i wrote a letter to the editor of south china morning post a couple of weeks ago but it didn’t get published – a first for me. maybe it is a sign that i should quit writing stuff for audience of the brick and mortar media. afterall, especially for this story, the internet is a much better medium because it is about a very inspiring talk which can be viewed on youtube or ted. if you like what you read, you can play the embedded player of the talk down at the bottom. the talk is almost 20 minutes long and i have tried my best to summarize it within the 400 words limit imposed by scmp on letter submission. below is the letter:
Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, gave a talk on virtue and practical wisdom at the annual TED Conference in the US last month. He explained how excessive incentives had demoralized work and how excessive rules are impairing American health care and education. He gave several compelling examples. Though given entirely in the context of the US, I find two relevant to Hong Kong.
Practical wisdom, Schwartz quotes Aristotle, “is the combination of moral will and moral skill.” Schwartz notes the job description of a typical hospital janitor involves only odd jobs and lacks anything to deal with human beings. But by employing moral skills to improvise and make exceptions to their job descriptions, a few janitors have displayed moral wills of care and empathy towards the people that have come into their ways while they perform their odd jobs. It reminds me of the unfortunate Caritas Medical Centre incident. If only a few involving had possessed adequate moral skills, a tragedy might have been avoided. According to Schwartz, any work involving interaction with human beings is moral work. And moral work depends on practical wisdom, not job descriptions.
Schwartz argues excessive regulations diminish moral skill and smarter incentives still demoralize moral will. As such, they are not ideal solutions to the current financial crisis. He suggests remoralize work by celebrating moral exemplars and acknowledging moral heroes. He mentioned Aaron Feuerstein of Malden Mills as a moral hero. Malden Mills received US$300 million from insurance in the 90s because its factory had burned down. Instead of retiring or re-locating to a low-cost manufacturing country, Feuerstein decided to rebuild the factory in order to keep his 3,000 employees. He even kept paying them in full during construction just because it was the right thing to do. I first came across this story from 60 Minutes on ATV World. Ironically, the show has been cancelled by ATV recently. Who knows? Maybe a re-run of the story might have had inspired a few executives (including those from ATV) to think twice about their downsizing decisions.
Schwartz says if teachers and organizations strive to encourage and nurture moral skill and moral will, individuals will strive to become ordinary heroes by doing what is right. He believes practical wisdom is the most important virtue because it allows other virtues “to be displayed at the right time and in the right way”.