Intellectual Virtues, Prudence

You’re clever. How’s that working out for you?

Cleverness, sarcasm, and smug retorts are the order of the day. But what if you want more out of life? The title is a quote from Fight Club, but it’s an important question. How is it working out for you?

Bruce Charlton describes to classes of people in two posts on Testable Medical Hypotheses:

  1. Clever Sillies
    These are high IQ people who really enjoy status signaling by taking minority viewpoints and abstracting themselves out of common sense.
  1. Smart But Slapdash
    The smart but slapdash are people who grasp things quickly and have fairly accurate and creative intuitions but have no endurance for tasks that become boring or uninteresting. Charlton, who might be right, but I don’t accept this yet, thinks that the conscientiousness necessary for becoming a person with endurance is a personality trait, not a virtue or habit.

If you put these two trait sets together:

  1. lack of common sense due to overuse of abstract reasoning and
  2. quickly coming to clever conclusions that you simple assume are correct without recourse to sequential logic

you can easily somebody to simply think they are right all the time simply because of their gut instincts. Over the years I have met a lot of very intelligent people who are very good at careful thought in one or two things, but who are real jerks in almost every other area.

In a previous post, I outlined Aquinas’s breakdown of the virtue of prudence. One aspect of prudence was shrewdness: the habit of quickly determining the fastest/best way to accomplish some goal. Shrewdness, without wisdom or fortitude can bring about a host of problems. Here are some examples of what it’s like to be “shrewd” or “clever” without appropriate moral:

  1. You often solve problems really quickly without much effort, but give up on problems that take time to solve.
  2. You take disagreement as insult and respond to questions or challenges to assertions with sarcasm or disbelief (this could also be a sign of pathological thinking rather than being over-shrewd).
  3. Coming off of point 2, you take snarky replies for actual insight or wisdom. I love witticisms, but I know the difference between provoking somebody for fun and being self-absorbed and not self-aware. I used to be that way.
  4. If you assume you’re correct or that others are literally stupid without ever asking what thought process could lead another person to your conclusions.
  5. If you get frustrated when things don’t work the first time.
  6. If you can’t figure out why somebody might actually disagree with you or do something differently.

I went through a stage wherein I was a fairly arrogant clever-silly. My IQ probably isn’t high enough to be a legitimate clever-silly. So, I was really just a sarcastic jerk who thought I was right all the time. I want to show how three of the aspects of prudence can help overcome this vicious cycle.

The worst part about being shrewd and mistaking it for being right or prudent is that it can lead to a sort of confirmation bias: people get mad at me because I’m too smart, people disagree with me because they can’t understand me, people don’t appreciate me because I’m smart, people follow these traditions simply because they’re stupid, and so-on.

I call it a vicious cycle because it appears that people like this are insecure, easily angered, and difficult to be around (lonely); therefore they are not flourishing. But as I observed above, the behaviors confirms the assumptions behind them.

If you are one of these folks, I recommend pursuing these three sub-virtues of prudence:

  1. Docility-Docility is the habit of learning from worthy teachers. Here’s docility in a more pointed fashion: admitting that you’re not always right. To gain docility:
    1. Commit to follow somebody’s advice in a small matter unless it is clearly dangerous. If somebody says, “tuck in your shirt for a job interview,” do it. If they say, “I read this book and it helped me, read it.” Read the book. It’s not hard for somebody of your apparently intelligence.
    2. Listen to a lecture or speech by somebody with whom you know you’ll disagree.
    3. Go a whole day without making a sarcastic retort to somebody. Heck, try it once a week for several months. Do it. Sarcasm is fun and it’s a powerful rhetorical tool, but it is not defacto proof of competence or intelligence. It’s usually a shield meant to deflect attention from somebody whose ego is too shallow to handle a real challenge.
  2. Circumspection –Circumspection is the habit of seeing ideas, conclusions, data, and actions in due proportion to other facts and in the context in which they occur. Applied more specifically to clever sillies it is the habit of seeing things from only your point of view.
    1. This is similar to 1b, but listen to people with whom you disagree and ask actual questions about the evidence and thought processes that lead them to their idea. And don’t criticize or disagree with them. Simply say, “Thanks.”
    2. Imagine what it must be like to be a different person, particularly somebody that you don’t like. Think about what made them the way they are and consider that from their point of view, their actions are probably rational (doesn’t mean right, virtuous, or ultimately rational). This will help you accept the fact that you are not the sole agent of reason in the world.
    3. Consider the context of actions. If somebody in a hurry forgets something, they’re not stupid. For a day this week (and try it several days to build up the habit) try to consider the context of other people’s actions or words before you dismiss them, get frustrated, or try to signal intelligence by being a weird contrarian.
  3. Science-As a virtue, science is looking at logic and evidence habitually in order to see that conclusions, impressions, and intuitions are truly reasonable.
    1. If you suddenly have an idea, don’t say it until you see if it makes sense. Clever folks often assume that their assumptions are always right. Thus you might find yourself accidentally believing something an adult told you sarcastically 30 years ago and it’s just embedded in how you think. “Bread crust has more vitamins.”
    2. When you read or listen to something you disagree with, attempt to write out (because you’re not saying anything) in syllogistic format what the person’s argument is and exactly what is wrong with it. This can become a purely mental habit, but like mathematics it is best practiced on paper in the beginning.


Any of these attempts at gaining prudence (or quitting being a jerk/clown) must be done regularly, lest you not develop the habit. Remember, a virtue is a good habit. And a habit is something that you can rationally choose to use, but it is nevertheless easy to do and it is hard to do its opposite.


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