Klugheit, praktische Vernunft und Moral

Peter Koller
University of Graz
Since antiquity, prudence has been esteemed as an important guideline of reasonable human conduct and even as a cardinal virtue. There are, however, controversies about what it means and demands. In ancient and medieval philosophy, prudence was understood in a very wide sense as the comprehensive capacity to act in a well-considered way on the basis of best reasons, including moral reasons. By contrast, in modern philosophy it has often been interpreted in a much narrower sense as individuals' pursuit of their own long-term good or rational self-interest, which does not necessarily rely on moral reasons and may lead to results contradictory to morality. On the assumption of this second, narrow concept, this paper aims at clarifying the role of prudence in the realm of practical reason and its relationship to morality. Any human action faces three questions regarding its reasonableness: We can ask whether or not it is expedient, i.e. suitable for achieving the pursued goals, whatever these goals may be, prudent, i.e. compatible with the actor's well-considered self-interest, and moral, i.e. acceptable from the viewpoint of moral impartiality and universality. Accordingly, one can differentiate between three levels of practical reason that include different guidelines for human conduct, but must be combined in order to come to a final judgement: expediency, prudence, and morality. These levels of practical reason differ, on the one hand, in the way they make use of individual preferences and, on the other, in the initial state of affairs to which they refer. Since the considerations at the different levels may result in contradicting directions, there must be a rule for combining them in a coherent end-result: this rule consists in a strict ranking order according to which morality overrules prudence that itself has priority over expediency. This conception of practical reason raises a number of questions as to the relationships between prudence and morality. The most frequently asked question in this context, namely the question of why one should be moral, is not discussed in the paper. Instead, it focuses on the internal connections between morality and prudence. One connection concerns the impact of morality on prudence. Morality may enter into prudential considerations in two ways: through internalized moral traits that may become part of a person's self-interest and through moral preferences that may restrict conflicting prudential motives to a certain degree. But there is also a connection between prudence and morality. On the assumption that a reasonable morality must aim at achieving a social order which is to the benefit of all people concerned from an impartial point of view , it is obvious that moral reasoning cannot do without prudential considerations
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