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?