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Cultivating Practical Wisdom

Virtue + Practical Wisdom = Human Flourishing

We gain practical wisdom through the choices we make in life. Aristotle refined the idea of practical wisdom in his classic book, Nicomachean Ethics. Ethics, said Aristotle, was not mainly about establishing moral rules and following them. It was about performing a particular social practice (i.e., being a physician) and that meant figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person (i.e., the patient) at a particular time.

Wisdom is about abstract matters like "the way" or "the good" or "the truth" or "the path.” Aristotle thought that our fundamental social practices constantly demanded choices--like when to be loyal to a friend, or how to be fair, or how to confront risk, or when and how to be angry--and that making the right choices demanded wisdom.

This is what took practical wisdom. Aristotle's Ethics was about what we needed to learn to succeed at our practices and to flourish as human beings. We needed to learn certain character traits like loyalty, self-control, courage, fairness, generosity, gentleness, friendliness, and truthfulness--a list that today would also include perseverance, integrity, open-mindedness, thoroughness, and kindness. Aristotle called these traits "excellences" -- often translated as "virtues." But the master excellence--the virtue at the heart of his Ethics--was practical wisdom. None of these other traits could be exercised well without it.

Why "wisdom"? Why "practical"? Why not just a good set of rules to follow? The reason is rules can only take you so far. The rules may be unclear or conflict with other rules. How then should a person make the right choice? Aristotle

Aristotle said that wisdom was available to all, a kind of moral compass that guides our thinking and behavior. To champion human happiness, to flourish, Aristotle believed that wisdom was not for theoretical debate but for practical application.

Aristotle believed that we could develop traits like loyalty, perseverance, mindfulness, and kindness; he called these aretes (virtues or excellences). The master virtue, the soil for cultivating these traits, he argued, requires practical wisdom.

Schwartz and Sharpe outline the 6 signs of someone exercising practical wisdom:

  1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
  2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
  3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
  4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (i.e., patient’s) needs.
  5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or ‘just know’ what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
  6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”

Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked and not and why.

Deliberation, perception, mindfulness, empathy, using emotions as our allies, learning from past experiences, thinking about our thinking—these are all required to exercise practical wisdom, to act wisely, morally, and thoughtfully.

If human flourishing is the ideal of living a life of virtue, as the ancient Greeks believed, then both on a personal and societal level the question isn’t so much about how but when in our life does the exercise of practical wisdom convert virtues into moral actions? The answer is we face these situations all the time because our choices require reason and reasoning about what the right thing to do is depends on the exercise of practical wisdom.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 14, 2018. Visit Dr. Mintz’s website and sign up for his newsletter.