Barry Schwartz's 'Practical Wisdom'

Published: December 17, 2012 in Knowledge@Wharton

Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz says rules and incentives are an "insurance policy against disaster, but [they don't] produce excellence." In the recent book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Schwartz and co-author Kenneth Sharpe, also a Swarthmore professor, say what is needed is not more bureaucracy. Instead, society needs the Aristotelian ideal that trumps all others -- practical wisdom. Knowledge@Wharton recently sat down with Schwartz to discuss why individuals fail to do the right thing, what practical wisdom looks like in practice and what organizations can do to regain people's trust.

An edited version of the transcript appears below.



Knowledge@Wharton: You say that practical wisdom is a better path. Can you tell us the source of that idea and what you mean by that?

Schwartz: The source of the idea, embarrassingly enough, is Aristotle. Aristotle was famous for being what's called a virtue theorist. That is, the way you create good societies is by creating good people, and the way you create good people is by instilling in them the virtues. He had his own list of what the virtues are, and our list would be different from his, but the point is he thought that good societies depend on people of good character and that good character is something that can be trained. He had a big list of virtues, but he thought there was one particular virtue that was the master. That one he called practical wisdom. The reason was that courage is a virtue, but you can be too courageous. Then we don't call it courage anymore; we call it recklessness. So what's the right amount of courage? That requires wisdom. Honesty is a virtue. But so is kindness. Often you find yourself having to decide whether this is a situation that calls for honesty or one that calls for kindness. What enables you to figure that out? Wisdom is what enables you to figure that out. For him, the way one scholar put it, these virtues are running around like unruly schoolchildren, and wisdom is what creates order out of this chaos and actually helps people to find what he called the mean, the right amount appropriate for this person and this situation. All we did in the book was try to take Aristotle's ideas and translate them into a language that makes sense in the 21st century and apply them to the kinds of institutions and problems that we face in modern developed societies, as opposed to ancient Athens.

Knowledge@Wharton: Those are a couple of very interesting examples of how to act in an ethical way using the wisdom that you talk about in the book. But what about cases where the stakes are much higher, such as in the case of ... Penn State's Jerry Sandusky? Many people have been charged with keeping his crimes a secret. What can businesses do to help their employees do the right thing in cases like that?

Schwartz: What won't do the job is giving lectures to people about business ethics or organizational ethics.... You need to exemplify the behavior that you want the people working with you and under you to display. You need to be a model of what it means to be an ethical organization and you need to be doing it all day, every day. There are very, very few organizations that I'm aware of that behave like that. There is a charter school movement that's become national called the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). They have had incredible results with inner-city kids. There are a couple of KIPP schools in Philadelphia. What the founders of KIPP realized, though they didn't quite say it in that way at the time, is that the most important thing that kids need to learn is character. If you can teach them character, respect for knowledge, respect for the educational process, respect for the teacher, respect for one another, then teaching them how to add and subtract is trivial. If you can't teach them that, then teaching them how to add and subtract is impossible. The question is then how do you teach them that? The answer is you teach them that by showing it to them every minute of every day. That's what KIPP teachers do. They are always teaching, and they know that they are always teaching. It's incredibly demanding on them. It's the secret sauce that produces these extraordinary results. That's what people who run organizations need to do.

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