)

The child begins to see that different people have different views, and thus much of morality becomes relative. The majority of right and wrong is based off of what is right for the individual, based off of risk-benefit ratio and reciprocity, and thus possesses a sort of "ethical egoist" reasoning. If the benefit outweighs the risk, or if they are likely to be rewarded by another person, they are likely to see the act as moral.

Level 2: Conventional

Stage 3: Interpersonal Relationships (12-18ish Years Old)

In this stage adolescents see themselves as part of society, and morality becomes based on fostering positive interpersonal relationships, especially on the family or person-to-person level. The fundamental judge of whether or not an act is moral is based on the agent's intentions or motives. Youth tended to side with Heinz, saying that he wanted to save his wife and his intentions were good. They sometimes went so far as to say the druggist's intentions were bad and hence he should go to jail.

Stage 4: Social Order (Young Adulthood)

In this stage the reasoner moves past merely family dynamics and begins to consider society as a whole while making moral decisions. The primary function is to uphold social order by obeying laws, authority, and duty. They look past the intention of the person and consider society as a whole. Most tend to disagree with Heinz, saying that "if everyone did what they wanted, we would have social chaos." On the surface, the reasoning looks much like stage one, however, we see that it's not just blind obedience, but that they value the law because it promotes social order.


Level 3: Postconventional

Stage 5: Social Contract (Adulthood)

Level 3 is called "Postconventional" because the person is no longer concerned with how to be a good part of society so much as trying to make society itself good, and in that way are beyond conventional society. The stage 5 individual sees morality as a social contract based primarily on

1) a hierarchy of both individual and societal rights, and

2) a democratic process of sanction.

Some would defend the morality of Heinz's action saying that the right to life overrides the druggist's right to property, but still uphold that the judge in the case should analyze the situation and still punish Heinz, albeit lightly.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

This stage is mostly theoretical, and is based on the teachings of Immanuel Kant, as well as Kohlberg's own beliefs and observations. It is characterized by a willingness to engage in "civil disobedience" when the democratic process from stage 5 fails. Kohlberg himself failed to find anyone who reasoned at this stage consistently, but states that this individual would have a higher understanding of universal principles.

Speculative Application

Is one stage more "prudent" then the others?

Since prudence is knowing the right thing to do in a situation, and doing it, then it stands to reason that the level of moral reasoning which exhibits this definition would be the level in which the virtue of prudence is, in a sense, perfected.

Stage 1 is undoubtedly out, because moral reasoning is nearly absolute and separate from the situation.

Stage 2 may appear to be situational, but rather than taking into account objective good as prudence must, it considers only subject good, or the good of the "I". This cannot be prudent.

Stage 3 does begin to exhibit more prudence because it takes into account the situation through the observation of intention. However, traditional theological ethics dictate intention is only one of three elements of consideration in morality (in addition to object and circumstance), and so this stage cannot be the flourishing of prudence.

At stage 4, while a higher level of cognitive reasoning is used to support one's reason, it is still primarily based off of the absoluteness of a law, and thus while presenting some possibility of prudence, is not fully prudent.

Therefore, stage 5 must be the "most prudent" stage (as 6 is theoretical)--Morals become primarily (though not absolutely) situational and based off of a hierarchy of rights (ie. the "right to life" may be seen as most important). The focus on democratic sanctions reinforces the idea of knowing the "situational good", and being able to carry it out.

(How) Can prudence be taught at all stages?

Prudence, being a virtue in alignment with our human nature, should be teachable to all ages in some sense. I will not pretend to know enough to suggest how to teach this to each age based exclusively off of their moral reasoning stage, but I do believe that knowing where the person is coming from will aid in understanding their perspective and thus perhaps help us realize how better to explain prudence to them. I do know from experience that even second grade children can understand what prudence is even if they may not understand how to correctly exercise it.

How can we use these conclusions?

As Christians, we are called to live virtuous and moral lives, and can most adequately do this if we understand the virtues themselves. However, as humans we are also psychological beings, and in some sense are "captives" to our mind, age, and mental capacity. By understanding how our Christian calling and our human nature and capacity interact, we can better teach ourselves and others so that we may more truly live out the authentic Gospel lives to which Christ calls us.

© 2009 R D Langr

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