An appeal to practical moral wisdom

February 17, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

aristotleBarry Schwartz recently delivered a sensational 20-minute talk on the importance of practical wisdom.  He began his talk by describing the obvious: we now live in a highly dysfunctional rule-bound society.  What should we do about it?  We need to make sure that kindness, care and empathy are a part of every job, whether or not these responsibilities are contained in the official job description. All of us need to have both moral will and moral skill, the two essential components of Aristotle’s conception of “moral wisdom.”  Luckily for us, we now have a President who is willing to take the risk of reminding Americans of their duties to pursue moral wisdom.

Schwartz deserved that standing ovation he received after delivering this talk at TED.  Much of his talk concerned our obsessions with rules. Yes, rules are oftentimes hopeful. They often help us avoid the mistakes of the past. On the other hand, wise people know that they sometimes need to improvise. They know when to break the rules in order to remedy situations.  They know that they are never excused from being kind and decent, regardless of the “rules.” Schwartz gives several salient examples, an especially good one involving a janitor. Wise people know that they need to use rules not simply to “follow the rules” but to serve the needs of other people.

Schwartz also urges us to consider that morality is not something with which we are born, but it is a skill. It needs to be practiced, day after day. As Aristotle made clear 300 BCE, being moral means being virtuous and being virtuous (and see here). The attempt to become virtuous will necessarily involve making mistakes. Making mistakes is thus part of learning how to become virtuous. It is important, then, that we not judge others in their sincere attempts to become moral beings by practicing moral judgment.  Mistakes will be made by virtuous people. Those who aren’t making mistakes are not striving to be virtuous.

Much of our current societal dysfunction involves our willingness to put on moral blinders and to naïvely assume that good things will happen as long as we follow the rules. We put our rules way up on pedestals and many of us simply let the chips fall when we know full well that following the rules lead will cause other people to get hurt. We also assume that rules can spare us from actually thinking.  Rules will only make things better in the short run, however. Rules have a tendency to invade and displace moral wisdom.  “The love of rules is a war on wisdom.”  Schwartz especially warned the audience about brilliance: “Without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”  Some people think that incentives are good substitutes for rules, but incentives to and cause us to become blind to our responsibilities as moral beings.

Near the end of his talk, Schwartz spoke about the terrible effect bureaucratic rules have on teachers. When rules are enforced across school districts, they often prevent disaster at the cost of ensuring mediocrity.  When we have too much allegiance to rules, we lose our ability to improvise. We lose our ability to become morally excellent. Schwartz alludes to jazz musicians who undeniably need rules, but would become tedious musicians if they paid too much attention to rule-following; in fact, jazz musicians would probably prefer to stop playing music altogether if they were made to pay too much attention to society’s rules as to how to make music.

The solution is to re–moralize our work, but definitely not by “taking ethics courses.”   Though they are now required of many professionals, “ethics courses” have the effect of compartmentalizing morality and excusing immoral behavior whenever it is not directly covered with a rule.  Another solution is to consciously celebrate moral exemplars. We need to be guided and inspired by our moral heroes. Keeping these exemplars in mind inspires us to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

We are currently suffering terribly because we are failing to cultivate moral wisdom.  In teaching, and elsewhere, we need to remember that we are always teaching and that “someone is always watching.”  In teaching, we need to remember that the most important thing our children need to learn is moral character; the rest is quite easy, because honesty, kindness and a host of other good qualities naturally flow from good moral practice.

This talk by Barry Schwartz reminded me of several other topics I’ve considered in previous posts.  Consider, for instance, Hannah Arendt’s description of “the banality of evil,” which thrives on the excessive attention to rules at the expense of moral wisdom.  There is no better way to be immoral than to be thoughtless.  Consider, also, the fact that humans are beings with limited attention because-we-fail-to-attend-we-fail-to-notice-changes/ and that we often fall prey to distractions to our moral responsibilities.  Consider, also, the obsession of fundamentalists with the simplistic rules announced by the Ten Commandments (and see here), as well as their unwillingness to believe that human beings should ever be trusted to self-legislate. With all of these cases, we are dealing with the rise of one-dimensional rule-bound behavior and the decay of the practical moral wisdom that we so desperately need.


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Category: Communication, Culture, Education, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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