Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

9.26.2012

I'm Sure You Saw This Coming

 . . . after my last post.  A five-star review of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing by Barry Schwartz and Edward Sharpe:

Reading this book fed my soul.

It argues that we need to have more empathy, freedom to rely on personal judgment, and wisdom of experience in our daily interactions and in our larger institutional structures, when instead we are bound by unbending rules and demoralizing incentives that erode any sense of humanness—concern for others or the greater good—in our interactions.  Indeed, they argue that we are weaving an ever tightening net of rules and incentives around ourselves that is draining what wisdom we have left in a downward, self-feeding spiral.

I remember, while working on my teaching degree, a professor in one of my education classes saying we would all “sell out” in some way within five years, that our youthful idealism would run up against and lose out to pragmatic concerns.  I’ve heard similar anecdotes from those in other professions, the idea that wisdom and ideals aren’t practical, that the “real world” corrupts them because it’s too dirty and competitively self-interested.  This book makes the case that we don’t have to accept that reality—that wisdom and pragmatism are not contrary—and that it is possible to change things if we learn to institute practical wisdom as a larger ingredient in our interactions with each other than our rules and incentives.

Working from Aristotle’s idea of phronesis, the authors define practical wisdom as the ability to make nuanced, moral decisions that react and adapt to the particular contexts of each situation.  They draw from Daniel Pink’s work on motivation, Dan Ariely’s research that bad incentives can compete with and replace good ones, and the evidence of many others, and provide numerous examples—both positive and negative—of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers to demonstrate their points.  There are individual canny outlaws still practicing moral wisdom in these realms, but what we need are more system changers to redeem our institutions that demoralize (lessen the morals of) most of the people who practice within them.

It’s hard to feel like I’m doing to book justice with just a summary, without getting into its specifics and examples.  If you’d like to see what I mean, I blogged about one of its points here (though I extrapolated their point at the end of the post to add further implications that I see).  Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this list of comparisons from the book (though it only gets into rules; if you want incentives, follow the link):

Rules Talk asks: What are the universal principles that should guide our moral choices?  Wisdom Talk asks: What are the proper aims of this activity?  Do they conflict in this circumstance?  How should they be interpreted or balanced?

Rules Talk tends to be about absolutes.  Wisdom Talk is context talk—talk about nuance.

Rules Talk sidelines, or even labels as dangerous, moral imagination and emotion.  Wisdom Talk puts them at the center because they allow us to see and understand what needs to be seen and understood.

Rules Talk ends with determining the right principle or rule to follow.  Wisdom Talk ends with determining whether to follow it and how to follow it.

Rules Talk marginalizes the importance of character traits like courage, patience, determination self-control, and kindness.  Wisdom Talk puts them at the center.

Rules Talk urges us to consult a text or a code.  Wisdom Talk urges us to learn from others who are practically wise.

Rules Talk is taught by teachers in the classroom.  Wisdom Talk is taught by mentors and coaches who are practicing alongside us.


The TED Talk - Barry Schwartz: Using Our Practical Wisdom

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