Published on 28 August 2018
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Towards Practical Wisdom in a Complex World

In the first of a series of four blogs, Dr Penny Mealy discusses how a dose of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’ may help us improve socio-economic systems in the 21st century.

For much of human history, technological progress has earned many of us longer, healthier and wealthier lives. But many of today’s technological advances are mixed blessings. For example, the abundance of data provides enormous scope for learning how to do things better in our societies, but also raises concerns about privacy, access and control over this valuable resource. Likewise, automation is significantly increasing productivity, but also has the potential to seriously exacerbate inequality through job displacement. The same is true for artificial intelligence – its tantalising possibilities are clouded by its potential existential risks.

So how can we continue to guide technological progress towards greater human flourishing while simultaneously mitigating against the risk of societal harm? At a recent Santa Fe Institute workshop, scientists and practitioners from various fields discussed this question from numerous angles. Key difficulties include:

  • The accelerating pace of change in technology, which leave regulators and policy makers continually playing ‘catch up’.
  • The increasing scope for inequality between the technological have and have-nots.
  • The inherent difficulty articulating which goals our technological progress ought to be directed towards.

Such issues are at the heart of the Bennett Institute’s newly launched research project, Practical Wisdom in A Complex World. Recognising that these challenges involve skills and analytical capabilities that span far beyond the reach of a single field of study, this project is taking an interdisciplinary approach to look at what ‘practical wisdom’ might mean in the context of the complex adaptive socio-economic systems that characterise our world.

What is ‘practical wisdom’?

The notion of ‘practical wisdom’ (or ‘phronesis’) was originally put forth by Aristotle. In Book VI of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined practical wisdom as a ‘reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods’. Being able to think and deliberate about what constitutes the ‘good life’, or human flourishing, was seen by Aristotle as the ‘mark’ of a person with practical wisdom. But he was careful to stress that practical wisdom doesn’t only involve thinking. It also involves action, and the ability to take the ‘right means’ to achieve good outcomes.

Aristotle argued that practical wisdom “is concerned not only with universals, but with particulars”. Unlike mathematics or scientific principles, which can be learned and applied fairly generally, the practically wise person doesn’t always seek to apply hard and fast rules. When it comes to knowing how to bring about good outcomes, understanding the context is key. Practitioners of public policy know this all too well: some policy interventions that work well in one setting, don’t necessarily translate into another setting.

But how ‘practical’ is practical wisdom in today’s context?

In our present context, understanding the consequences of even very simple decisions, like buying a cup of fair trade coffee, can be very difficult. We live within increasingly complex, adaptive socio-economic systems where the decisions and actions of one agent (people, firms or organisations) can interact with those of others in unpredictable ways. Moreover, our societies encompass a diversity of views on what constitutes flourishing and the best way to achieve it. So how might we apply ‘practical wisdom’ to today’s settings?

One way to define an improvement in practical wisdom in the context of a complex adaptive system of interacting agents is: an increase in agents’ capabilities to understand and shape their socio-economic system towards desirable outcomes. This of course raises further questions, like how should we think about desirable outcomes and what does it mean for agents to better understand and shape their socio-economic system?

Over the next few years, the Bennett Institute will be advancing a research agenda which aims to progress thinking on the following:

  1. Desirable outcomes: what human purposes or goals underpin our socio-economic systems?
  2. Understanding: How might we reduce the cognitive effort involved in understanding the consequences of individual and societal actions?
  3. Shaping the socio-economic system: How might socio-economic systems be designed to better achieve human purposes?

In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing some initial thinking on each of these questions.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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