Cultivating Prudence in an Age of Pandemic

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks


September 3, 2020
The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reason and understanding, by which we are capable of discerning the remote consequences of all our actions, and of foreseeing the advantage or detriment which is likely to result from them; and, secondly, self-command, by which we are able to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain, in order to obtain a greater pleasure or to avoid a greater pain in some future time. In the union of those two qualities consists the virtue of prudence, of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual.
 
As is now cliché to observe, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world. At the thirty-thousand-foot level, that much is both obvious and true. What is less clear from such a height is the precise accounting of what has changed, and in what directions, and for what reasons. As Brent Orrell recently remarked at Law & Liberty, Adam Smith surely would have been an interested observer of these changes, and undoubtedly would have marshaled his considerable intellect in pursuit of humane policy solutions to this multifaceted—that is to say, natural but human-compounded—woe. But alas, Smith is not here among us, so it is up to similarly perceptive scholars such as Orrell to offer social analyses of a like kind in Smith’s stead. 
 
For the rest of us, however, going “back to Adam” in the midst of a time of great social, political, and cultural upheaval holds the promise of more than just a refinement of the quality of our social commentary and analysis. While Smith was a pioneering social scientist, he was also a first-rate moral philosopher. Rather than ask what Adam Smith might have said about this pandemic or various state and non-state actors’ responses to it, we can ask a different question: What personal qualities, virtues, and general courses of action would Smith counsel us to take in these unusual times?
 
The short answer to this question is, “see quotation above.” 
 
But the long answer is one I hope you will think through with me in this two-part exploration of that quotation above. 
 
For many, the pandemic has put life as we knew it on pause and consigned any number of upcoming decisions and possible actions to an indefinite holding pattern. We stay at home and we talk, or think, ourselves in circles within our isolative cliques (however much those might be growing). We dislike many of the changes to our public life and to our routines wrought by this disease. As but one example: mask wearing, an important and morally more than justified activity, nevertheless places a barrier between us and the sympathies of others while complicating routine public errands. Most of all, though, we wallow in our new environment of ambient uncertainty, ruminating on questions for which there are no quick answers. When will the pandemic end? Will there be mass testing or a vaccine soon, and would either of those solutions (as implemented by imperfect human beings through imperfect institutions) bring about the deliverance we long for? After all we’ve been through, can life ever go “back to normal”?
 
For many young people especially, this is a fraught and frightening time, as the economic downturn caused by the virus, and public health and government responses to it (varying in thoughtfulness, quality, and hence, justifiability on the margin) has upended plans and once-stable aspirations of all sorts, from career and educational moves to family planning and marriage decisions to the very core question of what they want to do with their lives. You don’t have to be Camus for the plague to get you asking existential questions, and from what I can gather many young people seem to be discovering this in the midst of their first major generational “crisis.”  
 
COVID thus deepens a problem that was with us long before, and that problem is purposelessness. We simply don’t know what to do with ourselves, especially within our new behavioral constraints. But this doesn’t come from nowhere. 
 
As we knew before the pandemic, many younger Americans suffer from generalized anxiety, marked by rampant fear of and insecurity in the world at large. As Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff and others have argued, a good deal of this probably has to do with some bad ideas that our culture is increasingly encouraging young people to adopt, such as the falsities that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” and that human beings are, in general, fragile bundles of emotion that must be handled with kid gloves. To the extent that they hold such views, many young Americans now look at the world as a scary and uncomfortable place that must be made “safe” for them if they are to engage with it at all.
 
But the virus, and certain tough-minded decisions made in response to it, will not coddle anyone. Reality and limitations are back with a vengeance. It is thus no surprise that many young people feel so lost right now. Many were no doubt confused in some ways before, but widespread isolationism and “social distancing” have undoubtedly made matters worse. Soaring numbers of students have elected to take gap years, presumably to wait out online learning, but it’s unclear what kind of experiences they’ll be opting into instead. Perhaps it’s unclear because so many of them don’t know themselves. The world is scarier now, the specter of risk-taking more menacing, and the human mind and body more prone to fears of their own biological fragility and sociological vulnerability. 
 
As a status quo, this toxic stew will not do, and this brings us to the promised Smithian solution. It sounds obvious, but in this moment, Smith would want us to seize what is perhaps the greatest silver lining of the viral age—more time (and at least six feet of space) to think and act—and with these disaster dividends, Smith would want us to do exactly one thing: cultivate those qualities that are “most useful to ourselves.” Far from a simple embrace of utilitarianism, Smith calls for a deep study of wisdom writings and the constituent elements of our characters. Smith models such a pursuit of philosophy, and through his writings we can follow along. 
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