More Moral Prudence

Thos Aquinas

I’ll get back to the Romans eventually, but for now I’m going to stay with the subject of moral prudence and command. The latest national news appears to be keeping the subject timely and essential.

One of the reasons I think the equation of moral prudence and command is so important is that it unites two headings, ethics and leadership, that are sometimes kept separate.   The matter of ethics is sometimes treated as if it were the icing on the leadership cake. On a college or academy campus, they are usually pursued by separate departments. There is also a culture gap between the ethicists and the exponents of leadership, with the former usually more academic and the latter more hands-on and “applied.”  At the service academies, most of the leadership instructors are military types, while the ethicists are more likely to be civilians. If military command is indeed a form of moral prudence, then the two groups ought to at least communicate more than they normally do, breaking out of their stovepipes. Maybe the heads of ROTC departments should be renamed from Professor of Naval/Military/Aerospace Science to Prof. of N/M/A Prudence!

Every now and then, some midshipman at Kings Point, thinking that he’d hit on a brilliant thought, would tell me, “You know, sir, Hitler was really a great leader!” I would generally start off by saying that, just going by the record, Hitler had not performed so well. 12 years into his reign, German armies were defeated, German cities in ruins, and Germany itself covered in a special kind of shame from which it may never fully recover. Beyond this, I might say, a proper definition of leadership, certainly one which we were capable of embracing at a service academy, entirely excluded Hitler and his actions, which should be classed under tyranny, or demagoguery, as not just vexed leadership but really the opposite of leadership. Leadership brings people forward, towards the better angels of their nature. It cannot appeal to the worst in us, to our resentments, prejudice, or lust for power over others, tendencies that lie dormant in all, and that only need the right spark.

A leader who is incapable of moral reason, or who is indifferent to moral issues, or who lacks moral courage, isn’t a leader at all, but the reverse, and such a person in a position of authority may be far more dangerous than someone who is merely incompetent.  We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if someone is technically competent, or if we agree with him on issues, if she has made an effort to reach out to us, if we see some of ourselves in this person (if perhaps not our better self), then this should make up for even serious shortcomings in what I’ve called moral prudence. This is a dangerous path. Employers and teachers are coming to realize that this kind of thinking puts the cart before the horse. We don’t need saints, but we need need people who are willing to confront the unavoidable ethical questions that are running through the decisions they make and the example that they set.

Reading up to this point, some may be thinking that am lacking in moral prudence by failing to name the specific incidents and statements that are lurking behind this discourse. Well, I must pursue my own way, allowing others to draw their own conclusions, perhaps inciting some discussion.







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