A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eco-Justice and the Virtues: The Role of Prudence in the Ecological Struggle

The first of the four great cardinal virtues (from the Latin “cardo” - hinge) is the virtue of prudence (phronÄ“sis in Greek, prudentia in Latin). My experience as a high school teacher of Latin and philosophy has taught me that the significance that the ancients accorded this virtue often seems counterintuitive to those who share the contemporary association of prudence with mere risk-avoidance - as the merely sensible avoidance of danger and hardship. What, my students often wondered, is so virtuous about that? This ambivalence about prudence is reflected in current popular usage as well, in which the word prudence, (like the word pious), is just as likely to be used derogatorily as appreciatively. For while it is generally acknowledged to be a good thing to be regarded as faithful, just, compassionate, generous, or gentle - even by those who lack such virtues - to be characterized as prudent is almost insulting. The word conjures up a ghostly images of calculating but timid businessmen or overly scrupulous spinster aunts, and these images, in their turn, suggest a combination of cowardice and self-interest.

The ancient writers, though, whether pagan or Christian, had a much broader and more inclusive understanding of prudence. It was, for them, primarily an intellectual virtue, a disposition directed principally towards truth, knowledge, and reason. For Aristotle, and for those who followed his lead, whether Stoic or Christian, prudence was the Ur-spring of morality itself, a virtuous disposition that made it possible to deliberate rightly regarding that which was good or bad for men, not abstractly, but concretely, in specific situations in the world as it is actually is; and by means of such deliberation, to act rightly. Prudence, then, is a kind of good sense. It good sense directed toward the service of all that is rightly apprehended by human beings to be worthy of aspiration. Properly speaking, it may even be described as the intelligence of a human being who seeks to be good. Without it, we cannot know what use to make of the other virtues in our efforts to be moral.

Thomas Aquinas, expanding on Aristotle, makes it clear that prudence, of all the cardinal virtues, is the one that must govern the rest. Without prudence, he argued, temperance, courage and justice could tell us neither what should be done, nor how to do it. These other virtues, as Aquinas saw it, would, without the organizing intelligence of prudence as practical reasoning, be either blind or indeterminate. The just person, though he might love justice, would not know how to factually go about achieving it, and the courageous person would have no idea how to apply courage, nor under what circumstances it would be beneficial.

Aquinas was equally clear, however, in his recognition that prudence alone is not goodness. Without the support of the other virtues, prudence quickly devolves into mere shrewdness, or to an empty form of rationality deprived of any goal. It is, in a very real sense, a purely instrumental virtue, enlisted to serve the ends that are not its own, concerned, for its own part, principally with the choice of means. This, however, is precisely what makes it essential to virtue, since no virtue, in any given concrete situation, can do without it.(1) By itself, prudence is nothing, but without it neither the other virtues not the goods to which they are dispositions engender morality. A little reflection serves to make this obvious. Simply loving justice does not make one factually just, as generations of decent and well-meaning but incompetent rulers have shown. Loving the truth does not make one factually learned, as is manifest in the sloppy ramblings of every autodidact that has ever lived. Nor does loving peace make us genuinely peaceable. The road to hell, as has been frequently observed, is paved with good intentions. It is in order to avoid such disastrous outcomes that prudence is necessary, since prudence is the governing foil to all of the anarchic tendencies in us that frustrate the fruition of all that to which we love and aspire. It is an intelligence that governs the other virtues without in any sense supplanting them.

Less abstractly, though, how is one to characterize prudence? To begin with, as Aristotle insisted, prudence is not a science but an art, dealing principally with contingencies. It is the nuanced examination, in a concrete situation, of what might be possible, and by what means, and this is not a matter about which, generally speaking, genuine certainty exists. Prudence is, after all, is a kind of deliberation between alternative courses of action, and one does not need to deliberate unless there is a choice to be made. If one is an engineer who has been engaged to rebuild an essential bridge that has been washed away, and one does not know how great the span is between the riverbanks, it is prudence that drives one, by whatever methods are available, to measure the span. On the other hand, once the span is known, then this ceases to be a matter for deliberation. Prudence then passes on to the questions of which types of building materials are suitable and which are available, and to the question of how many laborers will be needed, and how one might go about training and paying these laborers. In other words, it is precisely the uncertainty of the concrete situation that calls out for prudential reasoning. Genuine prudence, then, is what a wise individual does in a situation in which one is deliberating, not about what is good, per se, but about how the good is to be achieved when there is some uncertainty about whether and by what means this good can be achieved.

The fact that prudence is an art rather than a science is, perhaps, easier to recognize in a specific case. Take, for instance, prudential parenting – every parent must, to some extent, make it up as he or she goes along, since every child is unique, and since the social, historical and economic circumstances in which one raises each child are also unique. This does not, however, mean that any old method of parenting will do, just as long as one is more or less well-intentioned. Far from it. Parents must use every bit of reason, discretion, knowledge and foresight that they have to successfully raise virtuous, healthy and happy children - and even then, all that they have to bring to the task may not, in the end, be sufficient. In any case, it is simply not enough to love one's children and wish them well while doing whatever one likes without serious reflection. A great many parents have done precisely that and failed miserably at parenting their resultingly damaged off-spring. That some such parents have succeeded in spite of their lack of prudence does not make them virtuous, but lucky, and luck is no virtue. Similarly, ecological virtue entails more than simply loving a particular natural environment. Insufficient knowledge and inadequate skill and foresight have doomed more than a few well-intentioned ecological initiatives, and persons with all the good will in the world have often done immense damage to eco-systems. Whether we like it or not, love and good intentions cannot take the place of practical intelligence. To participate fully in any good requires a certain degree of knowledge, skill, and commitment. The governing art of prudence is always necessary.

That prudence is an art does not mean that one cannot study it in order to try and improve one's own skill at practical moral reasoning. To be virtuous is to do as the virtuous man does. The frustrating apparent circularity of this Aristotelian insight belies its intrinsic brilliance. To know what prudence is is to know how good persons deliberate, and the quest for such knowledge is not nearly as arcane as some might imagine it to be, since we can, in a pinch, ask those who are virtuous how they do it. People have been doing exactly that for centuries, and the knowledge of the art thus accumulated is what we call ethics. Remarkably, for all of the arguments and differences of opinion regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of morality and the proper application of moral codes and laws to difficult situations, there is an extraordinary degree of genuine agreement regarding the apparent underlying methodological principles that sound moral decision making intuitively reflects. One cannot be prudent by proxy, of course – the the study of morality is no replacement for moral action. One must still apply what one has learned from others to the particular circumstance of one's own life, and the outcome of such application is everywhere uncertain. Nevertheless, one can learn the art of prudence in much the same way that one can learn the arts of painting, dancing, writing, parenting and governing. One can sit at the feet of the masters of the art and learn the basic methodological skills, and then begin to exercise what one has learned, either under their direct tutelage, or by attempting to apply their best advice.

In the case of prudence, what we learn under this tutelage, and from the philosophical reflection that has stemmed from it, are certain requirements of method in practical reasoning. To paint like an old master is an art, but learning certain brush-strokes and an understanding of color theory is essential if one is going to ever do better than daub paint on canvas; dancing too, is an art, but there are things a body must be taught to do in time with music if one is ever to be, however modestly, a good dancer. Failure to achieve these degrees of modest methodological competency is fatal to these arts, and prudence is no different. What then, are these methodological competencies for the art of prudence?

The first, and most widely recognized of these practical competencies is that one must, consciously or unconsciously - and preferably consciously - embrace a coherent plan of life. A moral life is only possible to persons who think about their opportunities, and who intelligently direct, focus, and control their urges, inclinations and impulses. One must have what the modern ethicist, John Rawls, refers to as a rational plan of life. Failure to do so leaves one drifting from moment to moment with no overarching sense of who one wants to be, or what one wants to achieve in life – and one cannot succeed at a goodness to which one never aspires. There are many forms of human flourishing, many greater goods in life that one can choose to participate in, but only if one makes a commitment to do so; and every such commitments involve the sacrifice of lesser desires and whimsies to one's greater goals and aspirations. No one has the time or resources to participate fully in every form of the good, so one must make a reasonable preferential selection between them, based on one's own inclinations, talents, and resources.

Balancing this is another widely recognized practical competency, which is that of acknowledging the plurality of goods which present themselves, and refusing to act against these goods, refusing to diminish them while pursuing one's own chosen goals, even if these goods have not been significantly adopted as part of one's own rational plan of life. A monk may forgo the joys of a happy marriage, sex, and children, and be a better person for it. On the other hand, a monk who denigrates these goods, casting aspersions on them, or seeking to inhibit others from adopting them as part of their own rational plan of life is a puritanical prude, or an ascetic snob. The intellectual who finds sports uncongenial and advocates the elimination of team play is similarly imprudent. As a parent, one may focus on a particular excellence in raising one's child, encouraging a quasi-ascetic focus on a particular activity for the sake of acquiring excellence (as in the parent who raises a violin prodigy) or one may opt for a broad and diverse sort of educational regimen which provides greater scope and balance but little depth of participation in any one good. Either method may represent a prudent, moral approach to childrearing. But a parent who sneers at the mediocrity of the well-rounded children of other parents, or who regards the passionate intensity of the child prodigy as a kind of mutilation, are each guilty of a failure to recognize the diversity of goods and the legitimacy of the many forms of participation in it.

Another methodological principle reflects the factual interdependence of human beings and the individual's need for the cooperation of a greater community in order to successfully attain his or her goals. Solitude has its place, and in the context of a particular plan of life, even isolation may be valued – to say that humans are socially interdependent is not to say that anchoritism is inhuman – but even the most solitary and isolated of human lives depends extensively on other human beings for its well-being. Even monks had mothers, as the aphorism has it, and for most of us, this fundamental dependence upon the community at large is considerably more extensive. On the basis of self-interest alone, we have an incentive to act in such a way as to foster the common good of our own community. This does not entail slavish conformity to one's community - one may, after all, seek not only to perpetuate but also to enhance or improve one's community, and one may even choose to seek another community more amenable to one's goals and abilities - but it does condemn activities and life commitments which result in the diminution or unraveling of human society. We need others, and they need us. Our moral deliberation must reflect this interdependency if it is to be prudent.

A fourth, and familiar, methodological requirement is that prudential reasoning makes no arbitrary preference between persons. This universalizing principal was most famously advocated by Immanuel Kant, who sought to ground an entire ethic in this principal alone. As a comprehensive ethic, Kantian deontology is utterly unworkable but, in the context of a fuller and richer virtue ethics of the sort historically adopted by most Christians prior to the Reformation - as a methodological principle of prudential reasoning - it remains essential. One's own well-being, and that of one's family and friends, with whom one's own well-being is intimately linked, may reasonably be one's primary concern, and the subject of one's principal efforts. But this is surely not simply because it, and they, are one's own. Objectively speaking, we are driven by reason to affirm that our own well-being and that of one's family and friends, however precious, are no more so than any one else's. The only rational ground for self-preferentiality is that it is only through one's own free and rational participation in the goods that one is capable of doing what is virtuous and reasonable in the first place. Christ said to love others as oneself, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. His clear implication is that it is natural and right to love ourselves from the outset. We are, after all, in the optimal position to fulfill that which is good for ourselves and for those with whom we are bound by ties of love, affection, and duty; but to violate this methodological principle by limiting ourselves to this alone, or by placing ourselves at a higher value than others, is to violate rationality itself, and deprive ourselves of the natural human flourishing rationality represents. It is, as the Church Fathers frequently opined, to become “as a beast.”

This methodological requirement of practical reasoning, that one shows no preference between persons, represents, as the legal scholar John Finnis puts it, “a pungent critique of selfishness, special pleading, double standards, hypocrisy, indifference to the goods of others that one could easily help ('passing by on the other side') and all the other manifold forms of egotistic and group bias.”(2) Moral deliberation which fails to universalize its judgments in this way, is imprudent, because it fails to participate in the good of rationality itself. It fails to make use of one of the principle resources for deliberative reasoning.

A fifth methodological principle is that one should always bring about or achieve the good, whether for ourselves or for others, with a reasonable degree of efficiency. Life is short, and time, energy, and resources are limited. One should not waste one's opportunities by using inefficient or wasteful means, and when one is deliberating about what one should or should not do, one should judge one's options according to their effectiveness, fitness for achieving one's purpose, by their utility, and by their likely consequences, both positive and negative.

This methodological principal is not, however, a justification for a utilitarian, or any other form of consequentialist ethics. Utilitarianism is doomed by its failure to recognize that the “good” to which humans aspire is fundamentally pluriform. The “good” cannot be reduced to a single category such as pleasure or happiness which can be weighed and measured for comparative evaluation. Is knowledge better than friendship? Is political order better than political freedom? The utilitarian seeks to answer this question by inquiring as to which causes the most pleasure or happiness (or, similarly, by what minimizes pain and suffering). But to what or to whom is this question addressed? It is not a question that one can put to knowledge or friendship, or to any other apprehended good itself, but only to the prudential deliberation of a moral agent. The person deciding must decide this for him or herself, and there is no answer to the question but that which is assigned to it by the one deliberating. James may prefer knowledge, and Mary, friendship, and though they are both right to value the good they prefer, neither is wrong in their assignation of relative value, since this entirely depends on the rational life plan of the person who makes the decision. To acknowledge that “x” and “y” are both good, while giving greater weight to “x” than “y” in one's own rational plan of life, does not entail, as the utilitarian imagines it it does, a truth claim that “x” is proportionally “better” than “y” according to any single scale of value. There are many goods, and they are fundamentally incommensurable.(3)

Even if this were not the case, though, and the “goodness” of of every apprehended good could somehow be univocally measured and compared, the utilitarian demand that one “maximize good” cannot result in any kind of determinate result, and so provides no actual guidance to the deliberating will. To do so, the principle would also have to delineate whether the good to be “maximized” is to be maximized with or without reference to its distribution. Is it solely the good which is to be maximized, regardless of how few acquire it? Or is that the good is to be maximized in a way consistent with an overall average of good for all? Or is it perhaps that the good to be maximized in such a way that the maximal increase of good for some must also result in at least a minimal increase of good for all? Or is it even that the good should be maximized only in such a way that all get an equivalent amount? Some such specification is essential if the principle of maximizing good is to have any meaning whatsoever. Otherwise, the utilitarian principle is as meaningless as the rules for a hot dog eating contest in which it is specified that the person who eats the most hot dog wins, but which fails to specify a time limit for the contest. Who wins? The contestant who eats 10 in a minute? The contestant who eats 500 in a week? Or the contestant who eats 100,000 over a lifetime? The rules don't provide the participants with an answer. Similarly, no utilitarian principle can offer any suggestion as to which state of affairs constitutes the most maximal “maximization” of the good. Utilitarianism is useless as guide to moral decision making, because it is vacuous.

Indeed, not just utilitarianism, but every consequentialist ethic that says that the goodness of an act is solely a function of its results must inevitably enjoin one to make decisions about what one does on the basis of what would produce the best state of affairs. Unfortunately, the options available to us, as well as the preferential ordering of the incommensurable goods to which one can aspire, are simply innumerable. Any truly consequentialist assessment of these presented possibilities could never end, just as it could never determine where to start. Once one grasps this, one begins to realize that what actually generates the conclusions of any apparent consequentialist calculus is not the calculus itself, but always some other unstated principle; an overwhelming desire perhaps, or a predetermined objective, or the traditions and biases of a given group or ideology, or (ideally and preferably) precisely the sort of methodological requirements of prudential reasoning that we have been seeking to enumerate. In any case, prudential reasoning cannot rely upon principles that provide no factual guidance.

This is not at all to suggest that one can ignore or disregard the foreseeable consequences of one's actions and take refuge solely in one's “good intentions.” The end intended, and reasonably expected to directly result from one's course of action, is, of necessity, one of the essential elements of the discursive moral reasoning that we call prudence. Nevertheless, it is only in this narrower and more limited sense, however, that the “end justifies the means.” If the means one uses violates one or more of the other methodological principles of prudential reasoning, then it stands condemned, regardless of the final state of affairs to which it aspires. Failure to grasp this one of the great moral failures of our modern civilization.

Such considerations bring us to a fifth, and closely related methodological principle that has been identified during the centuries of moral reflection upon the dictates of prudential reasoning – which is that respect for the good must be intrinsic to every moral act. No action which, of itself, does nothing but damage or impede a realization or participation in a basic good (such as life, friendship, justice, play, knowledge, faithfulness and so forth) can be good. This methodological principle is often relegated to the discussion of hard cases as a function of the “law of double effect”, but this is to conceive of the principle too narrowly. What is essential here is the rational observation that if one is doing something intrinsically harmful, something that is in violation of some fundamental good, the action itself is bad, regardless of whether further consequences may ultimately result from the act. To threaten to kill hostages in order to encourage one's enemy to capitulate (4) is wrong because, as an act, the killing of hostages is simply one of taking life. Similarly, to abort a fetus, even to bring about the consequences of an improved lifestyle or emotional state on the part of the mother (or society at large), or to torture a prisoner to achieve the goal of acquiring vital military information, are both intrinsically wrong. Any argument to the contrary depends upon a kind of consequentialist reasoning which is, as we have already seen, literally senseless, arbitrary, and therefore utterly impossible to rationally implement. The extended consequences of an act may seem likely to be very good (the enemy may be likely to surrender to avoid further killing of hostages and the war be ended, the young woman may be freed of the serious social and economic consequences of a minor and understandable lapse of judgment for which she may not have even been principally responsible, and the prisoner may divulge information which will save the lives of both soldiers and civilians), and it is easy to let oneself be swayed by such extrinsic consideration to do that which is wrong without careful prudential deliberation. Unfortunately, these acts themselves (killing hostages, aborting the fetus, torturing the prisoner) achieved none of these objectives. However likely or foreseeable the goods intended may appear, each is an effect or consequence of another free act by another person. All that has been achieved directly is the death and/or suffering of a those who are neither directly responsible for the evil that one is seeking to avert, nor for the decision to actually do so. The civilian hostages, the fetus, and the military prisoner, have each been treated as a means to an end. Their rights have been violated for the possible benefit of others. Unsurprisingly, it is on this methodological principle of prudential reasoning that the whole edifice of human rights has been erected. We violate it at the cost of our souls.

There are cases, however, in which the positive effects intended are actually part of the act itself, and so, in a very real sense, actually form part of the description of the act itself, such that we cannot characterize it as just damaging to a basic good. Instances of this would be the removal of the fallopian tube (in which the fetus has fatally lodged) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or the killing of an enemy soldier who is strafing an orphanage with machine gun fire. These acts, though they intend the killing of the fetus and the soldier, also directly result in the good desired, the saving of the mother's life, and the protection of the orphans. In some (but not all) such cases, such acts may be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, but this depends almost entirely on whether or not the other methodological principles of practical reasoning are met. The universalizing principle mentioned earlier, in particular, provides a useful test in such cases. Would the person considering the act have thought that the action was reasonable if he himself were to be the person harmed? If so, it may be that the act can be justified. It is only means of such careful casuistry that many of these difficult cases can be evaluated. The complexity of the prudential deliberations involved in such cases are, I hope, obvious.

One final methodological principle that I wish to discuss (and I am far from sure that this is an exhaustive list of such principles – there may be, and probably are, many more and possibly even some that we have not yet discovered) is that of following one's conscience. This methodological principle affirms that after one has deliberated as carefully as the situation and the limitations of circumstance allow, one should, indeed, one must, follow one's own best moral judgment about what one should do. This is so, even though one's judgment may be flawed. Indeed, it may even be tragically wrong, but at the moment of decision, one has the obligation to do what believes it is over-all best to do, and to refuse to do that which one believes it is over-all best not to do.

This sovereign dignity of the conscience flows from the fact that prudential reasoning is never merely a mechanism for making good moral decisions, but like every other virtue, always a mode of participating in the good itself. Even in error, if our error is honest, the virtue of prudence has a kind of integrity that is worthy of respect, both by ourselves and others. This explains why justice is always rationally tempered by mercy, in that we judge others not only on the basis of what they do, but also on the basis of what appears to have been their intent. The religious person trusts that God, in his mercy, will do the same when the time comes for us to be judged in all our flawed ignorance, for what we have done and left undone. Although the gravity of moral decision making demands that we seek to inform our conscience as well as we may, in the moment of decision, our best judgment is all that we have to rely upon – and so we must.

It is important to recognize that each of these methodological principles, however much they may have been enshrined in moral rules and laws, are themselves principles of reasoning and justifiable on rational grounds alone. As rules, these methodological principles may inform our consciences and put us on guard against sloppy thinking, but they are not that which make the decisions based upon them good. They are good because they are demanded by rationality itself, and rationality is itself recognized as a basic value, is a good.

To sum up, then, prudence is the intelligence of virtue. It is, as Augustine so aptly put it, “love that chooses with sagacity.”(5) It is the deliberative stance of an intellectual will that, while oriented to the good, takes into account the actual circumstances of the world. It evaluates the resources of its present circumstances for the potential to preserve, extend, or establish that which is good in the future, and considers the legitimacy of the many projects available to it to bring about such a future - knowing that any future that results directly from the acts which it approves and initiates is one for which it will be held responsible as an agent. Prudence is the virtue of one who seeks to do good, rather than ill, knowing that one has a limited and finite amount of time, energy, knowledge, and skill with which to achieve whatever good goals one seeks to achieve, whether for oneself or for others. Without it the virtues would be blind, heedless, uninformed and—at best—fitfully and inefficiently applied. For this reason prudence is a cardinal or a hinge virtue, a virtue without which most of what is morally good could not be achieved by beings such as ourselves. Animals do not need it, since they need not decide what is right to do. This is mostly decided for them by naturally ingrained patterns of behavior. Nor does God need prudence, since God has perfect knowledge of every particular and already knows how and by what means the good is to be fulfilled. But for us, a moment of prudential deliberation is essential if we are to be good.

In the wake of the recent oil spill in the Gulf, the near destruction of the ozone layer, the growing concerns about global warming, and the ever increasing number of studies that make blindingly obvious the degree to which we are poisoning ourselves while destroying the natural food chain on land and sea, it is perhaps not very difficult to grasp the important role that prudential reasoning must play in any struggle for ecological sanity. If we recognize our own survival as a good, and if we have the good grace to recognize that our survival as a species is dependent upon a great deal of that which is not human in nature, then we must acknowledge our great duty to engage in thoughtful and prudential deliberation about the resources available to us to achieve this goal, and the moral legitimacy or illegitimacy of the many putative ecological projects that are available to us for achieving this good. Some, like forced sterilization, the use of vital human foodstuffs for fuel, or our Western civilization's gerrymandering of natural resources for our own benefit, are clearly immoral in their violation of one or more of the methodological principles enumerated above. Others, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and many other eco-technological and planetary engineering proposals must be, given our limited knowledge and these projects' great potential for unintended disaster, evaluated with great caution to ensure that we do not end up doing more harm than good or transforming ourselves into something less than human in the process. The degree of prudential insight necessary to decide these matters is formidable, and our civilization is gravely acculturated to look for short cuts, and to use a machine when a little sweat equity would serve as well. As a consequence, we should be on our guard and demand caution, careful study, and thorough and independent ecological assessments for all such projects, rigorously sifting them for unexamined assumptions and hidden dangers. The willingness to “try anything” in the face of disaster is a heedless invitation to imprudence that we must resist, and this willingness represents one of the principle dangers of our civilization's longstanding lack of ecological foresight. It is precisely to avoid such risks that we must begin to take action now. In the face of our folly, we do not dare to rely solely on technological quick-fixes. Nor can we afford to do nothing.

Fortunately, these options are not exhaustive. There are, ready to hand, many other projects whose prudential character is already obvious. Less extravagant, more comprehensible, and more modest in scope, these projects already commend themselves to us as sensible and prudent steps toward the establishment of a saner, more just, and sustainable way of living. The widespread lack of acceptance of these projects principally results from the fact that they are difficult, obliging us to significantly change the way we live. Surely, though, the fact that morality requires effort should come as no surprise to anyone. Morality always entails hard choices and the suppression and sublimation of our baser desires on behalf of a fuller and richer participation in the good. The idea that ecological virtue must be easy and involve only the most minimal of alteration in one's own manner of living is childish. Anyone who tells us that we can achieve ecological sanity without a struggle has petrochemical products to sell us on the side. In this, as in all moral struggles, the narrow road of virtue must partially be its own reward.

The circumstances are these: As a civilization, we are, and have been for quite some time, using too many non-renewable energy sources, too much fresh water, too much otherwise arable land, too much metal, too many trees, too many dangerous chemicals, and so forth, all to support unexamined and unsustainable lifestyles of hyper-mobility and hyper-consumption. In contrast to this, prudential wisdom suggests to our consciences that which we have chosen to hide from ourselves: that it is possible, if not easy, to be happy, joyful, and fulfilled, and to genuinely flourish as human beings while using significantly fewer of these precious non-renewable resources and poisons. Indeed, for those of us who are Christians, the joyful example of the poverty of the saints renders the truth of this affirmation unavoidable.

This recognition makes it clear that it is possible to organize our patterns of life in such a way as to limit our own participation in the on-going destruction of our eco-system by living more simply. We can do this both by consuming a great deal fewer resources, and by disengaging, to a greater and greater degree, from making use of a high technology that is absurdly energy intensive and resource destructive.
We can do this. We can also employ whatever political power and clout that we have to oppose further unconstrained use of non-renewable resources. We can vote against politicians who borrow against the natural resources and future labor of our children to pay for programs and perks that, regardless of their abstract desirability, we cannot currently afford. We can demand that the many harmful substances currently being used in manufacturing and agriculture be restricted, and refuse to use them ourselves. We can oppose further road-building, reservoir construction, and the many other forms of endless building projects that damage our few remaining functioning natural ecosystems. We can oppose zoning and redistricting efforts which presuppose and perpetuate the necessity of automobiles, and we can do so while driving less or eliminating our automobiles altogether in favor of more efficient forms of transportation. We can fund, found, or choose to live in eco-villages, slow cities, or other forms of environmentally friendly communities. Those of us with land can grow food, and those of us without it can buy our food locally and support healthy agricultural techniques and sane and ethical animal husbandry. We can demand fair trade practices for foreign imports, and only purchase products from those companies whose business practices are such that we would be willing to accept moral responsibility for both their means of production and the treatment of employees. We can allow our moral principles to sway our investment strategies, and accept a lower rate of return as the price of honesty and sustainability. We can commit to reusing, repairing, and recycling as a way of life, thereby reducing the insidious and relentless demand-side pressure for hyper-production on the marketplace. We can bear the short-term economic consequences that such changes will entail with equanimity, supporting one another and financially assisting those in our communities who are most in need, waiting it out as the market readjusts to a new economic reality in which bad ecological behavior is no longer subsidized, and where the excluded ecological costs of our civilization's production is once again rationalized and reintegrated into the economic life our our nation and our world. We can teach our children to do these things as well, and experience a renewed hope that our own financial well-being, diminished though it may be, will no longer result in their own penury.

These projects, and countless others like them, we already have the resources to engage in if we were only willing to do so. Since the dangers of failing to take action are already apparent and incalculably great, simple prudence demands that we act – that we follow our consciences and start to live in an ecologically sane way, whether or not those around us are prepared to understand or willing to cooperate.

Prudence, as we have seen, is the intelligence of virtue. Ecological prudence demands that we bring to bear all of the intelligence, knowledge, sagacity and discipline of which we are capable to the overarching problem of restoring ecological sanity and sustainability to the circumstances of our own lives, and through us, to our civilization as a whole. Once we see, in all good conscience, that this is true, we must obey our conscience and act accordingly. No one else will do it for us.

(1) Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia-Iae, quest. 57, art. 5, and quest. 61, art. 2. The section above represents my own summary of these passages. See also Iia-IIae, quests. 47-56.

(2) John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Law Series, OUP, Oxford, 1980, p. 107.

(3) Interestingly, Palamite Orthodox theology provides this essential insight of Aristotelian and Thomistic virtue ethics with a theological support that Thomism itself lacks, by rejecting the Augustinian and Thomistic impulse to affirm that the goods which are the attributes of God (such as “love”, “life”, “truth” and “wisdom”) are somehow “identical” in the existential being of God. Palamism insists, on the contrary, that while these “Divine Energies” of God have their source in the utterly unknowable transcendental unity of God's essence, it is solely this which provides for their “unity”, as they remain factually “distinct” and irreducible to one another. Distinction is preserved even in unity.

(4) Rather close to home, America actually did this at the close of World War II, first by threatening to use, and then horrifically, by actually unleashing atomic weapons on Japanese citizens in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The morally erroneous principle that citizens could be legitimately targeted militarily had already been well established in the European theater of war during the air raids by both the Axis and the Allied military command.

(5) St. Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, sec.15: “Prudentia, amor ea quibus adjuvatur ab eis quius impeditur, sagacitur seligens.” (“Prudence is a love that chooses with sagacity between that which hinders and that which helps it").