Luke: I kind of knew the situation about his son. His son had been here for a long time and … from what I hear, his son had got into a fight and he was paralyzed. That’s why he got there, and he was in a coma, and he wasn’t coming out of the coma … and I heard how he got that way. He had got into a fight with a black guy and the black guy really, well, you know, because he was here. Well … I went and cleaned his room. His father would stay here every day, all day, but he smoked cigarettes. So, he had went out to smoke a cigarette and after I cleaned the room, he came back up to the room. I ran into him in the hall, and he just freaked out—telling me I didn’t do it. I didn’t clean the room and all this stuff. And at first, I got on the defensive, and I was going to argue with him. But I don’t know. Something caught me and I said, “I’m sorry. I’ll go clean the room.”
Interviewer: And you cleaned it again?
Luke: Yeah, I cleaned it so that he could see me clean it … I can understand how he could be. It was like six months that his son was here. He’d be a little frustrated, and so I cleaned it again. But I wasn’t angry with him. I guess I could understand.” Excerpt by Barry Schwartz
Practical wisdom is when my actions show admiral character that fits in the context. I may be practically wise in one situation but not in another, despite the same action. Because there isn’t a blanket action that is practically wise, practical wisdom requires thinking and analyzing various aspects of my surrounding. Schwartz says practical wisdom depends on perceiving, feeling, deliberating the appropriate action than acting in the situation (4). He tells a story about a hospital janitor named Luke who cleans a patients’ room twice. The first time because it’s his duty but the second time because the patients’ father assumed it wasn’t clean as they walked past each other in the hall. Luke acted practical wise in context because he kept in mind the mission of a hospital: to help people heal. Luke did well in the grey, where there wasn’t a particular rule that said he needed to clean the room again. He also didn’t limit his duty in a black and white frame of thinking but instead performed his duty on the basis of helping people heal.
What Luke did was the right thing to do. So, should the hospital then just make this a new rule? Something like, “Clean a room again, even if you just cleaned it, if asked by a family member.” Well, by doing so the hospital robs the janitors’ ability to think for themselves and the satisfaction of doing what is right. It would also simply make Luke stupid and hurt the hospital as a whole. Take for example, if the hospital was located near a war zone with people lined up outside for care. Luke may be practically wise to not waste valuable time and cleaning material on cleaning a room twice. The contrasting scenarios show that thinking and analyzing of various aspects of his surrounding is required to be practically wise and rules do not carry over to every situation..
In modern organizations and society, the often-ever-growing mountain of rules are impediments to thinking and as such an impediment for others and myself to demonstrate practical wisdom. Organizations can reduce these negative impediments by sifting out existing rules, carefully creating new rules (adverse consequences may arise despite rules with good intentions), and energizing the telos of each individual (telos’ that don’t line up with a particular duty may fit better in another duty and it’s the managers’/ HRs’ job to hire and place people in the right position).
[This was written when I was an undergrad student at Temple University, Japan Campus in Fall 2018.]