Gwartney and Connors, "Economic Freedom and Global Poverty" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)
Baker, "A Stoic Defense of the Market" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)

On Prudence

Jonathan B. Wight

Prudence is a prim and prudish word that sometimes leads people to think of “selfish.”  But the spin I’ve come to learn about this is that prudence is the cultivation of a certain kind of virtue.  That virtue is to show a proper regard for your future self

We can only experience life here in this moment, at this instant.  That is Jonathan in the Present.  But in a year, there will be another me, Jonathan Year 1.  And there is another person later, Jonathan Year 2.  There is a whole village of future people—my body and my thoughts are a veritable village green – a commons!

In this light, prudence means showing proper regard for those other people in my future commons.  It means showing those people respect by the actions I take today. 

One key issue is whether we project love on them from the present.  I don’t yet know those future people, but I can practice the act of prayer—lifting up my thoughts and heart to them. 

So, in one sense it is not selfish to be prudent, it is showing proper consideration for the rights of my future selves inhabiting the commons of my body. 

I used this metaphor in class the other day and students got it, I think.  Compared to prudence, when students blow off class, binge drink, and have wild sex with multiple partners (sounds fun?), that is being selfish, because their present self is greedy and their futures selves will have to suffer for that.  One’s actions today produce external consequences for one’s other selves in the future.

From a Kantian perspective, it is ethical to treat others with dignity; why would that not apply to our future selves?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Absolutely right, Jonathan - great way of putting it. Christine Tappolet makes a similar point in her chapter in The Thief of Time, writing that procrastination reveals a lack of concern for your future self.

The suggestion that I need to show consideration for the rights of my future selves raises the question of whether I can give consent on their behalf or contract away their rights.

Good point - another reason I'm not comfortable taking the concept of future selves too literally, as if they were distinct agents. (Jonathan's post got me thinking more about this, to be sure.) But given that we can only imperfect constrain our future decisions now, and must (prudently) take the uncertainty of "their" future actions into account when we make decisions now, I think it is useful (even if just a heuristic). But I don't know if I would extend rights talk to it, hmm...

(By the way, on a related topic, Larry Alexander has a new piece on voluntary slavery here:

Both Dale and Mark make great points! I had mainly thought of this way of thinking as a heuristic to aid the development of self control.

Whether future selves should be accorded "rights" is beyond my pay scale. Isn't this similar to the inter-generational equity issue?
Best, Jonathan

It definitely is useful to help think about self-control, though in my chapter in The Thief of Time I cast the issue as respect for your own plans, which doesn't rely on past, present, or future selves.

I think the difference with the intergenerational equity issue is that that deals with truly distinct persons; whereas a case can be made for equity between generations of (distinct) persons, it would be harder to argue that one has an obligation to equalize "moments" of well-being between your time-slice selves (aside from all the measurement issues, yada yada).

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)