I love the TED site and the many Talks thereon. (I’d love to attend the conference someday.) Today I gave a listen to Barry Schwartz‘ talk titled “The real crisis? We stopped being wise.” I’m all about wisdom. Not that I necessarily have any, I just know how important it is, and how difficult it is to attain. I enjoy the book of Proverbs for this reason as well, in the hope that I might glean something to help my pursuit of wisdom. That could be why I enjoyed this talk… or it could be because I’ve never been much for rules and incentives, which Schwartz also tackles, suggesting that they can tend to work against the cultivation of wisdom. Considering the workings of legalism in institutional/hierarchical structures, I’d have to say that he’s onto something.
Here’s a sampling:
As we turn increasingly to rules, rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an overreliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations, and moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom.
He acknowledges the necessity of rules, but note he’s speaking against the overreliance on rules. “Rules prevent disaster,” says Schwartz, but they assure mediocrity. Turning to incentives (the flip-side of rules), he states, “The truth is that there are no incentives that you can devise that are smart enough. Any incentive system can be subverted by bad will.”
Excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity, in two senses of that word. It causes people engaged in that activity to lose morale, and it causes the activity itself to lose morality. Barack Obama said, before he was inaugurated, “We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right?” And when professions are demoralized, everyone in them becomes dependent on, addicted to incentives, and they stop asking, “Is it right?”
This reminded me of parenting, where we can bribe our kids to do what they’re asked — and some parents do. Eventually though, the kids don’t want to do anything they’re asked unless there’s some reward, and obedience is not adequate. “Is it right?” is not a question that ever comes into the picture. The question becomes, rather, “What’s in it for me?” Teaching wisdom to children requires teaching them to think of long-term consequences.
In fact, this is probably a general trend for wisdom… longer-term implications are considered by the wise, while the fool considers only the immediate. To learn wisdom, therefore, one must weigh increasingly longer-term consequences and implications of certain actions or trends. Insofar as rules and incentives subvert this thought process by producing a quick answer, they subvert the process of learning wisdom.
In considering this whole scenario, I thought about the rules and hierarchies in some churches which discourage the asking of questions. In such environments, the rules are presented as “the way it is,” and further thinking on the implications is discouraged by portraying it as a lack of faith or a sign of rebellion. In point of fact, it could in actual fact be a sign of the pursuit of wisdom.