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Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets Positive Psychology

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Abstract

The strengths and virtues identified by positive psychology are treated as logically independent, and it is recommended that people identify their “signature” strengths and cultivate them, because more of a strength is better [Peterson and Seligman: 2004, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press, New York); Seligman: 2002, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, New York)]. The present paper contrasts that view with the Aristotelian view that virtues are interdependent, that happiness (eudaimonia) requires all the virtues, and that more of a virtue is not always better than less. We argue that practical wisdom is the master virtue essential to solving problems of specificity, relevance, and conflict that inevitably arise whenever character strengths must be translated into action in concrete situations. We also argue that practical wisdom is becoming increasingly difficult to nurture and display in modern society, so that attention must be paid to reshaping social institutions to encourage the use of practical wisdom rather than inhibiting it.
BARRY SCHWARTZ and KENNETH E. SHARPE
PRACTICAL WISDOM: ARISTOTLE MEETS POSITIVE
PSYCHOLOGY
ABSTRACT. The strengths and virtues identified by positive psychology are
treated as logically independent, and it is recommended that people identify
their ‘‘signature’’ strengths and cultivate them, because more of a strength is
better [Peterson and Seligman: 2004, Character Strengths and Virtues: A
Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press, New York); Seligman:
2002, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, New York)]. The present paper con-
trasts that view with the Aristotelian view that virtues are interdependent, that
happiness (eudaimonia) requires all the virtues, and that more of a virtue is not
always better than less. We argue that practical wisdom is the master virtue
essential to solving problems of specificity, relevance, and conflict that inevi-
tably arise whenever character strengths must be translated into action in
concrete situations. We also argue that practical wisdom is becoming
increasingly difficult to nurture and display in modern society, so that attention
must be paid to reshaping social institutions to encourage the use of practical
wisdom rather than inhibiting it.
KEY WORDS: character strengths, positive psychology, practical wisdom,
virtues
‘‘WHAT GRADE DO I GIVE?’’
Suppose you are grading term papers. You read one written
by a student who is struggling to get a C in your course. It is
decently written and coherently organized, and it has no major
misunderstandings of key concepts. It is a B)paper, but it is by
far the best work this student has done in your course. Next,
you turn to one written by the smartest student in the class,
someone who is effortlessly ‘‘acing’’ everything you throw her
way. It is well written and clearly organized, and it demonstrates
fine comprehension. A solid B+, perhaps even an A). But it
lacks spark. It is not very original. It does not go very far be-
yond what was said in class. This student could definitely have
done a much better piece of work.
Journal of Happiness Studies (2006) 7:377–395 ÓSpringer 2006
DOI 10.1007/s10902-005-3651-y
So what grades do you give? Do you give the grades the
papers deserve in themselves, evaluating them as if you did not
know who wrote them? Or do you give the grades they deserve,
but encourage the C student about how good it was and
admonish the A student about how disappointing it was? Is this
enough recognition of individual difference, or should you go
further, actually giving each student a grade based not only on
the merits of the paper, but also on the relation of the paper’s
quality to each student’s past work? What effect will each of
these courses of action have on the students involved? Should
grading be based only on the quality of the work or also on the
effort expended? Which approach to grading is fairest? Which is
kindest? Which is most effective? And which of these things
should you be caring about?
‘‘HOW DO I LOOK?’’
You are keeping your best friend company as she gets dressed to
go to a wedding. When she puts on her dress, which you have
never seen before, you think it is extremely unflattering. ‘‘How do
I look?’’ she says. What do you say? Do you tell her she looks
great, or do you tell the truth? Many of us believe that real friend-
ships must be based on complete honesty. If you cannot trust
your friends, you cannot trust anyone, and you can’t trust your
friends unless you can count on them to tell you the truth. So this
little problem seems like no problem at all. Telling your friend the
truth would be doing her a favor. But beyond that, it is essential
to preserving the foundations of the friendship.
Yes, but. As you are about to open your mouth to tell your
friend to pick something else, a wave of considerations might
come crashing over you. The wedding is in a few hours. Does
she have an alternative? Do you know that she will look better
in something else? Does she need to feel good about herself – to
have her confidence bolstered – right now? Even if she has an
alternative, what will it do to her confidence to hear that even
though she thought she looked great, her best friend thought
otherwise? Will it undermine her ability to judge how she looks
in the future?
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
378
You will ask yourself these questions, and answer them,
before you say anything. And you will do it instantly, because if
it takes you five minutes to respond to ‘‘how do I look?’’ as
your friend pirouettes around the room, you will have given
your answer long before you open your mouth. Somehow you
will ‘‘know’’ what your friend needs right now, and how to
provide it. And that is what you will do. Or at least, that is
what you will do if you possess the virtue Aristotle called
phronesis, or practical wisdom.
This paper is about practical wisdom. We will try to character-
ize it. We will suggest that it is in many respects the master virtue
– the virtue without which other virtues or character strengths fail
to produce effective action. We will contrast our approach with
the very powerful approach to character and virtue that has
grown out of positive psychology (Peterson and Seligman, 2004;
Seligman, 2002). We will describe the social conditions needed to
nurture practical wisdom and suggest that they grow more scarce
by the day. And we will suggest that practical wisdom may be
essential for satisfying work and successful relationships with
friends, lovers, and family. Given the importance of satisfying
work and good social relations to well being in general, we will
conclude that practical wisdom may be essential to human happi-
ness – a conclusion that may be surprising to a modern audience,
but that Aristotle regarded as self-evident.
We acknowledge at the outset that other psychologists have
made impressive contributions to our understanding of wisdom
(e.g., Baltes and Smith, 1990; Baltes and Staudinger, 1993,
1998, 2000; Staudinger and Baltes, 1994, 1996; Sternberg, 1998).
We have learned a good deal from these efforts to develop a
psychology of wisdom, but our aims and our emphasis are
somewhat different from those of these other investigators. We
urge interested readers to consult this previous work, but we
will discuss it no further in the limited space available to us.
THE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY OF STRENGTHS AND VIRTUES
Peterson and Seligman (2004) developed a list of 24 strengths
organized under six virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage,
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 379
humanity and love, justice, temperance, transcendence. And
the character strengths they organize include curiosity, open-
mindedness, perspective, kindness and generosity, loyalty, duty,
fairness, leadership, self-control, caution, humility, bravery, per-
severance, honesty, gratitude, optimism, zest.
What is important to note about the classification for our
purposes is that the virtues are treated as logically independent
of each other, as are the strengths. Whether they are correlated
is, of course, an empirical question, but there is no normative
suggestion that they should be correlated – that they should all
be nurtured – nor is there a claim that it is very difficult to
exercise one strength effectively without many of the others.
For example, honesty is a strength whether or not it is com-
bined with kindness, i.e., it is better to be an honest person who
is not very kind than a less honest person who is not very kind.
Instead of making recommendations about the strengths and
virtues in combination, positive psychology advises people to
identify their ‘‘signature’’ strengths, and then to develop them
(Seligman, 2002). The more developed any strength is, the bet-
ter people are.
We accept the importance of these virtues and strengths, but
we believe that:
1. Virtues and strengths should not be treated in isolation
from each other; they are not effective, in general, if exer-
cised independently.
2. More of any one of the strengths is not necessarily better; in
fact nurturing a single signature strength can produce defor-
mations of character, like a body builder who develops
gigantic arms and chest and ignores the rest of his body until
he can barely stand erect. Though there is something to be
said for having the world’s biggest biceps, overdeveloping
some body parts and neglecting others will impair the func-
tioning of the body as a whole, and so it may be with devel-
oping some strengths and ignoring others.
3. And finally, without practical wisdom, the other strengths,
however well developed they may be, cannot be effectively
deployed.
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
380
WHAT THE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY OF STRENGTHS
AND VIRTUES MISSES
Assume that you face the grading problem or the wedding dress
problem with the best of motives, and assume that you have
cultivated the full set of strengths and virtues. As you bring
your 24 character strengths to bear on either of these small
dilemmas, you quickly realize that they are not up to the task.
There are three reasons why this is so. First, real life situations
do not come labeled with the needed virtues or strengths at-
tached. There is, thus, the problem of relevance: Does this situa-
tion require courage, honesty, compassion, justice or some other
strength? Second, real life situations often put virtues in conflict
with one another. Should I be honest or kind in answering my
friend’s question about her dress? Should I be just or generous
in grading term papers? Finally, virtues or strengths lack the
specificity required for translation into action. What do fairness
and equity require of me in grading these two students? What
would be the kind response to my friend’s question about how
she looks? It takes imagination and perception to translate vir-
tue into action in any situation. It is to resolve these three
issues – relevance, conflict, and specificity – that the Aristotelian
virtue of practical wisdom is essential (Wallace, 1988).
Let us examine our three problems – specificity, relevance,
and conflict – in a bit more detail. Suppose you have cultivated
the strength of kindness, and you decide that kindness is what
is called for as you answer your friend’s question about her
wedding dress. But what does kindness tell you to do? Is it kind
to be disingenuous or to lie outright? Is it kind to blurt out the
truth in the way it is kind to pull a bandage off a hairy arm in
one quick motion; just get it over with? Or is it kind to shade
the truth, and perhaps in a tortured conversation nudge your
friend to her own realization that the dress doesn’t work? There
is almost certainly a right way to handle this situation, but the
only way to discern it is by knowing your friend, her present
mood, her sense of self, and what recourse she might have in
the present circumstances. And you will also need to be think-
ing about how whichever form of kindness you exercise in the
next ten seconds will affect the long-term character of your
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 381
friendship. The particular is everything here, and knowing that
kindness is a virtue does not tell you what to do.
Now consider what strengths matter in deciding how to evalu-
ate students. It is plausible to us that from the list of twenty-four
enumerated by Peterson and Seligman (2004), the following may
apply: open-mindedness, ingenuity, social intelligence, kindness
and generosity, duty, fairness, equity, leadership, humility, brav-
ery, diligence, integrity, honesty, genuineness, appreciation of
excellence, sense of purpose, and honor. Should they all be
deployed? If so, in what combination? Strengths do not come
with their conditions of application attached to them, and one
needs a specific strength – wisdom, we argue – to judge which
other strength or strengths a particular situation calls for. It
should be noted, in this regard, that the strategy advocated by
Seligman (2002) can make the relevance problem invisible to
many people. If one cultivates ones signature strengths, one may
not even realize that more than one strength might be called for
in a given situation. As the old saying goes, ‘‘If all you have is a
hammer, everything is a nail.’’
Finally, consider the problem of conflict among virtues. In
the case of your friend and her wedding dress, honesty and
kindness seem to conflict. In the case of the students who are
being graded, perhaps justice and generosity conflict. But more
generally, it is easy to anticipate conflicts between strengths
such as valor and prudence, justice and mercy, loyalty and
open-mindedness, leadership and humility, self-control and zest,
open-mindedness and perseverance, perspective and justice,
integrity and kindness, and justice and forgiveness. Each of the
above character traits is a strength in the Peterson and Selig-
man classification. In our view, each of them is desirable in
people. But cultivated piecemeal, and left to operate without an
‘‘executive,’’ they can lead to one social disaster after another.
ARISTOTLE
The Aristotelian perspective differs from the Peterson and Selig-
man (2004) ‘‘strengths and virtues’’ perspective in three impor-
tant ways:
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
382
1. It argues that strengths and virtues should be understood
as integrated not independent.
2. It argues that people should strive for the mean with
respect to each virtue, that more of a virtue is not always
better.
3. Finally, it argues that there is a master virtue, practical
wisdom, essential for orchestrating the other virtues into
an effective and happy life. Practical wisdom is needed to
solve the problems of specificity, relevance, and conflict
that are pervasive in everyday experience.
The aim of life, Aristotle says In Nichomachean Ethics,iseudai-
monia, which is something like what Seligman (2002) meant by
‘‘authentic happiness.’’ To achieve this aim requires the cultiva-
tion of the virtues – not just ones signature strengths but all of
them. A parent or a judge who is strong on kindness and gener-
osity and weak on justice and perspective would be a disastrous
parent or judge – and not very happy. As Rorty (1991) put it,
‘‘Virtues hunt in packs.’’ Further, Aristotle told us that ‘‘more’’
is sometimes not better. Rather, we need to know how kind or
honest or empathic or loyal to be. The virtues need to exist in the
right proportions, and they need to be cultivated and deployed
to the right degree. Aristotle stressed the importance of finding
the mean in any action. Courage demands finding the balance
between cowardice and recklessness. In general, too much of a
virtue can be as big an enemy of eudaimonia as too little.
Further, the right amount of any of the virtues is context
specific – what Nussbaum (1995) referred to as the priority of
the particular. The deployment of any of the virtues must be
context sensitive. Is caution a strength? Yes, ‘‘look before you
leap.’’ But change the context, and ‘‘she who hesitates is lost.’’
The balance between cowardice and recklessness is not the mid-
point on some underlying scale. Where exactly the mean lies
will itself vary from context to context – situation to situation.
And the right form of the virtues must be sensitive to the
particular people involved. Love is a virtue. But we love our sis-
ters, our friends, and our spouses differently. Furthermore, how
I love my friend depends on who that friend is and what he
needs at that particular moment as well as in the narrative of
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 383
his life. One can only talk about love as a virtue if one knows
how to love particular people in particular and changing cir-
cumstances. As novelist Graham Greene put it, ‘‘One can’t love
humanity; one can only love people.’’
ARISTOTLE VERSUS RULES
This Aristotelian position that practical wisdom is essential for
solving the problems of specificity, relevance, and conflict is not
the dominant one in modern ethics. More common is the no-
tion that moral rules (e.g., Kantianism) or techniques for calcu-
lation (e.g., utilitarianism) can resolve these issues without
reliance on practical wisdom (see Johnson, 1993; Nussbaum,
1995, 2004; Wallace, 1988 for discussion of the Kantian and
utilitarian traditions and their limitations). For example, Kant’s
categorical imperative tells us that above all, people must be
treated with respect – they must be treated as ‘‘subjects’’ and
not as ‘‘objects.’’ This principle tells us that honesty trumps
kindness if kindness requires a certain disingenuous manipula-
tion, as might be the case either with our friend and her wed-
ding dress or our C student with his B- paper. Kantian moral
principles are famously non-consequentialist; what matters is
doing the right thing, whatever the result. And in cases of mor-
al conflict, a hierarchy of principles tells us which one to apply.
Utilitarianism, in contrast, is notoriously consequentialist. It
does not tell us the right thing to do in a situation so much as
it gives us a formula for computing the right thing to do. But
the formula is meant to be used in a rule-like, mechanical way,
to calculate costs and benefits (see Baron, 1986, for a nuanced
defense of utilitarianism). Critically, from our (and Aristotle’s)
perspective, rules – whether Kantian, utilitarian, or of any other
kind – are inadequate to the task. Rules have their place in our
deliberations. They are like a road map that gets us to the right
city, but not the right street. However, in order to know the
right thing to do, we need the right street. We need to know
what this friend needs, not what friends in general need. And
we need to know what she needs at this moment, not in general.
This is why rules are no substitute for practical wisdom.
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
384
PRACTICAL WISDOM AS THE ‘‘EXECUTIVE’’
All of this context and person specificity means that there must
be some ‘‘executive decision maker’’ to keep virtues from run-
ning amuck and enable one to do the right thing in the right
way at the right time. That executive, for Aristotle, is phronesis,
Positive psychology has a place for practical wisdom: wisdom
and knowledge are one of the six virtues. But we are suggesting
that it is not just one of six virtues that might be a signature
virtue and might be strengthened. From our, Aristotelian per-
spective, it is the master virtue, without which the other virtues
will exist like well-intentioned, but unruly children.
It is important to make clear that practical wisdom is not the
same as practical intelligence. Practical intelligence (what Aris-
totle called techne) is what enables you to know the right thing
to do in order to achieve your goals. It is an important part of
practical wisdom, but it is only one component. Practical intelli-
gence is silent on the question of what your goals should be; it
does not tell you what to aim at. To have practical wisdom is
to know what to aim at – to know the purpose of being a
friend or a father or a teacher or a statesman. Also, practical
intelligence does not make you want to do the right thing. It is
purely cognitive, not motivational. Someone with practical wis-
dom not only knows the right thing to do but wants to do it.
From a modern perspective, what we might say is that practical
intelligence must be wedded to the other virtues; otherwise, it is
mere cleverness or shrewdness (what Aristotle called deinotes).
Untethered from other virtues, it can be a tool for untold evil.
Being wise in the ways of others can be used to manipulate peo-
ple to serve your ends, not theirs. Interestingly, both Sternberg
(1998) and Baltes and Staudinger (2000), in their discussions
of wisdom, acknowledged the importance of having the right
motives. Yet in both cases, this feature of wisdom is relatively
undeveloped in comparison to the discussion devoted to what
we are calling practical intelligence.
To summarize, our neo-Aristotelian view is that:
1. Virtues and strengths should be integrated not independent.
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 385
2. The aim in cultivating strengths should be the mean, ra-
ther than ‘‘more.’’
3. There must be balance among virtues as opposed to the
cultivation of signature strengths. The right balance
depends on the particular context, and practical wisdom is
essential to achieving that balance.
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY’S VIRTUE
OF ‘‘WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE’’
The Peterson and Seligman (2004) classification includes the vir-
tue of wisdom and knowledge. Organized under this virtue are
several strengths: curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning,
ingenuity and originality, and perspective. There are three
things worth noting about this list of strengths. First, we believe
that practical wisdom demands all of these strengths. There is
no reason to think that someone who develops the signature
strength of curiosity, or love of learning, in isolation from the
others will be in a position to determine the right thing to do in
the myriad of mundane social situations people find themselves
in every day. Cultivating some of these strengths and neglecting
others will lead to an impoverished toolbox – only hammers.
Second, we believe that practical wisdom requires other str-
engths that are not on the Peterson and Seligman list. It requires
discernment, perceptiveness, and imagination. It requires social
and emotional intelligence (which we interpret as including
empathy, perspective taking, and the ability to listen, and is a
strength that Peterson and Seligman classified under the virtue
of humanity). And finally, and most important, the list of intel-
lectual strengths, no matter how extensive, can never completely
capture what goes into practical wisdom. For in addition to
skill, which is what the intellectual strengths contribute to, prac-
tical wisdom requires will. To be wise, it is not enough to know
the right thing to do. You also have to want to do it. In the
absence of will, the intellectual and emotional skills that make
up practical wisdom can be used as instruments of manipulation
and abuse. You have to want what is best for your friend as you
contemplate your answer to the ‘‘how do I look’’ question. You
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
386
have to want what is best for your students as you contemplate
the ‘‘what grade do I give’’ question. And doctors have to want
what is best for their patients, therapists have to want what is
best for their clients, judges and legislators have to want what
is best for their citizens. We all know people who possess the
skill without the will. Such people are dangerous.
A PSYCHOLOGY OF PRACTICAL WISDOM?
Though we have no psychology of practical wisdom to offer,
we think that there are several characteristics of practical wis-
dom, as we have sketched it, that align themselves nicely with
research in modern cognitive science. First, our suggestion that
judgment rather than rules is required to determine what to do
in any particular situation conforms nicely with the modern
understanding that most human concepts and categories are
organized around prototypes or exemplars, with no clear and
unambiguous criteria for membership (Rosch, 1975; Rosch and
Lloyd, 1978; Wittgenstein, 1953; see Johnson, 1993 for detailed
discussion of the application of the idea of ‘‘natural concepts’’
to the debate in moral philosophy between rules and judgment).
We now know that concepts structured to have clear defining
features (e.g., ‘‘square’’) are rare in human experience. Far more
common are concepts (e.g., ‘‘game,’’ to use Wittgenstein’s
famous example) with ambiguous and changing boundaries,
that admit graded membership (i.e., some very good examples
and some less good). This kind of conceptual structure is what
the list of strengths demands. There may be clear and unambig-
uous examples at the core of strengths like courage, but there
will be other, less clear, perhaps even metaphorical, and ever
changing examples at the periphery. That we ask ourselves
questions like ‘‘is courage called for here?’’ and ‘‘what would it
mean to be courageous in this situation?’’ implies an under-
standing of strengths as natural rather than scientific concepts.
And this kind of conceptual organization is just what practical
wisdom is predicated upon. This explains, by the way, why
moral rules are not up to the task of telling us what to do in
most of the situations we face every day: The fuzzy nature of
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 387
category boundaries makes it unclear when and how these rules
are to be applied, however unimpeachable the rules themselves
might be. Their application requires judgment.
Second, Aristotle suggested, and we agree, that wisdom is
learned but cannot be taught – at least not didactically. This
means that wisdom is the product of experience. One becomes
wise by confronting difficult and ambiguous situations, using
one’s judgment to decide what to do, doing it, and getting feed-
back. One becomes a wise practitioner by practicing being wise.
It may thus be domain specific: The wise teacher may not be
a wise parent. Relatedly, wisdom honors the priority of the
particular, i.e., it is sensitive to the importance of context. It
requires detailed knowledge of the other people involved in a
situation: you really need to know your friend to figure out
what to tell her about her dress. In the absence of detailed
knowledge, rules (e.g., ‘‘always tell the truth’’) are all one has.
There is no basis on which to use judgment to decide what to
do in a particular case unless one knows the particulars of the
case.
Is there a psychological framework that could explain how
wisdom, so characterized, is acquired? We think there is. Our
account of wisdom is well captured by connectionist, neural
network, parallel distributed processing models of cognition
(McClelland and Rummelhart, 1986). Such models treat learn-
ing as the result of a build-up of associations among multiple
elements in our neural/cognitive architecture. The build-up
takes experience; you can’t just shovel rules into people’s heads
and expect them to be properly applied. Indeed such networks
are capable of producing rule-governed behavior without the
explicit representation of rules. Behavior is context sensitive in
that different situations will activate different parts of a neural
network. Such networks permit both conflict and ambiguity in
judgment since individual cognitive elements will be part of
more than one network. We imagine practical wisdom as built
up via something like a neural network, as a result of experi-
ence in many different situations with features that overlap but
are never identical. Though this suggestion is at the moment
little more than a hand-wave, we make it to indicate that prac-
tical wisdom may be more than a mystical, mentalistic notion
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
388
that is out of step with modern psychological science. On the
contrary, it is possible to imagine implementing practical wis-
dom in a neural/cognitive system that is compatible with our
current understanding of the nervous system. Indeed, it may be
that wisdom is more psychologically compatible with our mod-
ern understanding of cognitive organization than any system of
moral rules would be (see Churchland, 1996; Flanagan, 1996;
Johnson, 1996, and other contributions to May et al., 1996, for
some examples of the application of modern cognitive science
to moral decision making).
Third, timing matters when it comes to figuring out the right
thing to do. As we said at the beginning of this paper, if it takes
you two minutes to respond to ‘‘how do I look?’’ you have
answered the question in a particular way no matter what you
ultimately say. There is now growing evidence from the literature
on decision making – both moral and otherwise – that the best
way to understand decision making is as the result of the opera-
tion of two systems – one fast, automatic, unconscious, and
organized very much like neural networks, and the other slow,
deliberate, conscious, and organized by rules (e.g., Haidt, 2001;
Kahneman, 2003; Kahneman and Frederick, 2002; Schwarz,
2002; Slomin, 2002; Slovic et al., 2002; see Gladwell, 2005, for
some vivid examples of the automatic system in operation, not
always successfully). Operation of the first system is mandatory;
operation of the second system is optional. Such a characteriza-
tion is quite compatible with how we think about wisdom. We
are, at least sometimes, able to determine the right thing to do
extremely rapidly, without even realizing that there was a deci-
sion – that there were options aside from what we chose. This
too is compatible with at least some readings of Aristotle. Aris-
totle emphasized the importance of habit to moral judgment and
decision making, an emphasis echoed by Dewey (1960) centuries
later. Such moral habits, understood as developed neural net-
works, are just what the ‘‘automatic’’ decision-making system
may be about (but see Nussbaum, 2004, for an argument that
for Aristotle, wisdom always involves deliberation of some kind.)
Thus, we believe that a psychology of practical wisdom, based
on our current understanding of conceptual organization, neural
architecture, and decision making, offers a great deal of promise.
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 389
THREATS TO PRACTICAL WISDOM
We have argued that practical wisdom requires the right goals,
the right motives, and the relevant experience. It also requires
enough flexibility and autonomy so that one can actually do
what the situation calls for. Given these requirements, and gi-
ven the centrality of practical wisdom, as the executive deci-
sion maker, to character, it is distressing that modern social
trends are conspiring to make wisdom ever more difficult to
cultivate. These trends can be organized around two core fea-
tures: increasing market pressure and increasing bureaucratiza-
tion. The pressure to make a profit threatens both skill and
will. It threatens the development of the skills demanded by
practical wisdom by depriving people of adequate time to get
to know people and situations well enough to exercise judg-
ment wisely. Doctors who see eight patients an hour can’t
possibly be expected to discern the unique circumstances of
each patient. And it threatens the will by substituting financial
incentives for motivation to do the right thing (see Frey and
Oberholzer-Gee, 1997; Lepper and Greene, 1978; Schwartz,
1994).
Bureaucratization is a threat to the development of the skills
required by practical wisdom and to the flexibility and auton-
omy needed for its deployment. When teachers are forced to
follow prescribed lesson plans to achieve rigidly specified curric-
ular goals, they are hardly in a position to look for and capital-
ize on teachable moments. Nor are they able to gain and use
the sophisticated knowledge of each pupil that is needed to tai-
lor instruction in a way that meets individual needs, interests,
and abilities. One of Piaget’s most important lessons was that
cognitive development occurs when children are confronted
with tasks that are challenging – but not too challenging.
Bureaucratization makes the discernment of this kind of infor-
mation impossible.
It is important to appreciate that both of these threats are
self-perpetuating. The less practice people get, the worse their
judgment will be, and the worse their judgment is, the more
people in charge will perceive the need for rules – rigid bureau-
cratic procedures. This in turn will mean less practice, which
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
390
will mean more rules, and so on. Similarly, the more financial
incentives crowd out people’s desire to do the right thing, the
more they will have to be policed, and their tasks ‘‘incentivized’’
to make sure they do the right thing. Market incentives and
bureaucratic rules may be an appropriate short-term response
to greedy doctors or unimaginative teachers, but in the long
term, they only make doctors greedier and teachers less imagi-
native.
If we are correct that practical wisdom is absolutely essential
to virtue, then attention must be paid to the character of the
social institutions within which people operate. It will do little
good to encourage people as individuals to cultivate their signa-
ture strengths if the one strength without which the others will
be inadequate is subverted wherever they turn. In other words,
we are suggesting that you cannot have a positive psychology
without paying special attention to practical wisdom, and you
cannot cultivate practical wisdom without paying special atten-
tion to the shaping of positive social institutions. Seligman and
Csikszentmihalyi (2000) identified positive social institutions as
a key part of a future positive psychology. We believe that a
psychology of positive social institutions should be the center-
piece of a positive psychology. Yet thus far, little has been done
to develop such a psychology. The emphasis has been almost
entirely on the development of the individual (but see Cameron
et al., 2003, for an example of what a psychology of positive
social institutions might look like).
CONCLUSION: WISDOM AND HAPPINESS
It is possible that research will show that the greater a strength,
the happier the person – that from the point of view of sub-
jective experience – of positive emotion – as it is currently
understood, Aristotle was wrong. You may not need all the vir-
tues, and more of any virtue may be better than less, when we
are measuring affect. But if this were to turn out to be true,
what should we make of it? How important is happiness, under-
stood as positive emotional experience?
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 391
We do not want to suggest that positive emotion is unimpor-
tant, but we do want to suggest that it is not the only outcome
measure that matters. What about the other people in a per-
son’s life? How effective is that person in improving the lives of
others? If we are correct about the centrality of practical wis-
dom to the management of our social relations, people who go
about cultivating and deploying their signature strengths with-
out such wisdom may end up leaving a good deal of human
wreckage in their wake. You may feel good, having cultivated
your signature strength of honesty, when you tell your friend
how fat she looks in that dress. But the effect of your honesty
on her may be disastrous. The effects of our behavior on others
should count a good deal – at least as much as the effects on
our own affective states – when we evaluate the consequences of
cultivating signature strengths. Indeed, it could be argued that
in our culture, at this time, positive emotion may be just the
wrong thing to be measuring. People are already too self-
absorbed. People are already too concerned with feeling good
rather than doing good.
Aristotle’s eudaimonia and Seligman’s (2002) ‘‘authentic hap-
piness’’ are not the same as positive emotion. Seligman sug-
gested that authentic happiness includes positive emotion, but it
also includes, even more centrally, meaning and engagement.
Meaning and engagement may, in turn, demand an Aristotelian
network of strengths, organized and orchestrated by practical
wisdom to be deployed in the right proportions. Seligman sug-
gested that ‘‘authentic happiness’’ may only be achievable indi-
rectly, as a byproduct of living an engaged and meaningful life.
Perhaps we should be finding ways to measure engagement and
meaning as outcome variables, and trust that happiness, under-
stood as positive emotion, will then take care of itself. Given
the centrality of ones work and close relations to well-being
(e.g., Argyle, 1999; see other contributions in Kahneman et al.,
1999), and given our argument about the centrality of wisdom
to both meaningful work and successful close relations, it seems
to us quite possible that, as Aristotle thought, wisdom is actu-
ally essential to enduring happiness. Being wise thus serves
others, but it also serves the self.
BARRY SCHWARTZ AND KENNETH E.SHARPE
392
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Address for correspondence:
BARRY SCHWARTZ
Department of Psychology
Swarthmore College
500 College Avenue
Swarthmore PA 19081
USA
E-mail: bschwar1@swarthmore.edu
PRACTICAL WISDOM AND POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 395
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Thesis
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