Using Practical Wisdom


I chose to watch psychologist Barry Schwartz’s TED talk entitled Using our practical wisdom.  The talk stressed that to solve the majority of problems in our society, excessive rules and laws are not the answer, nor are incentives to perform a particular action.  Schwartz talks about how practical wisdom, having the will to do the right thing and the skill to determine what is the right thing.  He mentions that rules, no matter how detailed, can be dodged and he gives the comparison of bankers to water in finding the cracks in rules (4:43).  In the case of incentives, Schwartz argues that if an incentive is given, people will only care about the incentive and not the underlying action.  Thus, people are more inclined to cut corners to achieve the maximum reward for their behavior.  Schwartz uses the example of incentivizing doctors to have more or less patients, which incentivizes doctors to increase or decrease their number of patients without addressing the quality of care.

Practical wisdom, Schwartz argues, is necessary to solve the problems of how our institutions are run.  He says that wise people know when to bend the rules in order to do the right thing and that people with practical wisdom have both the will and skill to do the right thing (8:11).

While I agree that people with practical wisdom would be the best way to create a more functional society, Schwartz does not offer any practical solution as to how this ideology would be implemented.  He mentions the notion of canny outlaws, who go around the rules to do the right thing, and system changers, who attempt to change the way society is run (15:16).  While these people are noble, there are others who, without rules or incentives, will promote only their own agendas despite allowance to do the right thing.  Schwartz does not address a way to help these people find practical wisdom and virtue, but rather says that legislators should listen more to psychologists than economists.  While I believe that practical wisdom is a good way for people to focus on the morality of their practices, there is no way to implement such an idea without rules or incentives to motivate those who are merely concerned with furthering their own self-interests.

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2 comments on “Using Practical Wisdom

  1. If this is the same Schwartz, which I have a hunch it is, he wrote a book I used when I taught Managerial Statistics. It was called The PAradox of Choice. Great book about the impact of choice on happiness and psychology.

    He is talking about virtue ethics!

    I take your point that he does not lay out to systematically promote more practical wisdom. However, first, its a short talk. Second, the whole model of teaching ethics is one premised on individual level change as opposed to a systemic approach.

  2. I like this topic as well and think that having ‘practical wisdom’ is important. As you said, having practical wisdom means being able to determine what the right thing is. Ultimately, this is not as simple as one might think in every situation because there are certainly those situations where there isn’t one right or wrong choice. Saying this, I labeling someone as having such wisdom leaves a lot of room for subjective judgement.

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