You Can’t Tell Me What to Do

Part two of a series on practical wisdom.

I have a friend whose toilet acts up sometimes. Her plumber always fixes it, but before he does he explains in minutely technical detail which part he is going to replace using which tools. My friend listens patiently. But man, she does not care. She just wants the toilet fixed. And it is, after the lecture. The guy does a good job. 

That is what an expert should be: someone who cares passionately at the atomic level for the workings of a thing so you don’t have to. He has mastered every mechanism at the heart of his subject, learning in the process how to fix what’s broken.  

The expert’s knowledge is a joyous thing in itself for him, but it doesn’t have the same intrinsic value for the rest of us: my friend is bored stiff by the plumber’s discourses on mechanical engineering. The value of his knowledge for her is in the results it produces: she pays him to fix the damn pipes. 

Now imagine if the plumber, in his latest disquisition on fluid mechanics, explained how his advanced research uncovered a new discovery about toilets. They are not, after all, supposed to flush! Your desire for one that does is based on outmoded assumptions. So instead of “fixing” this broken toilet, we must leave it to overflow in its unique toiletude. 

My friend would fire that plumber, and rightly so. No matter how much knowledge he has which she does not, she has authority to say whether his knowledge is producing the results it should. She is the last word in her house on good and bad results—not the expert. 

Our present crisis of leadership is exactly like a plumber who tells us we are wrong about what we should want from our toilets. Rates of depression and suicide are skyrocketing. The American middle class is vanishing. We are one year into our “fifteen days to slow the spread” of the novel coronavirus. When we point these things out, we are told that no actually, studies show high immigration is good for the economy; poor white Americans are suffering because they’re miserable failures; wearing two masks for years on end was always just “common sense.”

We the unwashed are not considered worthy to protest because we are insufficiently informed. Even if we knew the facts, it would just confuse our poor noggins: that was the express reason why California’s state health officials refused to publish data on coronavirus infections. It would “mislead and create greater uncertainty” for those not equipped to handle the truth. 

We have been judged incapable of exercising practical wisdom: of assessing the situation we find ourselves in and responding decisively to it based on our values. Things are just too complicated now, say the experts, for us to make those decisions in a responsible way.  

But that was never a legitimate argument. It can indeed be risky to make decisions for yourself based on limited information, in a world whose complexity seems to be multiplying exponentially by the microsecond. But even in the bygone days of primitive antiquity, the right to make one’s own decisions was never contingent on having all the information.  

The people who built this nation were not entitled to declare independence and then write a Constitution because they knew more about military technology than the British Army did. They knew less. But they knew what only a self-governing people can judge for themselves: they knew the present state of affairs was intolerable, and morally wrong. 

You, too, have knowledge no expert has—knowledge which has been mocked as worthless, but which is nevertheless indispensable. You know, or can discover, what is not working in your life.  

A small, apolitical example: Experts say eggs are good for you, then they’re bad for you, now they’re good for you again. The studies constantly contradict themselves because in fact you alone can learn, through trial and error, how many eggs and when will have you feeling and looking your best. Aristotle explains why: “the science of medicine does not control health. It studies how to procure it. Medicine gives instructions in the interest of health, not to health” (emphasis added). So too, “wisdom produces flourishing.” If it does not, it is not wisdom. 

Advice from experts? Sure. Necessary, even. But plumbers who talk us into wallowing in our own filth? We would be mad to let them. Medicine has no authority to tell health it is sickness, or to tell obesity it is health—as Cosmopolitan famously did last year. Expertise has no authority to tell flourishing it is misery, or misery that it is flourishing. To do so is a gross perversion of the sciences and an affront to human dignity. We have a right to tell these clowns to pound sand.