The Wisdom Page 


An Index of Wisdom?

Some thoughts on the subject by David Paterson

Is there a way to create an index to measure how wise a country is? That question can be answered in three different ways, from three different perspctives: personal wisdom, wisdom of government, and communal wisdom.


'Personal wisdom' is one way of measuring the wisdom of a country. Take a sufficiently large random sample of people from the country and test each person for the individual components of wisdom.

St Augustine divided intelligence into two parts: wisdom, or "sapentia," which is timeless and eternal, and science "scientia," which is knowledge of the material world. The book "A Handbook of Wisdom" has in chapter 1 a list of 15 different definitions of wisdom. That may be a good starting point. But on the other hand …

IMHO one essential component of wisdom that is missing from all those definitions is "inner peace". There are other components of wisdom. A morality that is as inclusive as possible, includes all people and all religions, all nations, all animals, all plants. i.e. people must be "good" as opposed to "selfish". Goodness is measured by actions and not just thoughts, primarily by actions. A third component is truth. Wise people must be able to instinctively distinguish between truth and fiction/bullshit/hype/peer-group-pressure. Wise people will actively seek out the truth.

Is that enough? Wisdom = inner peace + goodness + truth_detection.
All three components can be measured independently, and then could be added to make a wisdom index.

Goodness and truth_detection are combined in justice, but the judicial system alone would not be a good enough measure because so few people are directly involved in it.
Countries like Nigeria and India should score low on the wisdom index because of their rejection of health reforms (failure on the goodness component) resulting in excessively many diseases at a national level. It could even be claimed that most if not all morality is based on health.


'Wisdom of Government' is a second way of measuring the wisdom of a country. How wise are the policies in place in the country. This is more difficult to measure than personal wisdom.

It's very tempting to try to measure the wisdom of government simply through question and answer sessions. Individuals would be asked to nominate members of government who showed wisdom, and then state why they thought those people were wise. This would then go to an expert panel who would evaluate whether those individuals really were wise, based on the evidence presented. The immediate problem with this is that in a repressive regime of any sort there is a fear of reprisal, which would greatly skew the result, to the extent of giving a meaningless result. And repression can have several different forms.

In order to get an objective result it's then necessary to evaluate the wisdom of government policy, which is all but impossible. To attempt to get around the problem, let's first consider two simplified versions, an index of the morality of government policies, and an index of the wisdom of past governments.

It's much easier to measure how moral the policies in place in the country are then to measure how wise they are. Morality is easy enough to measure objectively using the system devised by Jeremy Bentham. This is often crudely stated as "greatest happiness of the greatest number". Although this system of measuring morality has been frequently criticised by reducing it to "the end justifies the means" it is "the end" that is being measured, given that "the end" is the present day and includes all transitional steps operating in the present day. When applied to a measure of the morality of government policies this would be applied not to the policies directly but to the results. The results include such things as freedom from persecution, access to medicines, architectural beauty and crime rate. Full details of the measurement system can be found in Bentham's manuscript. This is really equivalent to a happiness index for the country, but measured by means of evaluating the causes of happiness rather than the state of happiness. Although difficult to measure, there are no question and answer sessions involved, which helps to make the index more objective.

Although it is very difficult (for me, anyway) to measure the wisdom of policies that are currently being enacted, it is much easier to measure the wisdom of past governments. To measure the success of any prime minister of Australia, for instance, just count the number of successful reforms that took place during their time of office and divide by the number of years of office. With more than ten years of hindsight, the success of any reform is very easy to see. Although I haven't tried it, an extension of that system to the world stage is possible. It would be possible to count the successful reforms and compare the result around the world to get a world index of political wisdom, albeit one that is out of date.

But an index based on "wise policies" is tougher. I'll illustrate with a couple of examples. "Trial by jury" is sometimes cited as an example of a wise policy. But looked at objectively it has two major advantages and two major flaws. The first advantage is that by reducing the power of the judiciary it protects somewhat against corruption of the judiciary. The second advantage is that it protects the judiciary somewhat against revenge killings. The first disadvantage is that the decisions are inaccurate because the use of untrained individuals adds an arbitrariness to the result. The second disadvantage is that it slows the judicial process down enormously and adds to the beaurocracy. Since justice is a facet of wisdom, it's an important example. If, as has been frequently stated, the wisest people in society do not seek power then adding the buffer of a jury between the judge and the defendant is a wise policy. But in a mostly moral society where revenge killings and judicial corruption don't exist then trial by jury is not wise. In other words, whether a particular policy is wise (as opposed to merely moral) has to be evaluated on a country by country basis, which acts to somewhat negate the use of a country-independent index of political wisdom for evaluating countries against one another.

Another example is trade restrictions. From a world perspective the fewer trade restrictions the better. From a country's perspective, however, the removal of trade restrictions can have disastrous short-term effects. So although having fewer trade restrictions can generally be considered 'wise', in certain countries and at certain times it can be very unwise. For an example consider the wisdom of China's current policy of keeping its currency artificially low by buying up US dollars. In the short term this is successful, China produces huge amounts of manufactured items that can be sold overseas at a huge profit. In the long term it's unsustainable. So is it wise? I don't know.

Another problem with an index of the wisdom of government is that is that it isn't only governments that govern. Businesses, the judiciary, the armed forces, the police, the financiers, etc. also govern. And it's not so easy to determine the wisdom of those secondary governing bodies from their policies because their policies are less public.

To determine the wisdom of all governing bodies would require a lot of preliminary research into policies of every type of governing body. This would need to be followed by a question and answer session involving either interviews or a questionnaire for a large number of participants in each country. A problem then is honesty. In a repressive regime any criticism of the government is dangerous, and this can apply to all bodies that govern. Then some body of informed people would need to analyse the results.


In order to measure communal wisdom, it is necessary to rely on a question and answer format such as an interview or questionnaire. The necessary protocol for devising an index of communal wisdom has already been devised and used, though you may not recognise it as such. It involves asking a good selection of people to name the wise people they have met, and asking them what it is about these wise people that shows. This has all been done before, but in the context of determining what wisdom is. It is used here in evaluating how wisdom is transferred. On top of asking about wise people, a test of community wisdom would have to ask the setting - was the wisdom transferred privately or in a communal setting, was it transferred in a formal or an informal setting, was it transferred face to face or indirectly by media such as a book, magazine, radio, documentaries, soap operas or internet. Or was wisdom simply the product of experience. Confucius lists three ways by which wisdom can be acquired, the simplest is by imitation, the most difficult by experience, I don't remember the third.

When you've done that, you may or may not be able to derive an index of communal wisdom for a country. The index of communal wisdom would then be a measure of how easily and effectively wisdom is transmitted. But would that index be of any value? I don't think so. It makes much more sense to me to construct an index of wisdom for a country based on how wise its inhabitants are rather than based on how effectively wisdom is transmitted form one person to another.


In summary, although it would be possible to determine the wisdom index for a country by determining an index for either personal wisdom, the wisdom of government, or communal wisdom separately or together, only an index based on integrated personal wisdom makes sense. An index of the wisdom of government would be either extremely difficult to devise or subject to great distortion. An index of communal wisdom would not tell us anything of value.

Dr. David Paterson

Ph 61-3-9252-6086