February 16, 2009
Enjoyed Barry Schwartz’s latest TED talk. It’s not as full of presentational pyrotechnics as some of the TED classics, but the message is solid: He argues for a renewed focus on practical wisdom. (That’s phronesis, if you took Martin Benjamin’s freshman philosophy course like I did.)
But I mention his talk specifically because I liked his use of the word demoralize. He uses it in both a familiar sense — one can lose morale — and an unfamiliar sense — an activity is drained of morality.
To surround ourselves with clever incentive schemes that bend our selfish desires towards good seems appealing; it’s certainly the focus of a lot of public policy and social entrepreneurship lately. But Schwartz says it’s ultimately demoralizing and destructive. Rules and regulations never account for all the edge cases, and it’s precisely those edge cases that truly test us. To handle those, we need more than algorithms. We need wisdom.
You can talk about professions being demoralized, in both senses of the word. Medicine is a deeply moral profession, but have the incentives (and disincentives) of the medical-industrial complex been chipping away at that foundation?
Banking once had a moral dimension. Is that even detectable anymore? Are there bankers at Citigroup who still see themselves fundamentally as stewards? Or is that species extinct?
Journalism is a hold-out, I think, but one of the worries with all the upheaval lately is that we’ll emerge with a news business reconstituted, revitalized, but somehow demoralized. Swap out strands of the American newspaper tradition, swap in strands of web business culture: You might end up more materially successful, but you might also end up quite a bit less wise.