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PRACTICAL WISDOM by Barry Schwartz


The Right Way to Do the Right Thing

by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59448-783-5
Publisher: Riverhead

Swarthmore professors Schwartz (Social Theory; The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, 2004, etc.) and Sharpe (Political Science; co-author: Drug War Politics, 1996, etc.) take note of the paucity of applied sagacity and offer advice on how to retrieve it for a better social order.

The book is a self-help title, but more in-depth and nuanced than most. The authors cite Rousseau, Wittgenstein and other philosophers, as well as Malcolm Gladwell and George Bailey, the hero of It’s a Wonderful Life. Most frequently referenced, however, is Aristotle, who sought “phronesis,” which, we are told, is simply “practical wisdom.” The authors support their common-sense prescriptions with lengthy anecdotes of applied intelligence by physicians, teachers, lawyers and health-care workers. They also advise practitioners in professions like medicine, jurisprudence, education and finance on the proper uses of judgment, ethics, empathy and detachment. The guidance is based on research in the social sciences and psychology, with a few comments touching on epistemology. Schwartz and Sharpe counsel on the role of the “canny outlaw” who, like Robin Hood, disdains the rules for the greater good. Don’t rely on incentives alone, they say, and be happy in your work—in support, they present parables of those who are happy in theirs. Inevitably, there is more than a whiff of pedantry here; pertinent material and apt points tend to get lost in illustrative verbiage and extraneous matter. The conclusion, it seems, is that practical wisdom tells us to eschew greed, be slow to anger, be considerate, be good and think. In short, it’s a call for decency and good behavior.

An earnest, didactic manual on doing the right thing, a topic that remains tricky to teach.