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January 14, 2011

Practical Wisdom



Aristotle theorized that practical wisdom— having the moral will to do the right thing coupled with the skill to know what the right thing is— was the highest virtue one could attain.

In their book “Practical Wisdom”, authors Kenneth Sharpe and Barry Schwartz detail the psychology behind Aristotle’s theory and its application to real life and the way institutions are managed. They found most employees of organizations have to choose between doing the quick or expected thing, over doing the right thing because they feel as though they do not have the autonomy or authority to choose the right thing if it conflicts with production or operations.

I couldn’t help but make the correlation to police work since there are specific sets of policies that dictate how police officers are to respond to given situations. A great example is an officer who is dispatched to a residence for a conflict between neighbors. In the interest of time (productivity), officers are expected to handle the call and move onto the next one so the calls don’t back up. The very least the officer will do if there are no arrests to be made is to write a report documenting the incident and moving on. In doing so, nothing has been done to solve the problem and we will most likely be called back as the tension escalates.

This pressure for productivity overrides the logical approach one might take in mediating the conflict. A better approach might be to learn the root of the problem and discussing the underlying issues with the parties involved. Sometimes misunderstandings are the catalyst for incidents that turn violent and can be diffused with some effort. This is why the judgment of the officer is crucial. The moral will to want to right a wrong must be coupled with the officer’s skill in knowing if the participants are reasonable enough to work on the issue.

Some officers might believe that practical wisdom is impossible to apply because we cannot overcome the culture of policing that pressures officers to be rapid in their response to calls. It can be problematic to spend time getting to the root of a problem because of other citizens waiting for their calls to be answered. Because we have always considered rapid response as an imperative, changing the culture is challenging.

During his research, Aristotle studied the great craftsmen of his time. He was particularly fixated on the artisans who built columns and structures. The craftsmen quickly learned that it was difficult to use a ruler to measure the cylinder-shaped columns so they figured out a way to bend the ruler so it wrapped around the column. This bended rule is what we know today as a tape measure.

This analogy is quite powerful because it speaks to the practical wisdom that Aristotle felt was applicable to all human beings abilities to adapt to their surroundings and come up with solutions to specific issues. Policing is no different. We want to empower our police officers to determine that each situation is unique and problem-solving requires the moral aptitude and skill to do what is best in that particular situation. When dealing with human beings, we have to be able to exercise judgment and adaptation to allow the best outcome.

However, Schwartz and Sharpe point out that no matter how specific the rules, there will never be an absolute approach that fits all situations. This is indicative of policing by the level of discretion afforded our officers as they carry out their duties.

The most important aspect of the “bended rule” is the moral will. It is not enough to be a skilled craftsman or a skilled police officer if ones moral compass is askew. Applying discretion to serve yourself is a form of manipulation and so the only adaptation made in any situation should be with the service of others in mind.

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