Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wisdom Talk vs. Rules Talk

I don't like rules. It's not so much that I am particularly fond of breaking rules personally. It's just that rules tend to seem rather pointless to me. They can easily take on a life of their own, with the rules perpetuating for their own sake, rather in service to the cause that they were initially created to serve. I find that just trying to make the best choices usually result in better outcomes than trying to follow an elaborate set of rules.

Well, apparently I'm in good company, because Aristotle wrote an entire book - Nicomachean Ethics - on the concept of how to be wise without being inundated in rules. His conclusion was to embrace something called "practical wisdom," and now Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe have tackled this topic in their recent book, Practical Wisdom.

Specifically, Schwarz and Sharpe describe the following traits of a person who is engaged in practical wisdom:
  1. 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.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. 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.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another--to see the situation as the other person does and thus 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 (student's, patient's, friend's) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment 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.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen 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.
Schwartz has given two TED talks on the subject of how our wisdom is becoming impaired.


The biggest challenge in our modern society is that we're supplanting wisdom with elaborate sets of rule. These rules are usually initiated, I think, from a genuine attempt to make things better, but they often don't actually have that effect.

On example from the book is wildfire fighters. In the 1950's, they had four rules to keep themselves safe. Today, they have a detailed list of over 48 rules. The result of all of these extra, detailed rules is that the survival rate has actually dropped! Why? Basically, for two reasons, it seems:

  1. It's harder to keep track of all the rules, no doubt.
  2. With fewer rules, the fire fighters know that they'll have to learn from experience. The detailed list of rules diminishes their reliance on experience.
It's not that rules aren't necessary, because we can't always guarantee that people will choose to be ethical. Rules are in place to minimize damage done by those who are unwilling or unable to act ethically without detailed guidance.

For example, author Michael Lewis has described the recent economic problems worldwide as being caused by people being left alone in a dark room with a pile of money. (This is from his Daily Show interview about his new book, Boomerang.) But that's not the whole problem, either. The problem is that they were left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, and their primary concern was their own self interest, rather than to implement a wise and ethical course of action. The whole point of Lewis' book, for example, is to point out that the cultural landscape of different countries caused them to exploit this situation in different ways.

Schwartz & Sharpe, however, would argue that the ideal situation would have been to have changed the culture. Instead of creating a culture where greed and monetary benefit was the rule, a culture in which ethical considerations - practical wisdom - was key would have meant that the bankers would have brought a different set of priorities to their tasks.

They discuss several differences between the "Rules Talk" that we spend so much time using and the "Wisdom Talk" that we need to begin using:
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 problem, of course, is that if you don't have rules, then there will be people who are perfectly happy to be unethical, to abuse the system.

Here, I think, the solution is not more rules, but greater transparency.

Rules would not prevent people left alone in a dark room with a pile of money from abusing their position. However, a culture that prizes wisdom together with systems that leave few dark rooms would seriously diminish the dangers of people being able to abuse their positions.

Until we have a more transparent society, though, we'd definitely have a better world if more of us began focusing on Wisdom Talk than Rules Talk.

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