Today’s (March 18) New York Times carries an article under the title, “No, Not Trump, Not Ever” written by its co-ed columnist, David Brooks. It starts with the following passage:

“The voters have spoken. In convincing fashion, Republican voters seem to be selecting Donald Trump as their nominee. And in a democracy, victory has legitimacy to it. Voters are rarely wise but are usually sensible. They understand their own problems. And so deference is generally paid to the candidate who wins.”


I am drawn to the phrase, “Voters are rarely wise but are usually sensible. To me, being wise seemed to be synonymous with being sensible.

So I checked Oxford Advanced English Learners Dictionary -2000. It defines “wise” as:

(1) able to make sensible decisions and give good advice because of the experience and knowledge that you have.

(2) (of actions and behavior) sensible.

It also defines “sensible” as:

(1) able to make good judgements based on reason and experience rather than emotion.

To me both definitions of “wise” and “Sensible” appear as if saying almost same thing.

What is the basic difference of being “wise” from being “sensible”?

  • There is a saying (which I can't find at the moment) along the lines of "When someone says 'we've got to be sensible' you can assume they are about to commit an atrocity." – Hot Licks Mar 19 '16 at 2:23
  • Check out the Synonym Discussion of wise in Merriam -Webster Dictionary: wise, sage, sapient, judicious, prudent, sensible, sane mean having or showing sound judgment. Wise suggests great understanding of people and of situations and unusual discernment and judgment in dealing with them <wise beyond his tender years> [...] Sensible applies to action guided and restrained by good sense and rationality <a sensible woman who was not fooled by flattery>. – Færd Mar 19 '16 at 2:32
  • "Wise" means you agree with David Brooks. – Greg Lee Mar 19 '16 at 13:52

It's two-fold.

One, there are many more sensible people than there are wise ones. Wise people are a subset of sensible ones; you can't be wise if you're not sensible. Along the same lines that cows are a subset of mammals.

enter image description here

Two, like the article mentions, sensible people "understand their own problems". They may not understand other peoples' problems, they may not know the BEST solution to the problems, but they have a basic idea for a good solution.

When two women bickered over a child, both claiming it to be theirs, a sensible solution would be to share custody or alternate weeks.

But Solomon said to cut the child in half - a superficially dumb solution. However, he understood the problem of the actual mother, and knew how she'd respond, thus making it a wise test.

  • I really like your idea of compiling a chart and appreciate the point you are trying to make, especially through Solomon, who was gifted wisdom by God. But, and it's a big but, your reasoning is contradictory, thereby invalidating the point you are making. You say that wise people are a subset of sensible people and you have to be sensible in order to be wise. Therefore, all wise people must also be sensible. – Julie Carter Mar 21 '16 at 0:46
  • Using the bible story of Solomon and the two women arguing over the baby, you say '...a sensible solution would be to share custody..'. In Solomon ordering the baby to be cut in half so both women could have a share, yes, it achieved the desired result, as the real mother chose to let the baby live and for the other woman to have him. Solomon knew she loved the child as only a mother would, and he foresaw this outcome through wisdom and empathy. However, it was anything but a sensible solution and was very risky. Being wise and being sensible are two different things. – Julie Carter Mar 21 '16 at 0:59
  • @JulieCarter I didn't pick Solomon because "god imparted wisdom". I'm apatheistic, I just think it's an interesting parable. You think Solomon wouldn't have said "wait, no don't cut it in half" if the women didn't respond as expected? It wasn't risky. And no, I'm not contradicting myself. One difference between them is that all in group A are in group B, but not all in group B are in group A. – PixelSnader Mar 21 '16 at 9:16
  • It's OK, @PixelSnader I don't agree with your line of reasoning and you have provided no references to back up your conclusions, so there is no way I would have accepted your answer, let alone up voted it. However, one of the group moderators has accepted your answer, so you can feel safe that there are very experienced, high rep users who do agree with you. Please note that I will not be down voting your answer. :) – Julie Carter Mar 21 '16 at 10:36

This is a hard question to answer, because the definitions of wise and sensible vary and can overlap.

However, I think wise generally carries more weight than sensible. For example, a sensible person will walk around a pothole, while a wise person might maintain the neighborhood so there are no potholes to begin with.

An example more relevant to your question is the lesser-of-evils syndrome. As the Democratic Party becomes more right-wing (i.e. more similar to the Republican Party) and both parties become more corrupt, sensible people insist on voting for the lesser of evils. Of course, the lesser evil is either a Democrat (if you're a liberal) or a Republican (if you're a conservative).

However, wise people counsel creating a viable third party, so we no longer have to vote for the lesser evil.

This sentence also helps put things in context:

And so deference is generally paid to the candidate who wins.

Many people argue that there's no point in voting for someone who can't win, even if the candidate is the best in the race. Many people would call this common sense (i.e. sensible), but others argue that, in the long run, it isn't wise to continue voting for people who are guaranteed victory simply because they're supported by corporate interests.

The words "victory has legitimacy" pretty much the same thing. Many people will ignore a wise candidate and praise the victor, even if he or she is corrupt, not terribly smart, etc.

To emphasize my point about the word wise "carrying more weight," type Confucius + sensible into Google and compare it to Confucius + wise. Try the same test with Plato or just about any other famous philosopher or scientist. Great thinkers are described as "wise," not just sensible.

  • +1 I think you are getting there, but the pothole example, as stated doesn't quite hit it, because individuals can't fix or prevent potholes, and potholes might not even be the top priority in a neighborhood. For example, in our neighborhood, a perfectly adequate bridge was replaced against the vociferous wishes of many of the people within several square miles, and the library was put on shorter hours. To keep with the transportation analogy, the sensible person might lobby to repave the road, but the wise person might drive the smallest car consistent with safety and basic needs. – ab2 Mar 19 '16 at 2:39
  • 2
    Well, there are many ways to look at it and many possible analogies. But the bottom line is a wise person will generally do something "deeper" than a sensible person. To put it another way, a sensible person is likely to seek a cure, while a wise person is more likely to focus on prevention. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." -- Ben Franklin, who is regarded as wise but often in a very practical (i.e. sensible) way – David Blomstrom Mar 19 '16 at 2:44

The answer is in the question. Wise, meaning "the experience and knowledge that you have" (confirmed from here) and sensible "able to make good judgements based on reason and experience". Again, confirmed by my previous link.

The thing to note is that wise is an attribute of the person. It is what they know, their experience, their ability to judge. Sensible, on the other hand, is an attribute of what they do or the way they behave - sensible people are defined by doing sensible things.

The overlap is that wise people should behave sensibly because their wisdom guides them to do that, but it is not synonymous because wise people can also do stupid things meaning that they are wise but not sensible. It is also possible to do the sensible thing without being wise enough to really understand why, which is what the OP is saying about voters.


In context, it seems like the author is trying to make a mathematical comparison rather than a philosophical comparison between wisdom and sensibility. Read instead:

It's usually at least 1, but it's almost never 0

...where wise (1) > sensible (0).

Certainly the difference between wisdom and sensibility is an interesting concept; but I strongly suspect from the context that the article is more intended to strike a tone of disappointment in the electorate than spark a discussion of the disparate merits of the two.


The fundamental difference between wise and sensible is that being sensible is a rational choice.

Wisdom is like moss on a stone - it grows (or, doesn't) with years and experience.

A small child may be sensible and finish the carrots he dislikes, in order to get the reward of a chocolate cupcake.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.