Using Your Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwartz talks about how we are constantly torn between doing what we think is right vs. doing what is expected of us. If people are not doing the right thing, we implement rules and incentives – like what we did with the financial industry. But we know through experience that people will find ways to circumvent rules. If we give incentives to do something right, we hen focus on the reward and stop caring about doing the right thing.

But what we need to is virtue, good character, people who care about doing the right thing.

“The virtue that we need most of all is the virtue that Aristotle called practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is the moral will to do the right thing and the moral skill to figure out what the right thing is. So Aristotle was very interested in watching how the craftsmen around him worked. And he was impressed at how they would improvise novel solutions to novel problems — problems that they hadn’t anticipated. So one example is he sees these stonemasons working on the Isle of Lesbos, and they need to measure out round columns. Well if you think about it, it’s really hard to measure out round columns using a ruler. So what do they do? They fashion a novel solution to the problem. They created a ruler that bends, what we would call these days a tape measure — a flexible rule, a rule that bends. And Aristotle said, hah, they appreciated that sometimes to design rounded columns, you need to bend the rule. And Aristotle said often in dealing with other people, we need to bend the rules”.

Image Credit – Salvatore Vuono,