Even if you’ve never studied a lick of philosophy, you’ve likely heard of Aristotle. Living from (c. 384 B.C. to 322 B.C.), he was an Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist who is still considered one of the greatest thinkers in politics, psychology and ethics. I’ve been considering how interesting it is that we are so heavily influenced by the minds and hearts of those that lived 2000+ years ago. I wonder if this points to what is amiss in our cultural evolution as humans. How is it that we are still looking to thinkers from ancient times to solve the problems we face in modern times? What enduring truths have we been ignoring for 2000 years?
One of those enduring truths is practical wisdom.
Aristotle wrote about the idea of practical wisdom in his book “Nicomachean Ethics.” He believed that ethics was not about establishing moral rules and following them. Instead ethics was about figuring out the right thing to do in a particular circumstance, which meant taking into account all the nuances of that circumstance. He wrote about virtues, such as self-control, courage, generosity, and friendliness, but called practical wisdom the master virtue. Practical wisdom is what allows a person to put these virtues to use in everyday situations. It allows a person to translate the aims of the virtues into action, even in complex situations.
Rules are not enough
Consider the doctor who has been well educated and aims to follow the oath they take, as well as the rules of the institutions they work for. What if these aims are at odds? Or how does a doctor balance respect for the autonomy of their patients when it come to making decisions with the knowledge that sometimes the patient is not the best judge of what they need? How does a doctor meet the needs of a patient while also following directives of an HMO? How often does following the rules lead to good outcomes, and who is benefiting most often? In the book “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz argues that no, rules do not lead to good outcomes. In fact, the main message of the book is that a reliance on rules, rather than practical wisdom, is the reason our institutions are failing us. We aren’t happy with public education, we don’t trust our doctors, we don’t think the justice system has our best interest at heart, we don’t feel that our politicians represent us, and on and on. But WE are also these people; teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, social workers; people who want to help others. The reason professionals working in our intuitions are failing us is not because they are bad people, it is because they are not giving the freedom to exercise practical wisdom.
Sticks and Carrots 📏🥕
Schwartz says that rules and incentives (sticks and carrots), are the problem. Institutions use rules and incentives as a way to produce good outcomes. They force the individuals inside those institutions to follow the rules by rewarding or punishingly them accordingly, because the view is that humans can’t be trusted to make wise choices on their own. Rules and incentives leave out something that is essential to creating institutions that we can put our faith in, and that something is practical wisdom.
Born to be wise
To go into what practical wisdom looks like in action, and how to encourage the skill of practical wisdom is enough to fill a book, Schwartz’s book, in fact. I highly recommend the video linked below for a great overview, or check out the book for all the details, and more examples than you even need to become convinced of the need for practical wisdom. Schwartz says that we are born with the capacity to develop wise judgement. We are born to be wise in the same sense that we are born to learn language; with natural ease. He also says the following, which I love: We are predisposed to organize the world into categories that appreciate subtlety and nuance.We are predisposed to be sensitive to context.We are predisposed to think with our hearts and feel with our heads.We are predisposed to understand the needs and feelings of others. Being born with these predispositions doesn’t mean practical wisdom is easy to master. It is something that requires cultivation through knowledge, guidance and experience. It is a way of thinking that refuses to see black and white, and instead sees all the shades of gray. Recognizing that we are predisposed to be wise, and not cultivating that ability, is a waste of one of the unique abilities we have as humans. It is in the realm of language, love, or art; it is a human gift. A more beautiful world is possible. Trust in our institutions is one way to make this world more beautiful. Imagine being able get the healthcare/education/financial assistance you need and know that those you work with have your best interest at heart and have the freedom to work on your behalf. You would feel valued, instead of feeling like a means to an end in a world that only cares about earning rewards and avoiding punishment’s (the bottom line). Cultivating wisdom is not just about personal growth. Cultivating wisdom is the way to create a more beautiful world. Practical wisdom is the bridge from personal to collective wisdom. Is it an actionable way to shift our culture through our institutions. A way to change the system from the inside out. For more on wisdom check out The Skill of Wisdom: Part 1 andPart 2. Thanks for reading ❤ With Gratitude, Aimee O’Neil LLMSW Our Vision