Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

TED curator Chris Anderson describes Barry Schwartz as one of the wisest men he knows. Schwartz is known for his work on the theory of choice, and he’s offered the wonderful observation that more choice tends to make us happy, up to a point, and then make us unhappy. Anderson wonders what Schwartz can offer us at a moment that’s both frightening and hopeful.

Schwartz’s talk focuses on “Practical wisdom and the remoralization of professional life”. It’s a preview of a book that he’s writing with Ken Sharp, his colleague at Swarthmore, and it focuses on questions of virtue.

Professor Schwartz tells us that President Obama didn’t appeal to Americans in his inaugural address to consume. He didn’t tell us to trust our country and to invest. He told us to put aside childish things. He appealed to our virtue.

His talk, he tells us, has four topics:
– Why Bbama is right about virtue
– Why “practical wisdom”, an idea introduced by Aristotle is the key virtue
– How America has unwittingly been engaged in war on wisdom
– Sources of hope to end the war on wisdom

He tells us about a hospital janitor, showing the responsibilities associated with the job in the job description. They are numerous, but not a single one involves interacting with other people. When Schwartz interviewed hospital janitors about the challenges of their jobs, all the problems they listed dealt with other people. Good janitors knew not to vacuum the floor when guests were napping, or not to mop the floor when a patient was walking the hallways and restoring his strength. Being a hospital janitor involves interactions that require kindness, care and empathic thought that’s not in the job description.

To show this sort of wisdom, Aristotle believed we needed moral will and moral skill. A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, when to improvise. A person with practical wisdom is made, not born – it’s someone who learns from experience, someone who is allowed to improvise and occasionally to fail. It requires mentorship from wise teachers – it turns out it takes years of experience to be a caring a wise janitor.

Fortunately, we don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. “Without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you into trouble as anything else.”

He shares a story about America’s war on practical wisdom. It’s the story of a university professor who took his son to a Detroit Tigers game. The kid asked him for a lemonade, and the father – foolishly – purchased a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, not understanding it was alcoholic. The kid drank the beverage, and a security guard reported him to the police. A terrible series of events ensued – the child briefly ended up in foster care, and the father needed to live in a motel for weeks. Everyone involved with the case said “we hate to do this, but we have to follow procedures.”

Scott Simon reported on the story for NPR, and concluded that “rules and procedures may be dumb, but they prevent us from having to think.” Schwarts tells us, “when things go wrong, we reach for rules – better and more of them – and incentives – better and more of them.”

As we confront the current financial crisis, we talk about regulating and fixing the incentives. But neither rules nor incentives will do the job. Would we pay an empathy bonus for janitors, or make it a job requirement?

The danger of rules is that they deprive us from our ability to learn from improvisation. Education now involves a large number of scripts – primary school teachers are given careful scripts that involve 75 points a teacher should make in reading a book to children. We know why we do this – we don’t trust the judgement of teachers. But while these rules prevent disaster, they also ensure mediocrity. “Jazz musicians need some notes… and god knows we need more rules for the bankers.” But too many rules and “we lose our gifts”.

Incentives can be a problem as well. Schwartz tells us about n experiment asking people if they’d be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in their neighborhoods. Given an appeal to responsibility, 50% of citizens were willing. Adding a large fiscal incentive, and only 25% were willing to agree. “When incentives get introduced, sometimes we remove our responsibilities.
There are no incentives you can devise that are smart enough to avoid being subverted by bad will.”

If you want to create practical wisdom, please don’t teach more ethics courses – there’s no better way to guarantee that you’re not taking this seriously. Instead, you need to celebrate moral exemplars – “no ten year old goes to law school to do mergers and acquisitions”, they want to be Atticus Finch.

We need to acknowledge and celebrate moral heroes like Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills. When his factory burned down, he kept 3000 staff on payroll rather than letting the community collapse.

Teachers want to be moral mentors to the people we teach. We have to remember that the camera is always on, that people are always watching us

Obama appealed to virtue. Above others, practical wisdom is a virtue that enables other virtues. He also appealed to hope – that’s the right thing to do, because people want to find ways to be virtuous.

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