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What Do Wisdom and Morality Have to Do With "The Good Life"?

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In a few weeks I’ll be presenting at Faulkner University’s annual conference for the Journal of Faith and the Academy.

This year’s theme is “Ancient Words and Modern Voices: Practical Wisdom in Times of Change.” As such, intellectual virtue, the good life, and wisdom have been on my mind as I prepare my presentation.

Mostly I’m wondering, “What exactly is wisdom, and how does it relate to the good life?”

Wisdom and the Good Life

In James 1:5 we are instructed: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (ESV).

Again, I’m led to ask, “What is wisdom?”

Robert Nozick, the late Harvard philosopher, has helpfully commented on this topic, concluding in his book, The Examined Life, that,

Wisdom is what you need to understand in order to live well and cope with the central problems and avoid the dangers in the predicaments human beings find themselves in.

If this is generally correct, then wisdom has a practical element that is absent in other epistemic goods, such as knowledge or understanding.

But of course, the significance of wisdom runs much deeper than mere practicality, as Nozick continues on the matter:

Wisdom is not simply knowing how to steer one’s way through life, cope with difficulties, etc. It also is knowing the deepest story, being able to see and appreciate the deepest significance of whatever occurs…knowing and understanding not merely the approximate goods but the ultimate ones, and seeing the world in this light.

It seems to me that Nozick has profoundly hit the target.

A person of wisdom is not only knowledgeable and able to categorize his or her thoughts and beliefs into a coherent system, but has the distinct ability to properly orient his or her life in response to these factors.

What is more, this person has learned to interpret life’s experiences through a particular lens, one that allows him or her to act rightly and justly, and thereby realize the good life.

Wisdom and Morality

Consider the young father who is struggling to balance the pressures of career with the expectations of parenthood, and who regularly finds himself depleted and unwilling to properly invest in the lives of his children.

And yet he realizes the significance of his role and the sacred nature of every moment, and therefore actively searches for opportunities to model character and integrity to his children.

Surely we would praise such a parent, in spite of his many flaws and shortcomings, for his desire and ability to redeem the interactions with his family.

Indeed, we would insist that it was his wisdom that enabled him to act in this laudable manner. Is it not clear how wisdom is intimately connected to morality?

Immoral and Wise?

Not only that, but it is difficult to imagine a wise person who is also immoral, all things considered, in his or her attitudes and behavior.

This, in turn, suggests an interesting insight about immorality, namely, that it essentially involves a disassociation from reality. From the bank robber to the serial killer, all such individuals are, for whatever reasons, deluding themselves about the truth.

It is only through such self-delusion that the relevant acts are capable of being performed in the first place. It would be profoundly understated to put it this way, but the bank robber and serial killer are, in fact, unwise in their respective actions.

On this connection between wisdom and morality, the philosopher Linda Zagzebski notes the following in her book Virtues of the Mind:

The unifying feature of wisdom explains another distinctive mark of wisdom, namely, that it cannot be misused, whereas knowledge surely can be misused. Wisdom not only unifies the knowledge of the wise person but unifies her desires and values as well. There is nothing incoherent or even surprising about a knowledgeable person who is immoral, but it is at least surprising, perhaps incoherent, to say that a wise person is immoral.

For example, surely it would be unintelligible to claim that a morally suspect politician, like Hitler or Stalin, manifested wisdom in his governing and policy-making.

This is not to discount that such an individual could employ real creativity and intelligence in his various activities. But if most of his political actions are directed towards immoral ends, then it strains credibility to insist that he is, all things considered, a wise individual.

Wisdom and Intellectual Virtue

One of the more interesting qualities of wisdom is the fact that it represents a particular skill or ability.

It seems clear that wisdom contains a necessary practical element that knowledge and understanding, for example, are mostly lacking.

To be sure, these epistemic goods can, at times, manifest themselves in the form of practical behavior. The point is simply that such applicability is not necessary to knowledge and understanding – one can have profound understanding of the most abstract and theoretical matters, for instance, without such understanding having any tangible impact in the real world.

The intellectual virtues are uniquely relevant for the pursuit of wisdom.

The basic idea here is that the intellectual virtues are dispositions or activities which are intrinsically directed towards a good end, and are therefore valuable for all humans to possess.

Most significantly, these virtues are best suited when directed towards the goal of wisdom. Someone could have a vast store of true beliefs and a profound understanding of the relevant subject matter, and still fall short of highest form of intellectual virtuosity.

In spite of these other positive factors, such an individual would lack wisdom, and would therefore be missing out on that component of human flourishing which, according to Proverbs 9:10, is intimately connected to the “fear of the Lord.”

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  • Phil Steiger

    Thanks for your thoughts on this often neglected concept. We seek the ‘good life’, but by in large we lack the tools to pursue it well.

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