The virtue of prudence in context
For Thomas Aquinas, prudence is the most important virtue for human living. It is prudence that gives form to the moral virtues and makes us act rightly. Prudence deals with decision-making about contingent affairs. Prudence is future oriented, personal, and involves an embodied subject. Prudence guarantees that moral decisions are fitting both to the situation and to the agent and are made in the midst of community.
Much of Thomas's stress on prudence, however, has been lost in contemporary approaches to moral decision-making. The Roman Catholic, neo-Thomist approach, as represented by John Connery, reduces prudence to the proper application of norms. The virtuous person is one who properly deduces right acts from a code of legalistic principles.
Contemporary deontological approaches to moral decision-making, which William Frankena represents, pushes prudential decisions out of the realm of morality, since prudential decisions involve desires, appetites, and interests. For deontologists, moral agents are rational agents who have divested themselves of desires and interests.
Communitarian approaches to virtue ethics, as exemplified by Stanley Hauerwas, replace prudence with a community's vision of right moral behavior that has been shaped by a specific narrative. The personal virtue of prudence is subsumed into a communal standard.
Ironically, it is the work of Carol Gilligan and other feminist writers that returns prudence to a place of prominence in moral decision-making. Feminist ethics points out how most contemporary theories of moral decision-making are based on the experiences of a privileged group of males. In order for moral theory to integrate the experiences of those who have been systematically excluded there must be an acceptance of the personal embodied agent who makes moral decisions in the midst of contingent, concrete situations. Feminists reincorporate particularity and partiality into moral theory and prudential decision-making again becomes vitally important.
Using a test case of parental decison-making throughout this study helps exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches.