Saturday, July 09, 2011

Why I Like Cop Shows Better Than Murder Mysteries or Thrillers

I recently listened to a James North Patterson story while on a long car trip alone. I was dissatisfied with the experience. I discovered that I do not like stories in which the protagonist takes foolish risks, and acts alone. What I want is an intelligent team acting together to beat unreason and selfishness.

I put the question to my Facebook friends. I asked for police procedurals in which the cops act together and rationally. A friend pointed out that it is hard to have a novel about a team, because it is difficult to keep all the people straight. There are some such novels - my wife has been reading Louise Penny's "Inspector Gamache" stories to me, and my mother is a fan of Henning Mankell's "Kurt Wallandar" stories (though he often does crazy things alone).

Which led me to this insight: television and film can tell the stories of teams better than novels can, because the visuals, and the voices, help you keep the group members straight.

Which is why Mrs. G. and I have been particularly enjoying "The Wire," one of the best cop shows ever.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Practical Wisdom is Helpful to a Happy Life, But Not the Highest Happiness

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe's Practical Wisdom is an excellent book. I find their argument that practical wisdom is superior to both rules and incentives as a way to organize social practices is compelling. They are right that Aristotle's case for practical wisdom is something that is in the grasp of all and very helpful to happiness. In this Schwartz and Sharpe align their argument with the positive psychology of Martin Seligman, with whom they say they have often talked, about what makes for authentic happiness.

But Aristotle goes on at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics to say that the greatest happiness does not come from practical wisdom or the exercise of the moral virtues - the subject of the first 9/10ths of the book. Instead, he concludes that the greatest happiness comes from contemplation. This has posed a puzzle for those trying to follow Aristotle for millennia, as he seems to negate in his conclusion the whole argument he had been building.

Aristotle says that contemplation is what the gods do. When we contemplate, we participate, as we are able, in the divine.

I think there is great wisdom in the idea that our highest happiness comes from participating in the divine. And this wisdom is something that even very smart secular approaches to happiness, and to wisdom, will miss.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Class Use of Rules, Incentives, and Wisdom

I am reading Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe's excellent Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. They promote Aristotle's vision of doing things according to practical wisdom. They contrast practical wisdom with the two dominant ways that we try to motivate and regulate action today - rules and incentives.

So here is my half-developed thought from reading this contrast:

Rules regulate proles.

Incentives motivate managers.

Wisdom guides professionals.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Sheryl Sandberg as Model Top Executive

The New Yorker has a wonderful profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. Sandberg pushes women who want to have "C-level jobs" - CEO, COO, CFO, etc. - to lean in, to seek new assignments, new challenges, new problems, despite the fact that they feel unprepared. Sandberg and her husband, himself a CEO of Survey Monkey, have two children and what she calls a 50-50 marriage. Ken Auletta notes in the magazine profile that

Some critics, however, note that Sandberg is not exactly a typical working mother. She has a nanny at home and a staff at work. Google made her very rich; Facebook may make her a billionaire. If she and her husband are travelling or are stuck at their desks, there is someone else to feed their kids and read to them.

That is true. Sandberg is not a typical working mother. She is, though, a typical working top executive, male or female. She concentrates on her job. Someone else does the bulk of the work running her house and, especially, minding her children.

Male top executives have lived this way since there were top executives. Female top executives will, I believe, need to live the same way. This is not from sexism or the male norms in executive life. This is from the very demanding life of being a top executive. The organization has more demands than there are minutes in the day.

Men and women who want to primarily raise their own children cannot also be top executives of large organizations. They have to choose. I believe that there will always be some men and women willing to make that choice. But I also believe that men and women will never make that choice in the same proportion. Not voluntarily, anyway.

Sheryl Sandberg is an excellent role model for women who want to be top executives. Her advice to such women is excellent. But there will never be as many women like her as there are men.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

One Cheer for Marriage Liberals

Mark Oppenheimer has a thoughtful piece in the New York Times Magazine on whether marriages would be stronger if we were not so absolute about fidelity. He is wrestling with the views of marriage liberals like Stephanie Coontz, Judith Stacey, and, especially, Dan Savage.

Marriage liberals argue that societies have always harbored a variety of practices about marriage. Savage, writing from a gay man's perspective, promotes a "monogamish" approach, expecting that some relationships would be more stable if they openly accepted straying. Savage argues that is some people have sexual desires that cannot be satisfied by their partners, they need to change the marriage in order to get them satisfied some other way.

I think the marriage liberals are certainly right that in practice every society does have within it a variety of approaches to marriage, not all of which are strictly monogamous. Men especially, find strict fidelity tough going. Gay men and rich men are more prone to find sexual outlets in addition to their spouses. As a description of reality, it is hard to disagree with this picture.

However, what the marriage liberals usually fudge is a clear sense of proportion about who is monogamous - and even more so about who can be monogamous. Most marriages are monogamous - even in societies in which that is not strictly required. Most people, and especially most women, do want and hold to a strong standard of fidelity. I think Savage goes wrong when he treats sexual desires as needs that must be met, within the marriage or not.

Savage holds that the marriage is more important than strict fidelity, especially if the couple has children. I agree with that. I think adultery would cause searing pain to most married people, and they would be right to feel painful betrayal. Nonetheless, I honor those couples who have been able to work back from an affair to a functioning marriage again. I do not think it is possible in all cases, but I honor the moral heroism of those who try.