Practical Wisdom

My doctoral dissertation, along with some of my subsequent research, focuses on practical wisdom (the fancy philosophy term for the understanding that enables a person to make reliably good decisions about how to live and conduct themselves). Specifically, I am interested in exploring ways to combine philosophical reasoning and empirical research when examining what wisdom is like and how we can get it.

"Can we measure practical wisdom?," (2020), The Journal of Moral Education, 49(1): 71-97. [doi] [pdf]

Abstract: Wisdom, long a topic of interest to moral philosophers, is increasingly the focus of social science research. Philosophers have historically been concerned to develop a rationally defensible account of the nature of wisdom and its role in the moral life, often inspired in various ways by virtue theoretical accounts of practical wisdom (phronesis). Wisdom scientists seek to, among other things, define wisdom and its components so that we can measure them. Are the measures used by wisdom scientists actually measuring what philosophers have in mind when they discuss practical wisdom? I argue that they are not. Contemporary measures of wisdom and its components may pick out some necessary prerequisites of practical wisdom, but they do not measure a philosophically plausible practical wisdom or its components. After explaining the argument and defending it against objections, I consider its implications. Should wisdom scientists ignore the philosophical conception of practical wisdom in favor of other conceptions, revise their methods to try to measure it, or continue the interdisciplinary study of practical wisdom without expecting to measure it? I make a preliminary argument for the third option.

"Philosophical foundations of wisdom," (2019), with Valerie Tiberius, in R. J. Sternberg & J. Glück (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Wisdom (pp. 10–39). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [pre-print] [doi]

Abstract: Practical wisdom (hereafter simply ‘wisdom’), which is the understanding required to make reliably good decisions about how we ought to live, is something we all have reason to care about. The importance of wisdom gives rise to questions about its nature: what kind of state is wisdom, how can we develop it, and what is a wise person like? These questions about the nature of wisdom give rise to further questions about proper methods for studying wisdom. Is the study of wisdom the proper subject of philosophy or psychology? How, exactly, can we determine what wisdom is and how we can get it? In this chapter, we give an overview of some prominent philosophical answers to these questions. We begin by distinguishing practical wisdom from theoretical wisdom and wisdom as epistemic humility. Once we have a clearer sense of the target, we address questions of method and argue that producing a plausible and complete account of wisdom will require the tools of both philosophy and empirical psychology. We also discuss the implications this has for prominent wisdom research methods in empirical psychology. We then survey prominent philosophical accounts of the nature of wisdom and end with reflections on the prospects for further interdisciplinary research.

"Wisdom as an expert skill," (2013), Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (3): 511-528. [pdf] [doi]

Reissued in in Virtual Issue 1 of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Expertise (2015).

Abstract: Practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue that enables a person to make reliably good decisions about how, all-things-considered, to live. As such, it is a lofty and important ideal to strive for. It is precisely this loftiness and importance that gives rise to important questions about wisdom: Can real people develop it? If so, how? What is the nature of wisdom as it manifests itself in real people? I argue that we can make headway answering these questions by modeling wisdom on expert skill. Presenting the main argument for this expert skill model of wisdom is the focus of this paper. More specifically, I’ll argue that wisdom is primarily the same kind of epistemic achievement as expert decision-making skill in areas such as firefighting. Acknowledging this helps us see that, and how, real people can develop wisdom. It also helps to resolve philosophical debates about the nature of wisdom. For example, philosophers, including those who think virtue should be modeled on skills, disagree about the extent to which wise people make decisions using intuitions or principled deliberation and reflection. The expert skill model resolves this debate by showing that wisdom includes substantial intuitive and deliberative and reflective abilities.

"Expert skill: a model of wisdom," invited blog post for the University of Chicago's Center for Practical Wisdom. Nov 6, 2013. [link]

In this short blog post I explain why I think empirical research and philosophy are both necessary for a plausible account of wisdom and give a brief overview of how they are combined in the expert skill model of wisdom (defended in my dissertation and "Wisdom as an expert skill").

Cultivating Practical Wisdom, (2013), doctoral dissertation; supervisor: Valerie Tiberius. [link] [pdf]

Abstract: Practical wisdom (hereafter simply “wisdom”) is the intellectual virtue that enables a person to make reliably good decisions about how, all-things-considered, to live and conduct herself. Because wisdom is such an important and high-level achievement, we should wonder: what is the nature of wisdom? What kinds of skills, habits and capacities does it involve? Can real people actually develop it? If so, how? I argue that we can answer these questions by modeling wisdom on expert decision-making skill in complex areas like firefighting. I develop this expert skill model of wisdom using philosophical argument informed by relevant empirical research. I begin in Chapter 1 by examining the historical roots of analogies between wisdom and practical skills in order to motivate the expert skill model. In Chapter 2, I provide the core argument for the expert skill model. I then use the remaining chapters to pull out the implications of the expert skill model. In Chapter 3, I show that the expert skill model yields practical guidance about how to develop wisdom. In Chapter 4, I address the objection, due to Daniel Jacobson, that wisdom is not a skill that humans could actually develop, since skill development requires a kind of feedback in practice that is not available for all-things-considered decisions about how to live. Finally, in Chapter 5, I apply the expert skill model to the question, much discussed by virtue ethicists, of whether a wise person deliberates using a comprehensive and systematic conception of the good life.

"Wisdom revisited: a case study in normative theorizing," (2011), with Valerie Tiberius, Philosophical Explorations 14 (3): 277-295. [pdf] [doi]

Abstract: Extensive discussions of practical wisdom are relatively rare in the philosophical literature these days. This is strange given the theoretical and practical importance of wisdom and, indeed, the etymology of the word "philosophy." In this paper, we remedy this inattention by proposing a methodology for developing a theory of wisdom and using this methodology to outline a viable theory. The methodology we favor is a version of wide reflective equilibrium. We begin with psychological research on folk intuitions about wisdom, which helps us to avoid problems caused by reliance on the possibly idiosyncratic intuitions of professional philosophers. The folk theory is then elaborated in light of theoretical desiderata and further empirical research on human cognitive capacities. The resulting view emphasizes policies that the wise person adopts in order to cope with the many obstacles to making good choices.

Pedagogy in Philosophy

"A skill-based framework for teaching morality and religion," (2019), Teaching Ethics 18 (1): 39-62. [pdf] [doi]

Abstract: One important aim of moral philosophy courses is to help students build the skills necessary to make their own well-reasoned decisions about moral issues. This includes the skill of determining when a particular moral reason provides a good answer to a moral question or not. Helping students think critically about religious reasons like “because God says so” and “because scripture explicitly says so” can be challenging because such lessons can be misperceived as coercive or anti-religious. I describe a framework for teaching about religion and moral reasons that I have found overcomes these challenges while also building generalizable skill at analyzing and evaluating moral reasons.

"Religion and moral reasons." Companion piece teachers can assign in ethics courses. [pdf]

This is a reading intended for introductory Ethics courses. It helps student think through basic questions about Religion and Morality. Instructors can find my suggestions for how to use the paper, along with class exercises, in Jason Swartwood, (2019) “A Skill-Based Framework for Teaching Morality and Religion,” Teaching Ethics, 18 (1): 39-62. Instructors can profitably assign students to read sections 1-4 of "Religion and Moral Reasons" and then discuss the application to religious reasons using the class exercises I outline in "A Skill-Based Framework ..." If you have feedback or use the paper, I'd love to know!

Practical Ethics

I feel strongly that doing practical ethics builds valuable moral reasoning skills that are useful for navigating questions we confront in our daily lives. I've pursued this theme in various ways in some of my research. The way I view and teach practical ethics is informed by the idea (theoretically defended in my work on practical wisdom) that deliberate practice at moral reasoning is required to understand how to live virtuously.

Doing Practical Ethics (OUP, 2021), with Ian Stoner.

Doing Practical Ethics supplements existing anthologies of primary texts by helping students understand, evaluate, and develop original arguments in forms commonly used in the field of practical ethics. The book is designed to support the deliberate practice of component philosophical skills. Each chapter includes not only an explanation of a specific moral reasoning skill, but also scaffolded exercise sets and many demonstration exercises with sample solutions that offer students immediate feedback on their practice attempts.

"Drinking, texting, and moral arguments from analogy," (2017), Think 16 (45): 15-26. [pdf] [doi]

Abstract: In this dialogue (which is intended for non-philosophers), I illustrate why moral arguments from analogy are a valuable part of moral reasoning by considering how texting while driving is, morally speaking, no different than drunk driving.

"Fanciful examples," (2017), with Ian Stoner, Metaphilosophy 48 (3): 325-344. [pdf] [doi]

Abstract: This article defends the use of fanciful examples within the method of wide reflective equilibrium. First, it characterizes the general persuasive role of described cases within that method. Second, it suggests three criteria any example must meet in order to succeed in this persuasive role; fancifulness has little or nothing to do with whether an example is able to meet these criteria. Third, it discusses several general objections to fanciful examples and concludes that they are objections to the abuse of described cases; they identify no special problem with fanciful examples.