Friday, February 6, 2009

WIRED Interview with Barry Schwartz

LONG BEACH, California -- Psychologist Barry Schwartz delivers the final presentation of TED 2009 on Saturday. spoke to Schwartz about practical wisdom, moral skill without moral will, and the roles of hope and virtue.

Wired: You call practical wisdom the "master virtue." What is practical wisdom and why is it important?

Barry Schwartz: Very central to Aristotle was the notion that to do the right thing, and ultimately to be happy, required that you be a person with the right character -- courage, honesty, perseverance, and so on....

The problem was that having these virtues wasn't enough, because, how courageous should you be and when should you be courageous? The circumstances we face from day to day are varied and multiple, so you can’t be formulaic about it. You need to use your judgment. And the virtue that is the judgment virtue is what he called "practical wisdom." It's knowing when and how to display the other virtues. It's knowing how to choose when two virtues conflict.

Wired: It sounds like you're talking about the ability to reason.

BS: Well it’s a particular kind of reason. Practical wisdom is what's called for in situations that have a moral dimension to them. There are dozens of decisions we make every day that call upon us to be wise in our interactions with other people.... They're usually too small for us to even appreciate that there's a moral dilemma to them. And that's the kind of thing we think wisdom applies to.

The way Ken and I talk about wisdom, it's composed of two different components.

One is what we call moral skill, which is the ability to figure out what's called for in a given situation. It's kind of analogous to what people call emotional intelligence –- the ability to read people, understand where they're coming from, what they're aspiring to. The second component is moral will, which is the desire to do the right thing. If you have lots of moral skill but not the will do to the right thing, then you're a [Bernard] Madoff because you use all of the moral skill to manipulate people to serve your ends. It's Machiavellian if it's de-coupled from the desire to do the right thing.

Wired: You've said in the past that we've lost practical wisdom. How and when did we lose it?

BS: I think it's a gradual process. We've lost it in part because we don't appreciate how important it is and what it takes to develop it.

It takes two things to develop wisdom.... You need to have autonomy, and you need to try things [and] see them fail and get feedback and slowly over time develop a kind of sensitivity to what each situation demands. If you put people in a situation where they are rigidly following rules, they will never have the opportunity to develop this judgment. Rules eliminate the need for judgment. And one of the things we have increasingly done in American society -- partly I think because we're worried about somebody suing us -- is we develop more and more rules and take individual discretion increasingly out of the hands of the people who actually provide the service [in a company or organization].

Wired: How do you nurture people to do the right thing?

BS: I think the first step toward achieving these things is appreciating that the tools we currently use are not sufficient.... The step after that is to identify and acknowledge the existence of moral exemplars – if you like, moral heroes -- that the people you're training can aspire to emulate. And they don't have to be people who do extraordinary things. There are people who do small things that count as moral heroes. And then giving the people you're training the room both to improvise and to have room in their lives for wanting to do the right thing and not just the profitable thing.


Related books:

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Related previous post:

Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues

Related links:


Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom