October 23, 2011

Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz & Kenneth Sharpe

Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz.

Practical wisdom combines will with skill. Skills are learned through experience and so is the commitment to the aims of a practice.

Following are some of key characteristics of practical wisdom.
A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims - wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another - to see the situation as the other person does and this to understand how the other person feels. This perspective taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s needs.
A wise person known how to make emotion an ally of reason to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for and to inform judgement without distorting it. He can feel, intuit or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsman are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring listening and counseling.

Our lives are structured by rules: administrative and bureaucratic rules that tell us how to relate and act in the complex organization that dominate our modern world, moral rules that tell us how to behave ethically, rules legislated by gov. and the criminal and civil codes that mete out punishment for law breaking. There is one problem with this approach: substituting rules for wisdom does not work. Cardozo concluded:”life is too complex to bring the attainment of this ideal within the compass of human powers”.

That’s what Aristotle figured out in 4th BC watching carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, etc. Their work was not governed by systematically applying rules or following rigid procedures. The material they worked with were too irregular and each task posed new problems. A normal-edged ruler was of little use to the mason who were carving round columns from slabs of stone and needed to measure the circumference of the columns. Unless you bent the ruler. Which is exactly what masons did. They fashioned a flexible ruler out of lead, a forerunner of today’s tape measure. For Aristotle, knowing to bend the rule to fit the circumstance was exactly what practical wisdom was all about.

The English common law systems, upon which our legal system is based, built in this kind of flexibility. It rejected the old Saxon code that held that intention and circumstance did not matter. Whether a man deliberately shot an arrow and hit another man, or intended to shoot a deer but hit another man, or the sorrow ricocheted off a rock and hit a man, if the harm was the same, then the crime was the same and the penalty was the same. English common law, and later the American legal system, changed this and said, that liability in criminal cases generally required proof of blameworthiness. Intent and motives matter. So do circumstances.

To do our work and lead our lives well, we have to know when and how to bent rule.

{The rest of the book covers explaining the same topic in many different ways]

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