The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative

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The Heart of Judgment, which was originally published in 2006, explores the nature, historical significance, and continuing relevance of practical wisdom. Primarily a work in moral and political thought, it also relies extensively on research in cognitive neuroscience to confirm and extend our understanding of the faculty of judgment. Ever since the ancient Greeks first discussed practical wisdom, the faculty of judgment has been an important topic for philosophers and political theorists. It remains one of the virtues most demanded of our public officials. The greater the liberties and responsibilities accorded to citizens in democratic regimes, the more the health and welfare of society rest upon their exercise of good judgment. While giving full credit to the roles played by reason and deliberation in good judgment, the book underlines the central importance of intuition, emotion, and worldly experience.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is an interesting and worthy effort that suggests an earnest, hard-fought engagement with the materials of cognitive science and psychobiology...and an equally earnest effort to bring those materials to bear on venerable issues of political theory. As such, it is a welcome addition to the literature."
Peter J. Steinberger, Reed College, Perspectives on Politics

"It (The Heart of Judgment) dispenses with preexisting molds of how political theory dispenses with preexisting molds of how political theory "should be done", and does so with daring and ambition. Moreover, it makes significant lateral contributions as it proceeds with its central argument..It is Thiele's credit that he is able to build an impressive architectonic for such a bridge...A valiant and valuable attempt to break the boundaries of traditional political theory."
Diego A. von Vacano, Theory and Event

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521248914
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/23/2010
  • Pages: 334
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Leslie Paul Thiele is Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. A recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science and Research Council of Canada, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, he is the author of Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Soul, Timely Meditations: Martin Heidegger and Postmodern Politics, and Thinking Politics, 2nd Edition. He was selected as a University of Florida Reserach Foundation Professor (1997-2000) and was nominated for the Teacher/Scholar of the Year Award in 1997.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521864445 - The heart of judgment - practical wisdom, neuroscience, and narrative - by Leslie Paul Thiele


Perforce, a political theory is, among many other things, a sum of judgments, shaped by the theorist’s notion of what matters, and embodying a series of discriminations about where one province begins and another leaves off...[A] theoretical judgment which, by definition, must discriminate can only be restrained from rendering inappropriate determinations if it is civilized by a meditative culture.

Sheldon Wolin1

Ever since Plato first discussed practical wisdom, or phronesis, and Aristotle, his student, raised it to ethical and political preeminence, the faculty of judgment has been an important topic for philosophers and political theorists. Good judgment is no less of a concern for lay people. Today, as in years past, citizens have demanded it of their public officials, as fates and fortunes depend on leaders making prudent assessments and wise decisions in diplomatic, economic, ecological, legal, moral, military, and political affairs. Indeed, citizens consistently deem good judgment one of the most important and essential traits for elected officials and heads of state.2 Napoleon Bonaparte was half right to insist that “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able todecide.”3 The real difficulty, of course, is to decide well.

   In representative systems of government, one might hope, citizens share in the virtue of practical judgment. For Aristotle, the distinguishing mark of a citizen of the polis, or city-state, was “his participation in judgement and authority.”4 The more participatory the democracy and the greater the liberties accorded to its citizens, presumably, the more will its health and welfare rest on the widespread exercise of good judgment. Democratic leadership entails persuading others to follow while preparing them to rule. The welfare of democratic societies, it follows, depends up the cultivation of judicious citizens. Freedom cannot be gained, or long maintained, in the absence of such a public. Indeed, it has recently been argued that judgment – more than any other human faculty – manifests our individual freedom, safeguards our civil liberties, and preserves us from tyranny.5 With this in mind, some suggest, the cultivation of judgment should displace the formulation of theory as the foremost occupation of moral and political philosophers.6

   Practical judgment is celebrated as a primary virtue and a preeminent concern by philosophers. It is, at the same time, the most banal of activities. Albert Camus observed that “To breath is to judge.”7 Camus exaggerates, but not by much. Everytime we act, speak, think, or merely perceive, we are exercising something akin to judgment. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty states that “Judgment is...what sensation lacks to make perception possible.”8 His point is that our perceptions are not raw sensations. Perceptions are sensations that we have made sense of. We never actually see a house or a person, for instance, but only, at best, one side of a house or person. The visible facet, by way of an unconscious judgment, Merleau-Ponty states, “presents itself as a totality and a unity.”9 When we perceive, we are making judgments about the world, and thereby making sense of it.

   Experimental psychology confirms the phenomenologist’s assertion: our perceptions – visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory – entail implicit judgments that transform the data of raw sensation into sensible apprehensions. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran maintains that “every act of perception...involves an act of judgment by the brain.”10 Oftentimes, this act of judgment takes significant liberties with raw sensation. People quickly viewing anomalous playing cards, for example, will identify a black four of hearts as a four of spades. They do so without awareness that they have transformed (novel) raw sensations into fabricated observations that conform better to the conceptual categories of previous experience.11 To see is to judge – sometimes to the point of radically revising what we actually see. The same can be said, a fortiori, for thinking, speaking, and acting.

   Judgment permeates our lives. The only alternative to its exercise would be an insensate, thoughtless, and inactive silence – the cessation of life itself. While this statement is most easily defended with regards to perceptual judgment, it also applies, in a social context, to moral and political judgment. Seyla Benhabib observes that “to withdraw from moral judgment is tantamount to ceasing to interact....Moral judgment is what we ‘always already’ exercise in virtue of being immersed in a network of human relations.”12 We cannot escape ethico-political judgment without quitting a shared world.

   Notwithstanding its indispensability, the faculty of judgment suffers some ill repute. Cicero, the ancient Roman orator and statesman, deemed prudence the greatest of the virtues. Today, in contrast, prudence or practical judgment connotes a certain stodginess that begs apology. To be prudent means that one spends more time preparing and preventing than repairing and repenting. As the Chinese proverb goes, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” That seems good advice – the sort elders are likely to impart. And that, perhaps, is the problem. There is, for lack of a better word, an old-fashioned character to prudence. The term, one scholar observes, “does not fit well with the boundless initiative and astonishing rates of change in modern life, much less the personal freedom and self-expression of liberal individualism. It does not rhyme conceptually with either ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘artist,’ or with ‘romance’ or ‘revolution.’”13 Niether does prudence rhyme conceptually with righteousness or moral rectitude. It is a pragmatic virtue, often taken to be synonymous with expedience. Prudence is equated with self-protective reserve, an unwillingness to stick one’s neck out. The prudent or politically expedient, in our times, stands opposed to the morally upright and ethically obligatory. Acting out of a sense of prudence today, in diametric opposition to the classical understanding voiced by Aristotle and Cicero, suggests a lack of moral courage.

   To add to the problem, practical judgment does not rhyme conceptually with certainty or truth. As one commentator observes, “To label an issue a question of judgment is a cognitive put-down. The implication is that such issues are outcasts from knowledge, that worthwhile issues deserve something better than judgment.”14 In the same vein, practical judgment does not rhyme conceptually with impartiality or universality, as does law. There seems an arbitrary character to practical judgment that leaves it suspect. In the context of contemporary “value relativism,” judgment is further depreciated, as the distinction between a well-considered judgment and a mere matter of taste evaporates. In sum, the faculty of judgment is often understood to be too old-fashioned, restrictive, self-serving, variable, uncertain, and subjective to merit the prerogatives, and bear the responsibilities, of guiding moral and political life.

   For these reasons, practical judgment is often taken to constitute a faculty of last resort, something that is called upon when truth, ethical principle, or law, for whatever reason, forfeits its mandate and jurisdiction. The exercise of practical judgment becomes a kind of fall-back position that one endorses reluctantly when circumstances do not permit decisions to be made on the basis of firm knowledge, moral certainty, or valid rules.

   To be sure, practical judgment is called for when firm knowledge, moral certainty, and valid rules – whether promulgated by an authoritative institution or derived from an internal process of cogitation – do not supply us with clear solutions to our problems. But that is not to say that the practical judge abandons herself to passing fancy. Rather, she employs a wide range of faculties and aptitudes, including common sense, to navigate a complex world. She adeptly integrates these diverse capacities, coaxing them to operate fruitfully in tandem. To understand this integrative and admittedly mysterious skill, we need to investigate the human mind scientifically while exploring its experiential foundations and narrative resources.

Judgment, Rules, and Law

Practical judgment is an aptitude for assessing, evaluating, and choosing in the absence of certainties or principles that dictate or generate right answers. Judges cannot rely on algorithms. Their efforts always exceed adherence to rules and are not tightly tethered to law. Still, the practical judge reveres good rules and laws. The word judge, after all, derives from the Latin judicem, which refers to a speaker (dicus) of law (jus). The activity of judging, though not circumscribed by the boundaries posed by tenets and precepts, is complementary to rule-making and rule-following. The exercise of judgment relies on rules, principles, and laws for support, even as it transcends or transforms them. Hence Aristotle’s man of practical wisdom, the phronimos, does not ignore rules and models, or dispense justice without criteria. He is observant of principles and, at the same time, open to their modification. He begins with nomoi – established law – and employs practical wisdom to determine how it should be applied in particular situations and when departures are warranted. Rules provide the guideposts for inquiry and critical reflection.

   When established principle or law comes to serve as a final destination rather than a launching pad for inquiry and deliberation, practical judgment is precluded. Justice is thereby placed in jeopardy. The Roman dramatist Terence was invoking an Aristotelian conviction when he stated that “The extreme rigour of the law is oftentimes extreme injustice.”15 Two millennia later, Alexander Pope put the point most eloquently when he wrote:

Mark what unvaried laws preserve each state,
Laws wise as nature, and as fixed as fate.
In vain thy reason finer webs shall draw,
Entangle justice in her net of law,
And right, too rigid, harden into wrong.16

Justice is commonly assumed to thrive under the rule of law, which places individuals and their actions in uniform categories so that adjudication may occur in an unbiased fashion. Such legal impartiality is indispensable to a political society. But it cannot stand alone. Practical judgment supplements the rule of law in ways that makes socio-political life more practicable and humane. It digs underneath strict categorizations to uncover specificities and arbitrate in light of them. Only thus can equity be pursued. And equity, as Aristotle observed, is the highest form of justice.

   In Sophocles’s Antigone, Creon pushes the rule of law and reasons of state beyond their proper boundaries, rejecting counsel and exhibiting the worst of all human ills, poor judgment. As a result, a tragic conflict of values and duties turns catastrophic. Two limitations are suggested. First, positive law must be restricted in its application and enforcement. Its scope must be bounded by realms of human life that escape its reach. Second, the legitimate application and enforcement of positive law remains ever needful of adjustment. In both cases, determining what is truly just entails practical wisdom.

   There are no rules to determine when, where, and how new rules should be invented and old rules bent or broken. Only practical judgment can ensure that the dead letter of the law does not suffocate its dynamic spirit. The scales held by the goddess of justice suggest that the balance she establishes is static. Her blindfold portrays justice as heedless of particularities. Yet justice must be readily adaptive and contextually sensitive. What is said here of legal codes applies equally to ethical rules. While the effort is always fraught with danger, as Edmund Burke observed, it is sometimes necessary for “morality [to] submit to the suspension of its own rules in favour of its own principles.”17

   One judges well by discerning in the midst of uncertainty how the concrete informs the abstract, how the contextual informs the comprehensive, how facts inform principle, and how the expedient informs the ideal. Because judgment always pertains to things particular, contingent, and concrete, it cannot be reduced to a wholly deductive enterprise. In this sense, practical judgment is similar to musical improvisation: training in theory is most helpful, but responsive flexibility is key. The difference in quality between a novice punching out the required notes and a master musician interpreting a score is patent. It is the difference between mechanically heeding the letter of the law and skillfully realizing its spirit.

   Empirical studies demonstrate something we all know: people tend to exhibit self-serving biases when exercising judgment. That should give us pause whenever we contemplate bending or breaking rules. But the same brush can be used to tar principles and law. Certainly the history of moral and political philosophy no less than the history of legal institutions demonstrates that bias is no stranger to systems of thought and law. People exhibit partiality in the construction of “just” rules and the conceptualization of “fair” institutions no less than in their exercise of practical judgments.18 The French novelist Anatole France once observed that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” People gravitate toward standards of justice that best serve their own interests. For all its impartiality, law is not above prejudice and preference. That is why it must remain subject to practical judgment, or risk losing its spirit.

Judgment and Rationality

If our assessments, evaluations, and choices were immune to self-serving biases, the faculty of judgment would not have its work cut out for it. Counteracting the prejudices that plague decision-making is intrinsic to its task. In turn, the practical judge must account for the prejudices of the people with whom she interacts. Notwithstanding great success in thwarting our own biases, we will not become good judges if we operate on the assumption that others are bias-free, are purged of common sources of error, or act out of straightforward, one-dimensional interests. That is to say, the good judge understands that the world is not populated by rational people, but by people who selectively employ rationality. In such a world, good judgment makes use of much more than reason.

   Consider the story of the village idiot who preferred dimes to dollars.19 Offered the choice by neighbor or passerby, the lad would always select the shiny coin to the paper money. It appeared a blatant bit of bad judgment on the youth’s part. Clearly, he had lost his reason. As everyone likes to make fun, the lad’s reputation grew. Soon he was visited by peasants and princes from far and wide, each offering him a dime and a dollar, and each leaving with the dollar bill in hand and a good laugh to boot. Day after day, the misguided youth suffered the ridicule of scores of acquaintances and strangers. And at the end of each day, the lad wandered home with a large sack of coins. He reputedly died a very rich man.

   The moral of the story is that good judgment is grounded on the insight that others often misjudge. To judge well, one must comprehend the subtle interplay of motivations and calculations, aversions and desires, passions and prejudices, beliefs and misbeliefs that inform human thought and action. Practical judgment requires a thorough “knowledge of the human soul.”20 Such knowledge develops less from perusing books than from participating in worldly life. Good judgment is not so much gained in the classroom as in the school of hard knocks. Here, reason is but one of many players.

   To exercise judgment, Peter Steinberger eloquently states, “is to invoke a kind of insight – a faculty of nōus or common sense, a certain knowing how, a ‘je ne sçay quoy’ [sic] – the mechanisms of which defy analysis....[I]t is to be distinguished from the methodical, step-by-step manner of thinking that characterizes all forms of inferential reasoning.”21 As cognitive neuroscientists shed more light on the complex workings of the human brain, the enigma of judgment is beginning to unravel. These painstaking efforts, though inspiring, still shine only a dim beam into a very dark and convoluted process. But one thing has become clear: practical judgment is not simply rationality at work. Reason often proves of service to the practical judge, but it typically works in tandem with non-inferential faculties, and often comes into play subsequent to their exercise. Understanding the reasoning mind only gets one part way to understanding the judging mind.

   President John F. Kennedy observed that “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself....There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process – mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.”22 The mysterious aspect of judgment, its superseding of inferential reasoning, is tied to one of its most crucial features: the discernment of relevance. In moral and political life, nothing of importance issues from a single cause, generates a single effect, or has a single meaning. The task of practical judgment is to sift through the jumble of potential causes, effects, and meanings and settle upon those that are, for some particular purpose, the most apposite and weighty. When we judge, we are not simply manipulating predetermined variables to solve for ‘x’ or ‘y’. Practical judgment is not algebraic calculation. Prior to any deductive or inductive reckoning, the judge is involved in selecting objects and relationships for attention and assessing their interactions. Identifying things of importance from a potentially endless pool of candidates, assessing their relative significance, and evaluating their relationships is well beyond the jurisdiction of reason.23

   All this suggests that practical judgment is inherently a normative faculty. It imposes a sense of relevance and significance upon particular features of its world. Sheldon Wolin observes that the judge operates with a “notion of what matters” and discriminates “about where one province begins and another leaves off.”24 In selecting phenomena for attention, demarcating boundaries of significance, and assessing relative merits, the practical judge cannot rely upon determinative calculations. She must comparatively appraise within a field of shifting values.

   There is much disagreement as to the form and substance of practical judgment. Yet there is something of a consensus concerning a key feature. Good judgment always demonstrates “a self-reflective ability to...shift one’s style of reasoning in response to situational demands.”25 Good judgment is attentive to context and contingency. The practical judge cultivates responsiveness to a world in flux.

The Nature of Moral and Political Judgment

Many things fall into the realm of the contingent and contextual: human health, business relations, and military expeditions, not to mention the weather and seismic activity. The judgments that discern (and predict) medical problems, business opportunities, and military maneuvers bear important similarities to moral and political judgments. Such assessments and evaluations probe what might be called deep complexity. Deep complexity arises wherever relationships among diverse variables are so intricate and interdependent as to preclude the deductive calculation of reactions and outcomes. If a phenomenon is not inherently contingent and contextual, its assessment may require various human aptitudes. But practical judgment is not one of them. Bank tellers and accountants, in this sense, may make mistakes in their trades, but not poor judgments. To miscalculate – when there is an available algorithm or procedure for reaching the correct answer – is not to misjudge.

   Most of the mental faculties involved in making decisions under conditions of deep complexity are the same regardless of whether one is engaged in a medical diagnosis, a business decision, the devising of a military strategy, or an ethico-political choice. Professionals and corporate executives employ many of the same skills as individuals negotiating moral and political relationships. It is not an accident that statesmanship is often preceded by a professional or business career. In the contemporary world, the judgment demanded in politics often finds its testing ground in the courtroom or executive suite.26 The basic components of good judgment – such as broad socio-economic, psychological, and historical knowledge, aptitude in probabilistic reasoning and logic, open-mindedness, thoroughness, perspicacity, empathy, imagination, common sense, and patience – prove beneficial regardless of whether one is embroiled in a moral conundrum, a political bargain, a professional dispute, a business decision, or a military confrontation.

   Given this common foundation, some scholars take the next step, insisting that there are no important distinctions between ethico-political judgment and other sorts of decision-making. The mental faculties of the judge are identical, they argue, regardless of whether she is grappling with moral, political, medical, business, or military affairs. As one “field guide” in decision-making states, the same investigative methodology should apply whether we want to know “why and how Abraham Lincoln decided to free the slaves” or why and how “the Coca-Cola company...went wrong in replacing the old Coke with the New Coke.”27 Ending slavery or tweaking soft drink flavors – both are decisions made in the face of contingency. Both require good judgment to be successful in achieving their respective goals. Both are amenable, it is suggested, to standardized methods of analysis.

   Notwithstanding the many commonalities shared by moral and political judges with decision-makers in other realms of life characterized by deep complexity, there is an important distinction. Moral and political judgments are never uncontestably right or wrong. They prove difficult to make not simply because they grapple with deep complexity – that is to say, with diverse, interactive variables – but because the very determination of ends and means – as well as the standards by which these ends and means might be evaluated – remain forever open to dispute. In moral and political affairs, the “canons of success” one might appropriately employ in assessing and evaluating judgments remain essentially contested.28

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. An intellectual history of judgment; 2. The indispensability of experience; 3. The power of the unconscious; 4. The imperative of affect; 5. The riches of narrative; Conclusion.

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