David Farragut is credited with the remark: “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead”, uttered by this Union Admiral during the Civil War naval encounter in Mobile Bay. At first hearing, it sounds like a foolish piece of advice, leading to unfortunate incidents that could have been avoided by following a different tactic.
A different tactic, of course, would have been something akin to caution. “Better safe than sorry” is a time-honored axiom that has proven wise and accurate over time. In fact, most of us have likely been consistent followers of the cautionary principle in the multiple undertakings we pursue on a daily basis. Driving the car is likely such an activity, and we have likely found it a reliable way of acting, day in and day out—at least those of us over 20 years of age.
Caution is often regarded as a primary instance of the prudence operative in our lives. Prudence has come down over the course of centuries as a highly commendable mode of conduct, even a virtuous way. Prudence is the historically established rule for pursuing a course of action that, more than any other arrangement, comes closest to guaranteeing that something we value or cherish will not be lost or damaged as a result of what we are about to do. This might be the investment of a large amount of money in a business enterprise, or consultation on an important personal health issue with a specialist, or the placement of a child in a day-care facility. In each of these endeavors, we want to make sure, as best we can, that the decision we make holds out greatest promise of success. We don’t want to gamble our hard-earned money, or our precarious health situation, or the well-being of our child, on an unknown provider whose credentials have yet to be established.
That is, we don’t want to gamble away something valuable to us. Gambling and caution are not comfortable with one another, and this recommends caution to many of us. It seems the best way of providing us some security that we are not endangering something we treasure. So we proceed cautiously and carefully, and this often takes time. We likely want to consult others more knowledgeable than ourselves about the course of action we are pondering, and we judge any hasty decision-making in these matters to be precarious for us and our best interests.
Furthermore, we have often heard that “haste makes waste”. Haste is often regarded as foolish, unless it is the only option. To be “too quick on the draw” seems to be an immature and unwise process to avoid. Speed, in other words, is an adversary that seldom seriously commends itself to our course of action in the kind of actions presented above. The slowness involved in the cautionary approach is preferable to the hastiness associated with sudden decision-making, when, of course, it is possible to make this choice.
However, all of these remarks suggesting a preference for deliberate and careful calculating when important choices have to be made tend not to consider the liabilities that can afflict such caution. For instance, while we notice, on expressways, posted warnings about excessive speed, we may overlook the signs forbidding minimum speeds. Cautious, slow-driving drivers must keep their speeds above a certain minimum level to avoid fines. For violating these minimum limit is excessive caution and can also lead to serious accidents. In the same line of thought, drivers, especially those who tend to move slowly on an expressway, yet who, on a multilane road, prefer to use lanes on the left, which faster drivers normally use, may feel comfortable providing for their own safety and the control of their vehicle in doing so, but may aggravate faster drivers behind them in the same lane, leading them to “take chances” in the attempt to overtake and bypass them. In so doing, they can endanger themselves. Here is a case where one person’s caution can trigger another’s decision to take a risk in an effort to bypass the slower moving vehicle.
Nor is excessive caution confined to highway speeds. Medical advice given to a patient recently diagnosed with a serious and fast-moving infection, to the effect that he or she should take immediate action against an imminent health hazard afflicting the patient should usually be followed up on as soon as possible, because dalliance might prove seriously harmful.
Indeed, deadlines of any type promising some benefit to participants in a competitive exercise, if they be ignored or postponed on the score of more time needed to think over this contest more carefully, may come and go, to the potential loss of those who tend to be procrastinators.
This seemed to have been the mindset of General McAuliffe during the World War II Battle of the Bulge, when his airborne division, surrounded by the Germans, received a German surrender ultimatum, to which McAuliffe responded with the quickest and shortest response in military history: “nuts!” Sometimes quick decisions can save the day.