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Prudence and Politics


Marcus Arvan (University of Tampa):

Considerations of prudence plausibly underlie a number of important political debates. Consider, for example, debates between moderates, progressives, and conservatives about social and political change. Moderates often allege that radical approaches to change are likely to backfire by alienating swing voters in the political center. Conversely, progressives often allege that moderates imprudently set back the cause of justice by playing into the status quo. Finally, Burkean conservatives contend that radical change is unwise because it can have—and has a history of having—catastrophic unintended consequences.

Considerations of prudence also appear to be latent within certain forms of liberal political theory. For example, although John Rawls does not explicitly couch his project in prudential terms, Rawls’ primary concern in Political Liberalism is to provide a theory of justice that can explain how a deeply pluralistic society can remain stable and non-oppressive over time. Similarly, in The Law of Peoples, Rawls provides a theory of international law and practice for how diverse peoples can live peacefully with each other in a reasonably just world.  An idea arguably implicit in both works is that it would be imprudent to pursue any conception of domestic or international justice that cannot be expected to realize reasonably stable and peaceful conditions in a diverse and pluralistic world—or what Rawls telling terms a ‘realistic utopia.’ Finally, prudence looms large in many applied political debates, such as how to deal best with climate change, terrorism, pandemics, and the development of artificial intelligence. For example, is it prudent to wage a ‘war on terror’, or is such a war only likely to produce more terrorists and bloodshed? Would experimenting with technological forms of climate engineering be an imprudent risk? Were COVID lockdowns prudent, or an imprudent form of short-term political thinking?

However, as pervasive as concerns about prudence appear to be in political debates, there has been comparatively little theorizing about prudence and politics. In recent years, an increasing number of philosophers have developed novel theories of prudence. For example, in Choosing for Changing Selves (Oxford University Press, 2019), Richard Pettigrew defends a detailed framework for making prudent life-choices in an ever-changing world. Similarly, in A Theory of Prudence (OUP, 2021), Dale Dorsey purports to give a comprehensive theory of prudence. However, the implications of prudence for political theory and practice are relatively underexplored. In Neurofunctional Prudence and Morality: A Philosophical Theory (Routledge, 2020), Marcus Arvan outlines a unified theory of prudence, morality, and justice informed by behavioral neuroscience, holding that prudence and morality ultimately support a broadly Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness. However, in In the Shadow of Justice (Princeton University Press, 2019), Katrina Forrester argues that Rawlsian liberalism is ill-suited to our current political moment: a volatile time of political crises in which more radical forms of political theorizing and action may be more (prudentially?) effective in achieving important forms of social and political change. 

This MANCEPT panel invites submissions on prudence and politics broadly understood, including but not limited to the implications of theories of prudence for political theory and activism, as well as applied discussions of prudence and political issues (climate change, etc.). Contributions are welcome from a range of disciplines, including but not limited to philosophy, political science and theory, economics, sociology, and law.

Paper Submissions: This workshop is organized and convened by Dr. Marcus Arvan (University of Tampa). Papers will be given a 55 minute slot, consisting of a 35 minute paper and a 20 minute Q&A. To submit a paper plase send an abstract of 250 words to by the deadline of 15th May 2021.

Given the continued uncertainty with the C-19 pandemic, and the success of hosting the 2020 workshops online, MANCEPT be holding this year’s event online. MANCEPT offers fee-waiver bursaries to attend the conference (available for current graduate students only), and the application deadline for a bursary is 15 June 2021. To give presenters time to apply for one, authors chosen for the workshop will be informed of their paper acceptance by 8 June 2021.