Professors Schwartz and Sharpe Co-Author Practical Wisdom

Maki Somosot '12

Professors Schwartz and Sharpe
Co-Author Practical Wisdom

by Maki Somosot '12
1/27/2011

Practical Wisdom Book Jacket

Swarthmore Professors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe recently co-authored Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing which has attracted much attention, notably in The New York Times, TED Talks, and numerous radio talk shows across the country, including KQED's Forum and Wisconsin Public Radio's Here on Earth.

The book is a culmination of Schwartz and Sharpe's long-time academic collaboration on the contemporary, everyday applications of Aristotelian practical wisdom, based on knowing what needs to be done in ethical dilemmas and acting upon this knowledge for the greater good. The book cites modern-day successes of practical wisdom in health care, education and the legal system.

Aristotle is more relevant than ever today, according to Schwartz, as the "more heterogeneous society becomes, the harder it is to come up with rules that work for all people and all situations." Wise qualities such as empathy, patience and self-integrity must guide modern professional and personal ethics, instead of an overreliance on rules.

The "wisdom deficit" in the modern age, he contends, lies in the "combination of excessive reliance on rules and incentives and a collective cynicism or embarrassment when it comes to talking about virtue." Rules and incentives have only propagated overly bureaucratic, inefficient social institutions that discourage professionals from sympathizing and practicing personal discretion.

"Effective institutions require people of character—of virtue," says Schwartz. "The most important virtue of all is practical wisdom."

Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action in the Psychology Department at Swarthmore College and author of "The Paradox of Choice," which explores the devastating results of choice overload and paralysis in American society. Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of political science and author of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial," which sheds light on the public health implications of American illegal drug policy.