Schwartz, Barry. Sharpe, Kenneth. Practical Wisdom. The right way to do the right thing. Riverhead Books. 2010.
B.S.- Professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College.
K.S.- Professor of political science at Swarthmore College.
Practical wisdom needs to be a part of everyone’s life. The authors have focused on several areas of life where the impacts of practical wisdom are crucial; health care, education and jurisprudence. In these areas the balance between practical wisdom and things like rules, principles and standards is easily lost. When economics drive the ‘bottom line’ practical wisdom becomes a casualty. When standardization becomes a ‘bottom line’ in education the quality of relationships and innovations are impacted. Practical wisdom is the oil that keeps the machinery of life running smoothly avoiding unnecessary wear and tear. This truly a ‘practical book’!
Aristotle is credited with being the author of practical wisdom which he expressed in his book Ethics. “We are ‘born to be wise’ and that capacity needs to be nurtured.” (10)
Whether you are a lawyer, doctor, or a stylist, giving advice regarding people’s choices requires wisdom. For a doctor to be a quality care-giver there is the challenge of balancing “honesty with care and kindness, empathy with detachment”. (19) “Practical wisdom is a kind of jazz” (13) that relies heavily on improvisation not rules.
We are born with an intuitive bent toward wisdom. It happens within a process called “framing and being framed”. (61) To act wisely toward others we need a great deal of empathy which integrates thinking and feeling. “Experience is the machinery of wisdom.” (81)
When wisdom is removed from rules and principles serious problems will arise. “Balancing autonomy and beneficence is an ethical challenge,” (121) for medical professionals which requires wisdom. “Patient-centred care” (128) is now a central principle of medical ethics. Empathy too often becomes a casualty when too much focus is placed on professionalism. “Diagnosis has turned from the ear to the eye.” (139) In education “Overstandardization” (155) has muzzled creative teaching. The quality of health care suffers in health care when the determining factor is cost. Hedonic incentives are a threat to quality health care. “Incentives are blunt instruments.” (188) They erode moral motivation. It is a real challenge for professionals to “find the balance between commitment to doing things that are true to the ‘soul’ of their profession and willingness to do things that keep their institution alive and afloat”.(198)
Among demoralizing institutions banking has set somewhat of a record with its devastating impact on the economy (America).
What can be done about the dilemma of demoralizing institutions? “Good practices encourage wise practitioners who in turn will care for the future of the practice.” (227) Positive changes in institutions are brought about by “system changers”. (214) The Booker decision of 2005 returned some judicial discretion to judges. The establishing of the veterans court provided help for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If there is to be such a person as an “ethical lawyer” (240) changes must take place in their education which will include addressing practical wisdom. “Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program” (243) provides for the application of practical wisdom in dealing with specific cases. The “Vermont Portfolio Assessment Program” (252) is an attempt to balance standardization with innovative teaching. At Harvard’s Medical School the Cambridge Integrated Clerkship (CIC) program”, (256) integrates ethics with medical training. “Shore Bank” (270) is an example of a level of banking that has a wholesome focus on community and customers rather than just profit.
“Practical wisdom is embedded in the actual practices of being a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor, etc.” (271) It cannot be taught or learned, it is acquired. “Authentic happiness is a combination of engagement, meaning, and positive emotion. It may be achievable individually.” Martin Seligman. The highest level of work, wisdom and happiness is experienced by those “whose work is a calling”. (283) Calling ranks above job and career. Discretion in judgment is fundamental to the development of practical wisdom. “Wisdom is not the mysterious gift of a handful of sages, but the capacity that we all have and need.” (287)
“To flourish, to achieve, demands practical wisdom.” Aristotle.