Christian Long

Barry Schwartz: Our Loss of Wisdom

In TED Talks on May 12, 2010 at 4:29 am

Reflection by SYLVIA A.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Barry Schwartz:  Our Loss of Wisdom

A very in depth talk from Mr. Barry Schwartz about the usage of practical wisdom in everyday life. This is the kind of talk that can be thrown in a countless number of directions with ambiguous phrases and over-inspirational stories but, thankfully, Schwartz doesn’t take that route. He had specific points, understandable examples from real life and most of all an insightful and useful understanding of the way we acquire wisdom and why more people are becoming marginalized because wisdom is becoming less of a necessity in everyday life.

The first topic Schwartz delves into is virtue.

Now what does virtue mean? My only previous knowledge of the word virtue is in Catholic grade school when we learned our daily lessons. The word virtue was always emphasized and given many other names, honest, caring, patient, etc. Even though there are so many words that characterize virtue there really is no definitive meaning. That’s because you cannot put a definition on a word that pertains to the character or moral of a human being because it’s in constant fluctuation during different circumstances. To me, virtue means a will to do good in everyday life. That one line has an array of possibilities which is what makes virtue a hard concept to pin down to a condensed version of itself.

My interest was peaked when he brought up janitors.

It’s true that in our society we don’t just write them off as any other working earning minimum wage, we ignore their existence. They have become an invisible entity that tidies up our world. It makes sense to hear that they come into absolutely no human contact. This is a fact that needs to be acknowledged when listening to Schwartz talk about the caring and conscience janitors that have the people they are working for in mind. Though their duties are less than desirable, they treat it as if a responsibility that must be taken care of for the betterment of others. I found humor in his comment “if we’re lucky every now and then, from doctors”, talking about compassion. Its so ironic how the people we respect the most, higher on the food chain when it comes to salary, status, and intelligence, are the ones we’re most skeptical of when it comes to their work.

Now it’s not just the lowly janitor with the big heart that acts virtuous. Anyone is capable of this kind of action through inferred knowledge and personal experience. It takes knowledge to know what the right thing is, but it takes the moral skill and moral will to actually do it, like Schwartz says. This kind of action is difficult for us as human beings. Its hard to know whether its better to do the right thing in a situation. We weigh our gains and losses, see how much effort we need to put forth, and by the time we are done reasoning with ourselves the moment itself has passed. When trying to decide if breaking the rules is worth it to make the right decision, according to virtue, it gets even harder when we have so many options. By that i mean there are so many things we would want to rather do in that moment and so many different ways to approach the situation it causes us to doubt our own reasoning and importance. This lack of self confidence in our own ability and decision adds to our loss of virtue.

As time passes and more of these opportunities arise for us to show our character, we gain experience and are more likely to do the right thing when a decision comes about. Our experiences with people shape not only who we are, but who we become in the future and how we will react to things in our life.

The part I enjoyed most about this talk was his interpretation of “our war on wisdom”.

As humans we want to avoid disaster at all costs. Anything with a risky outcome is not usually desired by government leaders or business officials so they create rules and regulations. In doing this they marginalize our way of life, in exchange for a happy, but mediocre society that produces morally insufficient people incapable of seeing the world of wisdom that Schwartz has tried to create. He put it best when he said “Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And they prevent disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocrity. ”

There is no formula for wisdom or virtue. The only way to acquire these sought after, but disappearing traits is to surround yourself with them in an environment that fosters the growth of morally rich people that use practical wisdom to create a more conscience and cohesive society.


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