We Need Fewer Rules and More Wisdom

Over-reliance on rules is the reason our institutions are failing us.

Photo by Mindspace Studio on Unsplash

Wise people speak to us beyond their time, culture, and circumstance. Even though Confucious, Jesus, Socrates, Buddha, and Aristotle have long been dead, they are still some of the most cited examples of wise people. How is it that we are still guided by the minds and hearts of those that lived 2000 years ago? That is a hell of a long time ago….so long that our modern lives, compared to theirs, are like that of another species. What would they say about our polarized culture? How surprised would they be by our failing institutions?

Despite our exponential growth in knowledge, we continue to suffer in many ways. Enduring truths keep calling to us from the past to help us alleviate that suffering and better navigate our lives, but many of those truths get ignored. The test of time is a valid test when it comes to assessing what is true. Could encouraging the practice of these enduring truths save us?

One of those enduring truths is practical wisdom

Even if you’ve never studied a lick of philosophy, you’ve likely heard of Aristotle. He wrote about the idea of practical wisdom in his book “Nicomachean Ethics.” He believed that ethics was not about establishing moral rules and following them. Instead, he taught that ethics was about figuring out the right thing to do in a particular circumstance, which meant taking into account all the nuances of that circumstance. He wrote about virtues, such as self-control, courage, generosity, and friendliness, but called practical wisdom the master virtue.

Practical wisdom is what allows a person to put these virtues to use in everyday situations. It allows a person to translate the aims of the virtues into action, even in complex situations.

The rules are broken

Consider the medical doctor who feels a responsibility toward his patients’ well-being, and is also bound by the rules of the institution they work for. What if these aims are at odds? How does a doctor meet the needs of a patient when the directives of an HMO limit his options? How often does following the rules lead to good outcomes, and who are the rules designed to benefit most?

In his book Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz argues that rules do not lead to good outcomes. In fact, the main message of the book, and the inspiration for this article, is that a reliance on rules, rather than practical wisdom, is the reason our institutions are failing us. We aren’t happy with public education, we don’t trust our doctors, we think the justice system is biased and corrupt, we don’t feel that our politicians represent us, and on and on. More often than not, we can see that the rules are not benefiting us and our best interest is not even the goal.

But we also create and enable the institutions. We are the teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, and social workers; people who want to help others. The reason professionals working in our intuitions are failing us is not because they are bad people, it is because they are not given the freedom to exercise practical wisdom.

Institutions use rules and incentives as a way to produce the outcomes they desire. They force the individuals inside those institutions to follow the rules by rewarding or punishingly them accordingly because the view is that humans can’t be trusted to make wise choices on their own.

In fact, so many of the historical characters we now revere for their wisdom were at odds with the prevailing institutions of their times. They abandoned conventional ways of thinking to do what they thought was right, actions they are now praised for. In other words, they broke the rules, and many of them were ostracized, imprisoned, or murdered for acting in ways that aligned with their values. Do we all have this capacity within us?

Born to be wise

Schwartz believes that we are born with the capacity to develop wise judgment. We are born to be wise in the same sense that we are born to learn language; with natural ease. He also says the following, which I love:

We are predisposed to organize the world into categories that appreciate subtlety and nuance.

We are predisposed to be sensitive to context.

We are predisposed to think with our hearts and feel with our heads.

We are predisposed to understand the needs and feelings of others.

Being born with these predispositions doesn’t mean practical wisdom is easy to master. It is something that requires cultivation through knowledge, guidance, and experience. Further, it requires a commitment to be an ethical person. It is a way of thinking that refuses to see black and white, and instead sees all the shades of gray.

Imagine being able to get the healthcare/education/financial assistance you need and know that those you work with have your best interest at heart and have the freedom to work on your behalf. You would feel valued, instead of feeling like a means to an end in a world that only cares about earning rewards and avoiding punishments.

Or consider a criminal justice system that isn’t bound by mandatory sentences and can take individual circumstances into account. Or a system whose main focus was to improve the future, not exact revenge for the past.

So how do we practice practical wisdom?

It is easy to just hand someone a set of rules to follow and send them on their way, rewarding and punishing their adherence to the rules, but if this were effective, our institutions would not be eroding. Practical wisdom is something that must be taught by example and nurtured, and cannot be learned during the employee orientation. Ideally, it would be a vital part of a professional’s education; heck, everyone’s education. It is something that is practiced and honed over time.

I am not suggesting that we abandon all the rules and rely only on our intuition and moral judgments; we are not ready for that. What I am suggesting is that we progressively move towards focusing on cultivating wisdom, while allowing for wise exceptions to the rules. We can gradually become better at perceiving contextual details, trusting our inner guidance, and becoming more empathetic while building skills to improvise so we can deal with unexpected or extraordinary situations. Sort of the way a parent might gradually build trust in their teenager’s maturing judgment.

The world we live in is just too complex to be handled solely by rules. The more that we try to do so, the more we become disconnected from our wise selves and from the people we encounter. When we don’t exercise our capacity for wisdom, it atrophies, and we become people who can’t function unless we are told what to do. But we were born to be wise, and we can do better.

Cultivating wisdom is not just about personal growth. Cultivating wisdom is the way to create a more beautiful, more compassionate, world. Practical wisdom is the bridge from personal to collective wisdom. It is an actionable way to shift our culture and create system change. So do what you were born to do; be wise and break rules.

Thanks for reading ❤

With Gratitude,

Aimee O’Neil LLMSW



𝘈𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘷𝘶𝘭𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 & 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘸𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸𝘭𝘦𝘥𝘨𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴.

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