Following a recent Wisdom Research Forum (July 14, 2016), hosted by the Center for Practical Wisdom, participants reflected upon some of the discussions of the meeting. One topic emerged around the idea of whether or not people such as Hitler or Stalin could be associated with wisdom in the sense that they may have sometimes demonstrated wise behaviors or made wise decisions. While it might be thought that wisdom, if taken as an intellectual virtue, is related to other intellectual virtues such as epistemic humility, this discussion concerned the relationship between wisdom and moral virtues. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that practical wisdom leads to human flourishing which depends on the virtues. This suggests that wisdom is tightly linked with the moral virtues. However, Snow’s earlier posted discussion suggested that it might not be necessary that they are associated. At the Wisdom Forum, Robert Sternberg challenged the idea of dissociating moral virtues and wisdom in a discussion that asked whether historical figures, associated with crimes against humanity but effective in some political respects, could be considered to have made wise decisions. Does wisdom depend on moral virtues?
There is a seeming separation in the discussion at the forum between wisdom, on the one hand, and ethical reasoning and behavior, on the other. There was a tone of moral relativism in some of the conversation. I realize that there are many theories of wisdom; in my own balance theory, which of course is just one of many, wisdom is inseparable from "the infusion of positive ethical values."
What I perceived as moral relativism led to somewhat astonishing conversations on whether people like Mao, Hitler, and Stalin were wise, or maybe just a little bit wise or sometimes wise. If one believes, as I do (which obviously does not make it true!), that positive ethical values are inseparable from wisdom, this conversation would be legitimate and useful, of course, but also perhaps a bit bizarre.
I work primarily in three fields--intelligence, creativity, and wisdom. I believe the first two fields, early in their histories, went out into left field because of a kind of less than mindful ‘scientism’--a desire to appear just as scientific and quantitative as every other field of psychology (and biology). The common misstep, I believe, was the confusion of the measurement of an aspect of a construct or of people's implicit theories of a construct with the measurement of the whole construct. Intelligence researchers became captivated by the “intelligence test," a true innovation but a very limited measure of intelligence, assessing primarily the abstract-analytical aspect of intelligence and really making little or no contact with other aspects of intelligence (in the case of my own theory of successful intelligence, creative, practical, and wise aspects). So people came to be intelligent even if they were almost totally lacking in common sense or even a spark of creative thinking because the tests said they were intelligent. If individuals in non-Western cultures or even socioeconomically challenged Western subcultures developed tremendous adaptive skills for their own cultural milieu, they might still be branded as stupid [or not intelligent] because the adaptive intelligence they showed happened not to correspond to what the tests measured. The field of creativity equally was diverted by the development of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which became the standard for measuring creativity. They measured creativity at the level of ‘What are unusual uses of a paperclip?’ So the field was trivialized because the measures were. Instead of looking at serious creative performance in the world--in dance, science, art, literature, music, government, or whatever--scientists became intrigued by scores on the Torrance Test.
The scientific field of wisdom is younger than the scientific fields of intelligence and creativity, but it is just at the point where it can make mistakes similar to those made by these two other fields. We can lose the forest for the trees. If people tell us that Mao or Hitler was wise, we can confound their implicit theories of wisdom with wisdom itself, or we can begin to speculate on how we can measure state aspects of wisdom whereby, if someone has one wise thought in the course of a lifetime, we label them as wise or at least a little wise because they had a wise thought. We similarly could label someone creative who once when he or she was 15 years old had a good idea, such as how to use a paperclip to open a partially locked door.
One cannot separate wisdom--or intelligence or creativity, really--from a set of values. Western measures of intelligence and creativity reflect a Western set of values that, unfortunately, have trivialized both phenomena. We need to consider our own values as we construct measures that we hope represent other people's values as well.
I would hope that the meeting would be the beginning rather than the end--the start of many future conversations, one of which would be about the possible dangers of moral relativism in the study and measurement of wisdom, and about the importance in general of ethical reasoning and behavior to wisdom. As I have argued in the past, I do believe that there are certain ethical values that transcend individual cultures and religions, such as the need for integrity, sincerity, honesty, compassion, and concern for other human beings. Perverted forms of religion or anything else can seem to destroy those universal values, but an idea such as to kill innocent people on a street through terrorism is a perversion of religion, not a reflection of the religion itself.
These issues are not just hypothetical or game-like. We, right now, face a serious challenge in leadership in our country and in the world, and if we don't start taking wisdom and its underlying ethical base seriously, we put our country and the world at great risk. We may start to normalize and perhaps even call wise those unethical behaviors by individuals seeking to be future leaders here and elsewhere.
I agree with Bob completely on this issue and it became clear to me in an earlier discussion by Nancy Snow regarding "evil wisdom" (see Wisdom and Evil). The issue was to imagine someone who at one point would have been capable of making wise decisions but, through an unfortunate terrible tragedy, now felt bitter towards the world. Hence the capability of making wise decisions was turned away from a pro-social end towards evil.
We, psychology and philosophy of mind, have for too long been rooted in the so-called cognitive revolution away from behaviorism and have hewed to an unfortunate dissociation of thought and feeling (even the lexical dissociation is unfortunate). It is my belief that in distinguishing smart and clever from wise, wisdom must in its definition include human flourishing which by Aristotelian lights is guided towards the Good. (Philosophers, excuse me for I know so little of that which I speak here.) In the notion that our reasoning is not content free or domain independent, wisdom is human problem solving rooted in outcomes that increase human flourishing. In this way, the intellectual and moral virtues are not separable in my thinking and deeply connected.
These are important thoughts. I have recently been thinking a lot about the extent to which wisdom is a value-free construct. Students of mine did two studies in Austria looking at the value orientations that right-wing and left-wing people ascribe to wise individuals. I wonder, for example, whether a very conservative person would share a more liberal view that a wise person is highly tolerant. I still need to analyze the data in detail, but one thing that clearly stands out is that while there were quite large differences between the groups in the degree of universalism (left-wing) vs. traditionality and authority (right-wing) they ascribed to wise individuals, all participants agreed that benevolence was the key moral value of wise individuals – a wise person is one that wants the best for others. Now, while I think that in the early times of Hitler’s rise, some people may actually have believed he was pursuing benevolent goals, it really seems outrageous to use this term for him from our current perspective. Unfortunately based on some things I have recently read in Austrian online discussion boards, quite a number of people may still think along such lines…
We certainly need to be very aware of the danger of projecting our own values into our ideas of wisdom, and it is very important to make clear that not anyone who seems benevolent actually is. True wisdom clearly involves aiming for a common good, with common not just referring to any particular group of human beings. I very much believe that no one who considers the well-being of one group of people as fundamentally more important than that of another should be considered as wise.
Robert Sternberg, PhD is a professor of human development at Cornell University. Before his professorship at Cornell, he held numerous positions including President of the American Psychological Association, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Tufts University, Provost at Oklahoma State University, and professor and center director at Yale. In addition to his contributions to the study of wisdom, Dr. Sternberg is well-known for his work in creativity, love and hate, and the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence.
Howard C. Nusbaum is the Center for Practical Wisdom Director and a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. As a cognitive psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, his research interest in wisdom expands to learning, attention, working memory, categorization, consolidation, and language. Dr. Nusbaum has received numerous awards including University of Chicago Future Faculty Mentorship Award and the Quantrell award in Excellence for Undergraduate Teaching. He recently combined his passion for teaching and interest in wisdom through the development of an undergraduate course in the fall of 2014 on Understanding Wisdom. Dr. Nusbaum, along with two other faculty members, Anne Henly and Berthold Hoeckner, tackled challenging psychological and philosophical issues in the academic study of wisdom from Aristotelian perspective to psychometric measures of wisdom.
Judith Glück is a professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. Her research focuses on wisdom of the individual and how it develops over time. She also studies contextual conditions for the manifestation of wisdom, and how wisdom could be measured in an ecologically valid way.
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There is perhaps a difference between being wise and having wisdom. Hitler had a great amount of wisdom but he was not a wise man, for wise people are thought of as those who know how to mediate contention. The most important area where wisdom is needed, is personal relationships. And without wisdom in that area, a person will never be thought of as being wise. It does not mean however, that they will not have great wisdom.
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