Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In the world — but not of it

No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because
he could do only a little.
Edmund Burke

I taught advanced elective high school politics classes for thirty-five years, always including units introducing students to political theory. One of the basic concepts of a conservative politics has always been "prudence" — the application of fundamental principles to particular circumstances. It keeps in mind the goal without sacrificing what can be achieved in the present political and social circumstances. The idea is sometimes difficult for Christians first getting involved in politics, because it requires a sense of the possible, and a willingness to accept - albeit perhaps only temporarily - much less than the ideal.

Justin Taylor highly recommends Politics for the Great Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square, by Clarke Forsythe. Taylor:
His argument is that it is both moral and effective to achieve a partial good in politics and public policy when the ideal is not possible. In other words, there's no moral compromise in aiming for the greatest possible good when the perfect good is not available. The historical examples of the American founders, William Wilberforce, and Abraham Lincoln are used as example of what it looks like to employ effective, virtuous prudence to fence in social evils when outright prohibition is not possible.
From Forsythe's introduction:
.... Prudence has been considered a cardinal (preeminent) virtue since at least the time of Aristotle. Prudence is concerned with right action and requires deliberation, judgment, decision and execution. Wisdom understands what is right; prudence involves making the right decision and implementing it well. Prudence takes account of limitations in a world of constraints and strives to achieve the greatest measure of justice—the greatest good possible—under the particular circumstances. ....

A prudential political (and legislative) strategy focuses on worthy goals, identifies effective means to achieve those ends and the wise use of limited resources, recognizes the limitations of the fallen world and its constraints on political action, and seeks to preserve the possibility of future progress. A prudential approach balances zeal with knowledge, especially knowledge of the current obstacles and of effective ways to overcome them. ....

Prudence is not pragmatism; prudence requires moral purpose. Prudence aims to achieve the greatest good possible in the concrete circumstances. Prudence does not require an all-or-nothing approach to public policy. In fact, an all-or-nothing approach, generally speaking, is often neither prudent nor effective. An all-or-nothing approach is not dictated by divine or natural law, moral philosophy, or ethics. Prudence must necessarily guide the consideration of constraints and contingencies in politics, especially when lawmakers begin to grapple with the specifics of legislation and efforts to limit unjust laws and conditions.
I have a feeling that the late Richard John Neuhaus would have approved. I will order this book.

Between Two Worlds: Politics for the Great Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square

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