The Pandemic and Practical Wisdom

COVID-19 underscores our need for practical wisdom, which allows us to pursue the human good even when we lack technical mastery of a situation and when we must make difficult decisions between competing goods.

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us to confront two realities that we strive to ignore in normal times: the inevitability of tradeoffs and the inability of technical expertise to make those tradeoffs. The philosophical concept of practical wisdom offers a non-technical description of our practical predicament and of the kind of reason that takes over when expertise reaches its limits. Unfortunately, technocratic institutions and our polarized political culture are infertile ground for the cultivation of this virtue.

The first uncomfortable reality confronting us is tradeoffs. The pandemic forces us to balance competing and hard-to-compare goods. The most prominent of these goods are the preservation of vulnerable life, economic exchange, and civil liberties and rights of assembly. All of these are good, but we cannot have them all during a pandemic. By choosing more of one we choose less of others. Politicians flee these kinds of hard choices. In the face of these tradeoffs, pressures of the moment may cause us to focus on one (life, the economy, civil liberty) as primary, even though most of us accept the need to seek a balance. In May, Gov. Cuomo insisted that “a human life is priceless. Period.” Various groups have sounded alarms over the trampling of civil liberties: privacy, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And the economist Austin Goolsbee argued for strong measures to contain the virus’s spread, not for the sake of health, but for the sake of the economy.

The second reality is the limitation of expertise. It is no slur on technical expertise to note its limits. Experts from multiple fields offer careful and insightful analyses through their respective narrow lenses. Epidemiologists estimate the timing of infections and total deaths from COVID-19; experts in medical logistics predict pressures on hospital capacity; virologists advise us on avenues of infection and the time to develop a vaccine; economists predict the economic effects of short versus lengthy shutdowns and the prospects for economic recovery. The best experts’ analyses come with appropriate disclaimers and margins of error. Each expert may treat his own object of study as most important, but honest professionals make few claims about phenomena outside of their disciplines. My own tribe (economists) is good at identifying tradeoffs, but we are loath to render judgments on which tradeoffs are worthwhile.

The narrow lenses of technical expertise afford us important insights, but we cannot see the way forward through a narrow lens. Experts offer us conditional statements, such as this one from an early study of the pandemic: if you want 500,000 fewer deaths from COVID, impose a severe shutdown. The study argued in favor of this policy by offering another conditional: if the value of a human life is $9.3 million, the decline in mortality is worth the economic costs. This and other careful analyses provide crucial perspective, but they don’t help us evaluate the conditionals. Even if $9.3 million is an appropriate benchmark in workplace safety, is it relevant to pandemic tradeoffs? We don’t even try to place a dollar value on civil liberties, on the loneliness of single persons and the isolation of ill senior citizens, or the damage of civic breakdown. Our evaluation of expert advice is further complicated by stubborn uncertainty about treatment effectiveness, infection and mortality rates, and policy effectiveness.

To synthesize the insights of multiple partial analyses, to work out which tradeoffs are worthwhile, and to respect the pervasive uncertainty surrounding these questions, we must enter into a different discussion about the balance between health, material goods, and freedom in a good life. This question forces us to confront our disagreements about what constitutes the good life. Unfortunately, we have come to expect nothing but intractable dispute and conflict from these discussions.

The dirty little secret of expertise—and of the modern era—is that we expect expertise to rescue us from our disagreements about the good life. We hope that an expanding economic pie (made possible by economic analysis), lengthening lifetimes (promoted by medical science), and expanding liberties will make tradeoffs unnecessary, or at least less urgent. Even now we nurture the hope that expertise will spare us difficult choices. Perhaps someone will develop a vaccine in record time. Perhaps the economy will bounce back after an unprecedented flood of liquidity. Perhaps we can go back to having more of everything. It is too late to avoid tradeoffs. We should not expect to be excused from having to deliberate about and make them. How then do we proceed? To put health, economic activity, and civil liberties into perspective, we must discuss (however obliquely) what end they serve. We must deliberate about the good life and how any policy promotes or impedes it. What does it mean for us to act well as a nation in the situation we now face?

At this point someone will object that we live in a pluralistic society marked by deep disagreement on basic questions. We do not agree on what it means for human beings to be “fulfilled,” so we will not be able to agree on the conditions for that “fulfillment.” The best we can do is to ignore these questions and rely on experts to promote narrower, less contested ends. We will muddle through somehow and hope for the best. I think the case for despair over agreement on basic goods is overstated. We have more in common than we admit. If human flourishing were not a shared reality, we could not talk about people doing well or poorly in life, making good and bad decisions. Aristotle introduces his discussion of human happiness with a caution that the best we can do is to sketch its outline and fill in the details in each life and polity. He also insists that a good sketch is a better guide than a bad sketch.

There is something to be said for the political wisdom of “muddling through,” however. Even if we fully agreed about human fulfillment, we would still need to thrash out practical plans to achieve it. That process will always be uncertain and conflictual. A vision of the good that might guide us does not come ready made: even those who agree on its general contours might realize it differently in different lives, different times, and different countries. Achieving it is not an engineering problem or scientific research question; we grope toward its concrete expression. Each decision in a crisis will provoke reflection on what our goals are, on whether the decisions we have made are taking us down the wrong path. We learn as we go; we “muddle through.”

This process is difficult and uncertain, and everyone involved in it deserves our sympathy. But the fact that we must muddle toward the good in these times does not mean that any muddling will do. Some people are better at “muddling” than others. There is an excellence in reasoning about and acting in these ill-defined situations. It is the virtue of practical wisdom, which lacks the precision of technical expertise because it is tailored to an object—the human good for us here and now—that we cannot specify precisely.

What is practical wisdom? A practically wise person is open to the good that is possible in a particular circumstance, able to discern and evaluate the alternative actions that might achieve the good, and acting with conviction on the best—or least bad—of the options. Practical wisdom is not a detailed blueprint for expert analysis. We can only sketch its shape, but we recognize it when we see it, admire those who exercise it, and value it in others and ourselves. We usually highlight practical wisdom’s ability to discern the right means in pursuit of already clear ends, but our current predicament requires perceptive discernment about ends (health, economic activity, civil liberties) as well as wisdom about means.

If expertise and ideology offer only partial and incomplete views of human life in society, then practical wisdom must be open to the full reality of the world and society. Beyond scientific models and ideological visions, we are able to apprehend the world as it is. In The Four Cardinal Virtues, Josef Pieper lists three crucial elements of practical wisdom’s openness to reality. First, the individual must have an honest, “true-to-being” memory. This is not just a technical capacity to remember (memory as a sort of data collection), but the will to remember truthfully. False memory, even the will to remember falsely, is more common than we would like to admit. Second, practical wisdom must be docile before reality. The truth of things often contradicts and challenges us; we must allow reality to instruct us. Confirmation bias, attachment to our own discipline, and simple bullheadedness impede practical wisdom. Finally, reality often shocks and surprises us; the practically wise person must absorb the shock and respond with measured, nimble judgment.

A practically wise person is not simply good at getting what he wants in chaotic circumstances. Reality is not our political playground, to be shoehorned into our template for it, or to be spun away when it disrupts our narrative. We should expect it to surprise us. We need to be open to what current circumstance will teach us and the human goods that are possible in it. Can anyone be practically wise? We should not expect a set of clear identifiers—a foolproof protocol to identify the practically wise—any more than we can come up with a formal, technical protocol for making tradeoffs. Nevertheless, we can identify some general characteristics of a practically wise leader or expert.

First, a practically wise person is humble about what he knows and does not know. Well-trained experts who adhere to their professional standards display this sort of humility. They are candid about what their analysis can and cannot say, and clearly identify when they are exceeding their expertise. It is refreshing when experts stay within the warrants of their expertise. Such epistemic humility inspires trust and opens the door to practical wisdom.

Second, a practically wise person has experience making difficult decisions or is at least willing to rely on the experience of others. Past success (and failure) teach humility, the need for judgment, and openness to realities that are invisible through narrow expert lenses.

Third, practical wisdom comes packaged with other virtues: courage, self-control, justice. When you pander to those who praise you, appease those whom you fear, cannot control your passions, or are unjust in small as well as large things, you cannot be practically wise. Good decisions require more than calculated shrewdness: they require character.

And fourth, practical wisdom describes the past honestly, as well as the present. It is easy to identify what went wrong in the past and to assign blame. A practically wise person knows that warning signs that are now clear were probably not clear at the time, and that even well-reasoned plans may go horribly awry. He is charitable toward others who face the demanding task of deciding what to do in difficult situations.

This partial list of characteristics will seem frustratingly vague from a technical perspective, but remember: our problem is not technical. No one will embody them perfectly. A frustratingly vague, non-technical task requires a set of real skills that are themselves frustratingly vague and non-technical. Unfortunately, our current ideological politics and technocratic culture are infertile ground for practical wisdom. Politics, the media, the academy, and the corporate world willingly distort reality (even the partial reality of technical expertise) to serve reigning narratives. Virtue is signaled, not lived, and drafted into the service of “messaging.” Humility is seen as weakness and a strategic error, not a doorway to wisdom. Past failures are hidden away or outright denied, not learned from.

In such an environment, what can we do to promote practical wisdom in our leaders and ourselves? First, we must stop denying the reality of practical wisdom. It exists, it is possible to be more or less practically wise, and we need more of it. We should teach about it and talk about it, look for it and admire it in others (even in our opponents), and deplore its absence. Second, all of the virtues matter to practical wisdom. We should not admire those who are willing to do and say anything in pursuit of their goals and the destruction of their political enemies. Someone who is unjust toward his or her political competitors, who is willing to lie and bend the truth, is more likely to make unwise decisions that will harm us all. Likewise, cowardly and intemperate leaders are too easily swayed by the praise or the disapproval of others to judge well.

Finally, we should not despair of practical wisdom. Like all virtue, more is better than less, and even a little is better than none at all. Experts who begin to apprehend the reality that lies outside their narrow expertise will become better experts. Leaders who begin to grasp the need for advice from experienced, wise counselors will become better leaders. The reality that confronts us as we make our way through this world ought to teach us and not simply obey us. To the extent that we acknowledge this truth, we will engage the questions and tradeoffs that we face with greater success.

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