(p. 43) The world we face is too complex and varied to be handled by rules, and wise people understand this. Yet there is a strange and troubling disconnect between the way we make our moral decisions and the way we talk about them.
From ethics textbooks to professional association codes to our everyday life, any discussion of moral choices is dominated by Rules Talk. If we’re asked to explain why we decided to tell the painful, unvarnished truth to a friend, we might say, “Honesty is the best policy.” But if we’re asked why we decided to shade the truth we might say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It’s clearly not a rule that is telling us what to do. Both maxims are good rules of thumb, but we don’t talk about why we picked one and not the other in any particular case. “Better safe than sorry.” But “He who hesitates is lost.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” But “Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.” When we hear the maxim, we nod. End of story. It’s as if stating the rule is sufficient to explain why we did what we did.
Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.