A Caveat about Caution

In a pandemic, the principle of uncertainty often takes priority



Of late we’ve heard much about caution—indeed, an abundance of caution, and rightly so. My caveat about caution is this: that we keep it in context. The context is the virtue of prudence.

And what is prudence? Above all it is right reason in acting. We shouldn’t confuse it with passing the buck or kicking the can down the road. It’s for doers, not ditherers.

So what are some of the key implications, in today’s pandemic, about caution in the context of prudence?

Here’s an “anthropological” implication: The caution of prudence calls for the use of reason. Suppose we compare mice and men. Mice are cautious only by poetic license. Moreover, as non-rational animals, they don’t act but only behave. The prudence of caution is for persons!

Another implication is that in a pandemic the principle of uncertainty often takes priority. It tells us that in a position of complete uncertainty, we ought to act to prevent the worst case from happening. So public policy should reflect the principle of uncertainty, and the sooner the better.

There is, surely, a manifest plausibility about the principle of uncertainty. Do you have some money to invest? Nice! But don’t invest it in Somalia. Governments come and go, unpredictably.  You could lose your shirt. Or maybe you’ve just bought the car of your dreams and want to show it off. Great! But what’s this? Your car’s been recalled for a possible brake defect? Better stay home, friend.

Still, the principle of uncertainty in the hands of government officials, including public health officers, calls for scrutiny. It’s festooned with “go slow” flags. Each flag raises a question. Who describes our perilous position? Who decides that it’s a position of complete uncertainty? And do the policy makers have to show us that their descriptions and decisions are right?

Perhaps the toughest question remains: what counts as the worst case that we must act to prevent? Answering this question requires that we come to terms with both the basic goods of human life and the threats against them.

Far too often, experience shows, governments give way to utilitarian measures of good and evil. When that happens, the goods are parsed in terms of pleasure and the evils are reduced to pain. The utilitarian urge then shapes public policy, and that urge is consequentialist in practice. Every good becomes negotiable.

So it happens that in war it’s sometimes necessary to destroy a village to save it. So it happens that an economy sometimes eliminates workers to save an industry. So it is that in a pandemic officials suggest that some are expendable for the greater good of public health.

Are we, then, to ignore the principle of uncertainty? By no means. Rather we are to apply it with the caution of prudence. For a start, this means that we keep foremost in mind “the principle of do no harm,” of primum non nocere.

There’s a logic to honor in our relation to the basic goods of the person, and life and health are among them. We rightly strive to advance these basic goods. Nonetheless, we cannot equally promote all of them at once. We can, however, refuse, always and everywhere, to attack the basic good of any person. Even this, to be sure, we do only with God’s grace.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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