Doing the right thing can help individuals and institutions succeed. But knowing what that right thing is, is not easy.
In "Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing," authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharp explain that it’s possible to develop the good judgment that helps people make the right decisions. They say it takes experience, failure and determination.
The concept of practical wisdom comes from Aristotle. Schwartz explains that the ancient Greek philosopher made two arguments about behavior.
"One is that there is no set of ethical rules or principles that tells us the right thing to do in every situation," he says. "The world is too complicated, too varied, and you need to use your judgment, which is what Aristotle meant by wisdom. And the practical part is that it’s the sort of judgment that we need every day, in interacting with our friends, with our children, with our patients or our students. So it is not some high, abstract ideal. It’s very concrete and very much about how you treat other people on a day-to-day basis."
Societies and institutions have created rules and regulations, procedures and performance incentives to guide and encourage people to do the right thing, but Schwartz says blindly following those standards does not cultivate wisdom.
"There is no set of rules that will tell teachers how to teach, or doctors how to doctor," he says. "There is no set of incentives that bankers won’t find a way to subvert, as we have witnessed in the last couple of years in the world economic meltdown. So you need people who want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing."
Schwartz says rules, regulations and incentives are necessary, but learning how to become wise - how to recognize the right thing and do it - requires experience, trying and failing, learning from mistakes and trying again.
He compares practical wisdom to jazz.
"There are notes on the page and those are like rules, but what makes the heart of jazz is not playing the notes on the page, he says. "It’s improvising around the notes on the page. And a wise practitioner knows the notes, can read the notes, but also knows how to improvise."
The ‘wise practitioner’ is also empathic.
"If a doctor is dealing with a patient, the doctor needs to ask 'What does this patient need? How does this patient feel? How should I couch the bad news that I’m about to give this particular patient so that it won’t be completely devastating and demoralizing, while still being true?'" he says. "So unless you can sort of get into the head and heart of other people, you will get it wrong."
Putting wisdom into action
Putting wisdom into action is not always easy, but in "Practical Wisdom," authors Schwartz and Sharp believe it is possible.
"One kind of person we describe as a ‘canny outlaw,'" Schwartiz explains. "This is a person who is operating in a system that discourages wisdom, like a teacher who has to follow a script, but finds ways around the rules. There are plenty of such people around, but they’re swimming against the current. They don’t get support. In fact they may even lose their jobs if they are caught. More hopeful are whole institutions that appreciate the need to cultivate wisdom in practitioners. We describe in detail an example of a medical training program, a relatively new one at Harvard University."
Dr. David Hirsh is the program’s co-founder and director.
"In 2003, that was when we began what’s now called the Harvard Medical School-Cambridge Integrated Clerkship," says Hirsh. "The entire reason to take on this rather large innovation was to do something meaningful to change the way that medical doctors were trained, and part of that deeply involves the idea of humanism - their personal development or moral development."
The clerkship allows third-year medical students - who have learned the rules and regulations of their profession - to spend one day a week working with patients in a clinic. Unlike other programs, these young doctors then follow their patients for a whole year under the watchful eye of an experienced physician.
"Patients who come to the hospital, who are seen only in the hospital are really being understood at a particular moment of their life," Hirsh says. "I think one could not imagine that a few days of a hospital experience could in any way define the totality of someone’s life. In contrast, our students meet patients who are well or who are sick. They follow them not only through their hospital stays, but back into clinics, or into nursing home or into the community, settings which aren’t about healthcare at all. So students will come to know why it is that certain patients don’t have access to lead-free water or to fresh vegetables and why certain choices are made by patients in their real lives, not just in a brief, brief moment of their hospital course. So in this way students can see patients in the real context of their lives and understand them fully."
And, in the process, gain the practical wisdom Aristotle spoke of.