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How Can We Cultivate a Practical Wisdom?

The United States is broken.  Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with the institutions on which they depend. People can’t trust them. They fail to give people what they need. This is true of schools that are not serving America’s kids as well as they should. It is true of doctors who seem too busy to give patients the attention and unhurried care they crave.  It’s true of banks that mismanage assets and give shady mortgages, of financial advisors who seek commissions rather than investment returns, and of bond-rating agencies that fail to provide an accurate assessment of the risk of possible investments. It’s true of a legal system that seems more interested in expedience than in justice. It’s true of a workplace in which people fulfill quotas and hit targets and manage systems but wind up feeling disconnected from the animating forces that drew them to their careers in the first place.

If it were only patients, clients, and students who were dissatisfied, it would be easy to affix the blame on the doctors, lawyers, and teachers for not caring or for lacking the expertise to do better. But the disenchantment people experience as recipients of services is often matched by the dissatisfaction of those who provide them. Most doctors want to practice medicine as it should be practiced. But they feel helpless faced with the challenge of balancing the needs and desires of patients with the practical demands of hassling with insurance companies, earning enough to pay malpractice premiums, and squeezing patients into seven-minute visits—all while keeping up with the latest developments in their fields. Most teachers want to teach kids the basics and at the same time excite them with the prospects of educating themselves. But teachers feel helpless faced with the challenge of reconciling these goals with mandates to meet targets on standardized tests, to adopt specific teaching techniques, and to keep up with the ever-increasing paperwork. No one is satisfied—not the professionals and not their clients.

So how do we make things better?  Characteristically, when we try to improve how institutions function, we reach for one of two tools. The first tool is a set of rules and administrative oversight mechanisms that tell people what to do and monitor their performance to make sure they are doing it. The second is a set of incentives that encourage good performance by rewarding people for it. The assumption behind carefully constructed rules and procedures, with close oversight, is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so.  Rules and incentives.  What else is there?

Rules and incentives are not enough

There is no doubt that better rules and smarter incentives have an important role to play in improving the way our institutions perform. But rules and incentives are not enough. They leave out something essential. That “something” is what classical philosopher Aristotle called practical wisdom (his word was phronesis). Without this missing ingredient, neither rules (no matter how detailed and well monitored) nor incentives (no matter how clever) will be enough to solve the problems we face.  My colleague Ken Sharpe and I wrote a book about practical wisdom a few years ago that explained what it is, why we need it, and how it can be nurtured.

Aristotle thought that our most routine social practices demanded choices, and that making the right choices demanded virtue (we might nowadays say “character”).  Aristotle thought that ethics was not mainly about establishing moral rules and following them. Instead, it was about wanting to do the right thing and figuring what the right thing to do was. It was a combination of moral will (the desire to do the right thing) and moral skill (the judgment to determine what doing the right thing requires).  In  Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle focused on what people needed to learn in order to succeed at their social practices and to flourish as human beings.  People needed to develop certain virtues or excellences—like loyalty, self-control, courage, fairness, generosity, gentleness, friendliness, and truthfulness. But the master excellence—the virtue at the heart of his Ethics—was practical wisdom. None of the other virtues could be exercised well without it.  Excellence, Aristotle famously thought, lay in finding the “mean” between extremes.  Courage, for example, was the mean between cowardice and recklessness.  And finding the mean—the right amount—required practical wisdom.

Why “wisdom” rather than a good set of rules?  Consider a doctor. How should a doctor balance respect for the autonomy of her patients when it comes to making decisions with the knowledge that sometimes the patient is not the best judge of what is needed? How should the doctor balance empathetic involvement with each patient with the detachment needed to make sound judgments? How should the doctor balance the desire to spend enough time with each patient to be thorough, compassionate, and understanding with the need to see enough patients in a day to keep the office solvent?  How should the doctor balance the desire to tell patients the truth, no matter how difficult, with the desire to be kind?

Doctors—and teachers attempting to teach and inspire, or lawyers attempting to provide proper counsel and vigorous advocacy—are not puzzling over a choice between the “right” thing and the “wrong” thing.  A good doctor needs to be honest with her patients, and kind to her patients, and to give them the hope they need to endure difficult treatments.  But in diagnosing or treating a patient, these aims can be at odds, and the doctor must decide whether to be honest or kind, or more likely how to balance honesty and kindness in a way that is appropriate for the patient in front of her. Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that abstract or ethereal wisdom would not do.

Choosing wisely also demands that we are guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of an activity was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it.  So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her profession.

Wisdom is learned through experience

How, then, are we to learn to be practically wise?  For Aristotle, wisdom is learned through experience. The components of wisdom, which include good judgment, empathy, flexibility, the ability to improvise, and the ability to take the perspective of another, must all be nurtured.  And the way to nurture them is to give people the chance to develop their own guidelines for acting, usually under the watchful eye of an experienced mentor.  A didactic class in practical wisdom won’t do the job. Instead, trial and error, mistakes and their correction, all under the watchful gaze of a wise and experienced teacher, are what nurture wisdom.

Thus experience is necessary for practical wisdom, but not any experience will do. Aristotle would immediately have pointed to a central problem that informs this article. The rules and incentives that modern institutions rely on in pursuit of efficiency, accountability, profit, and good performance can’t substitute for practical wisdom. Nor will they nurture it. In fact, they often undermine it.

Working for incentives is not the same as working to achieve the telos of an activity. If we simply fix the problem of incentivizing doctors for doing too much (rewarding them with a fee for any service) by paying doctors bonuses for doing less, they may end up doing too little. Worse, they may learn to make their decisions because of the incentives. We want doctors with the will and skill to do the right amount, and do it because it’s the right amount. This goal can be achieved only if doctors embrace the proper aims of medicine and know how to pursue them. Incentives, even smart ones, will do little to help us reach this goal. Often, indeed, they may move the goal farther away. And though rules are certainly necessary to guide and govern the behavior of people who are not wise, tighter rules and regulations are pale substitutes for wisdom.  And if practitioners are compelled to follow rules, they will lack the opportunity to develop their own judgment about what a situation calls for. Aristotle might say that we need rules to protect us from disaster.  But at the same time, rules alone guarantee mediocrity.

In our book, Ken Sharpe and I argued that although the development of practical wisdom makes significant cognitive and emotional demands on people, much modern research in psychology and cognitive science suggests that human beings are “born to be wise.” What will it take to encourage and nurture wise practices in our young people?  First, education must be education in character, fully as much as it is education in mathematics, science, and literature. Second, the mentors of young people must celebrate the telos of their work and not be embarrassed by it. In other words, what it means to be a good doctor, a good teacher, a good lawyer, or even a good banker must always be front and center.  Third, mentors must give young practitioners permission to experiment, to fail, and to learn from their mistakes, watching closely to provide needed guidance and to prevent catastrophe. Mentors must nurture empathetic engagement rather than treating empathy as the enemy of good judgment (recent studies of medical students have shown that their peak levels of empathy are before their first day of medical school; it goes straight downhill from there).  Young people who know why what they are doing matters, and who know how to use their judgment to do it well, will correct existing problems in our key social institutions and improve the quality of services for everyone.

And there is a side benefit—to the practitioners.  Recent research has made it clear that the key determinants of happiness are close relations with others, and work that is meaningful and engaging.  If we create a generation of practitioners who have practical wisdom, we will assure that both their work and their close relations go better.  And by doing that, we will be promoting their own happiness.

Discussion Questions

  1. The article suggests that rules are poor substitutes for people with good judgment.  On the other hand, rules probably protect us from people with bad judgment.  How can we balance the need for rules with the need for judgment?
  2. The article criticizes the reliance on incentives to motivate people to do the right thing.  Do you think the problem is not with incentives per se, but with incentives that are “dumb”?  If so, what “smart” incentives would you use to get teachers focused on student learning rather than test performance and to get doctors to focus on patient outcomes rather than patient fees?  What incentives would you use to prevent another financial collapse as a result of irresponsible behavior on the part of financial institutions?
  3. Think about people you have known and who have influenced your own path who you regard as unusually wise. What was it about their behavior that made you appreciate their wisdom?
  4. Do you think that virtually any job can be constructed and/or construed by the people who do it so that their work is not just about their pay?  In other words, can pretty much any job be focused on a “telos” that makes people eager to do it?  What would it take to make more of the work people do meaningful in this way?

Discussion Summary

My piece for “Big Questions Online” was about practical wisdom—what it is, why we need it, and how to cultivate it. The commentary was both complimentary and challenging. Everyone seemed to agree with me that the use of rules and incentives to induce people to do the right thing is a pale substitute for nurturing people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing. The question, then, is how do we nurture such wise people?

I think this is a major challenge. When Aristotle wrote about practical wisdom, millennia ago, he was writing for an audience that was extremely homogeneous when it came to determining what it meant to do the right thing. That is not our world. Modern, developed societies have embraced a kind of values pluralism that leaves it up to each of us to determine what the “right thing” is. And most of us, looking at other cultures that are in the throes of revolutions of religious fundamentalism, wouldn’t have it any other way.  So what are we moderns to do?

My hope for an answer is that we think locally, not globally. What I mean by this is that if we examine individual professions, each of them has a set of ethical standards, a code of conduct, a telos, that is supposed to govern the behavior of practitioners. Students learn about this telos as they are being trained. But with rare exceptions, they learn about it in a way that suggests that their teachers don’t take it very seriously.  There is the obligatory “professional ethics” course, but little that is taught in that course finds its way into other courses, or into the day-to-day practices of the people who are shaping the next generation of practitioners. This must be corrected. Students must see the telos of the profession they are about to enter embodied in all the practices of the people who are training them. That way, we will produce a generation of wise lawyers, wise teachers, wise doctors, and even wise bankers. Even a pluralist society can tolerate—maybe even celebrate—individual professions that define themselves in part by allegiance to a serious set of ethical standards. Even if we can’t agree about what a “wise person” is, we can probably agree about what a “wise doctor” or a “wise teacher” is. By focusing on the professions individually, I think we can end up cultivating people who are wise in their professional lives.  That can’t help but spill over into how these professionals live their personal lives.

In my own profession—higher education—I think we should be committed to helping students answer these four questions:

  1. What is worth knowing?
  2. What is worth doing?
  3. What makes for a good human life?
  4. What are my responsibilities to other people?

College is not the only place for developing answers to these questions, of course, but it’s a good place. But in our current emphasis on providing the disciplinary training that will make our students employable, we have neglected these big questions, leaving our students to answer them for themselves.  I think this represents an abdication of responsibility.  We can start to embrace our moral responsibility to help form the character of our students by focusing on training a set of what I have come to call “intellectual virtues” in our classrooms.  These virtues include love of truth, humility, honesty, intellectual courage, good listening, perspective taking and empathy, perseverance, and open-mindedness.  These are “virtues” because they have moral content. And they are “intellectual” because they are essential to the full intellectual development and achievement of our students. If we took the cultivation of intellectual virtues seriously, we would remoralize college education, and contribute to the cultivation of wisdom in our students. Moving in this direction requires that we shift the focus away from “college education as job training” and on to “college education as character formation.”  I think this would be a noble enterprise for our colleges and universities to undertake.

I leave this discussion with these questions for people who have been following the discussion to ponder:

  1. What is, and should be, the telos of law, education, medicine, and finance?
  2. What form of training is most likely to induce rising professionals to internalize this telos?
  3. What are the principle obstacles to remoralizing the professions in this way, and how can they be overcome?
  4. What can each of us do to embody and display the intellectual virtues I enumerated in our everyday activities?