Walter G. Moss’s review of: 

Practical Wisdom:
The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe 

Published by Riverhead Books, 2010
Available from and other booksellers

The most valuable aspect of Practical Wisdom is that it demonstrates how to apply practical wisdom, as first spelled out by Aristotle, to life today, particularly in the USA, where discontent with our institutions has become so widespread. The authors are a psychologist (Barry Schwartz) and a political scientist (Kenneth Sharpe). With recent events like our financial crisis in mind, they indicate that while new rules and incentives may well be needed to reform our institutions, such changes alone will not be sufficient and indeed are sometimes counterproductive. Too many rules and incentives can inhibit and skew the development of practical wisdom, both in individuals and in institutions. And practical wisdom for the authors is the “master virtue” or maestro of our other virtues (p. 280).

Rather than providing a concise definition of practical wisdom, the authors describe it. Basically, it involves making good choices in our everyday lives, whether at work, with our friends, or in raising our children. Such wisdom relies on both proper aims and proper skills, and combines feeling with thinking. While this book recognizes the importance of many of the wisdom values that other scholars have recognized, such as empathy, detachment, and truth, it emphasizes the importance of developing good judgment as to how to balance and prioritize them. And it provides numerous examples, especially from fields like medicine, law, education, and business. How does a doctor balance empathy with detachment; a judge, mercy with justice; a teacher, compassion with objective grading; or a banker, making money with the welfare of his customers? In dealing with such choices the authors provide numerous interesting cases, usually taken from real life.

Practical Wisdom quotes a former dean of Harvard Law School, who wrote, “The term [profession] refers to a group . . . pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service--no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of a public service is the primary purpose” (p. 212). The authors clearly believe that doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even bankers, should aim first at public service, not making money. Just as importantly, administrators, organizations (like the AMA or NEA) and educational institutions that organize and prepare professionals should help inculcate such an ethic into their professions. Hospital administrators, for example, should attempt to create a culture at their hospitals that puts patient care, not profit, first.

But the authors realize that the current trend is towards more bureaucratization, specialization, standardization, and emphasis on moneymaking, all of which help bring about more rules and incentives. Although the authors are not conservatives railing away at big government or suggesting that the powers of corporations should be unrestrained, they do relate various incidents where rules and incentives got in the way of practical wisdom and even common sense.       

Ironically, some of these rules, for example in regard to mandating minimum sentences for various crimes, were pushed for by conservatives who distrusted “liberal judges,” whom they thought were “soft on crime.” But an excessive faith in more laws and incentives cuts across political boundaries. 

Among the many unwise applications of laws was the case of a man who took his seven-year-old son to a Detroit Tiger baseball game and bought him lemonade that unbeknownst to the father contained a small account of alcohol. A security guard noticed the boy drinking the lemonade, and with the aid of the police the boy was rushed by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors discovered no measurable trace of alcohol in his system. The boy was then put in a foster home for three days before a judge ruled that he could go home—but only to his mother. The father was not allowed back home until two weeks had passed. At various stages of this bureaucratic nightmare officials claimed they were just following rules. (This and some other “case studies” are also mentioned by Schwartz in an enlightening video lecture, a link to which is featured on the Wisdom Page.)

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Booker (2005), which ruled that legislation had exceeded the constitutional prerogatives of Congress to limit judicial discretion, there were numerous cases of judges who were thwarted in their attempts to exercise practical wisdom by balancing retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Then there was the case of a Texas school teacher who was advised by an outside consultant how best to prepare her students to pass standardized state tests that had become increasingly important in measuring schools’ progress. The advice boiled down to basically concentrating her attention on those whose success on the test could go either way. Why, after all, exert much energy on those who would probably pass or fail regardless of how much time the teacher spent with them?

Such an emphasis on measurable performance results often flew in the face of more humanistic practical wisdom goals, and the authors make a useful distinction between performance goals and masterly goals. In the first, students aim at doing well on tests and getting good grades, but in the second case they stress learning more, working toward mastering a subject. One of the problems with incentives is that they often reward achieving the first type of goals, not the second. Such was the case with the girl who in order to be rewarded for reading the most books in her class started picking books on the basis of their brevity and large print, rather than any intrinsic interest they had for her.

In light of our country’s on-going debate about reforming and paying for health care, Practical Wisdom offers a useful reminder that in considering the relationships between HMOs, insurance companies, the government, doctors, and patients the welfare of the patients should take first place.

The book correctly emphasizes that different institutions and professions create different workplace and professional cultures. One who works in a law firm that is dominated by a moneymaking culture is going to approach her job differently than if she were in a firm that stressed client satisfaction. By pointing out such institutions as the Mayo Clinic, the soul of which is the “cultural philosophy of doing the best for the patient” (208), and contrasting it with medical care in McAllen, Texas, where doctors emphasized profits more, the authors demonstrate that we as a nation really have a choice in how we deliver health care. Not surprisingly, while the Medicare spending per patient is relatively low in Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic operates, in McAllen it was the highest in the USA. 

In a society which overemphasizes the importance of moneymaking, as well as rules and incentives that often stifle initiative, spontaneity, creativity, and true learning, there are some people who still manage to exercise practical wisdom. The authors cite the example of custodians at a hospital who acquired their chief satisfaction from contributing to the welfare of the hospital’s patients and their families even though the custodians’ job description never mentioned such a task. At times the exemplars of practical wisdom defy the moneymaking or rule-dominated culture of their workplace and are, in the words of the authors, “canny outlaws” pursuing as best they can their own wiser aims.

But individual efforts, as valuable as they are, are not enough. System changers are also needed. And Practical Wisdom again provides examples of such people—lawyers, doctors, educators, community workers, and bankers—who are working to create institutions where practical wisdom can flourish.  In these new institutions, such wisdom is promoted primarily by encouraging noble professional and workplace values and allowing practitioners to exercise judgment as to how best carry them out. Providing good feedback and mentoring is also important so that practitioners best learn from their trial-and-error experiences.

In the final chapter, “Wisdom and Happiness,” the authors state that “the wiser we are in what we do, the happier we are.” (p. 270) They also quote Camus, who stated that “without work all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.” Like President Kennedy, who liked to say that “the Greeks defined happiness as the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence,” the authors realize the great happiness that can flow from fully exercising one’s powers for a good cause. And they are correct that if more people were able to regard their work as a “calling” in behalf of noble aims, there would be an increase in true happiness. But the initiative to carve out a greater role for practical wisdom has to come not only from “canny outlaws,” but also from “system changers.” By calling attention to both groups and the good and wise actions they are already taking, Practical Wisdom can serve as an important stimulus to overcoming the situation that the first sentence of the book describes—“We Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with the institutions on which we depend” (p.3).