Whenever I’ve talked about the need for critical thinking, I’ve noticed that those who need it most are usually the ones who agree most—but for other people!
Maybe this stems from our volatile society, but our collective exasperation (outrage?) at others’ points of view is certainly exacerbated by a lack of critical thinking by all parties.
I don’t consider myself a master critical thinker, but at least I can see how most political ads break every rule of sound and fair reasoning. (Of course, their purpose is to vilify opponents with innuendo, appeals to irrational fears, outright lies, distortions and half-truths; and a creative lack of depth, breadth, clarity or fairness. For that, they do a pretty consistent job—however unprincipled!)
But let’s start with clarity.
What critical thinking is not: using a judgmental spirit to find fault, assign blame, cancel, or censure.
What critical thinking is: using a disciplined thought process to discern what is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.
After all, we are what we think. Our attitudes, feelings, words, and actions are all determined by the quality of our thinking. Unrealistic thinking leads to disappointment; pessimistic thinking spurns joy; practical thinking builds productivity; grateful thinking grows appreciation; and affirmative thinking leads to possibilities and opportunities.
Our brains do a pretty good job in identifying patterns and fixed procedures that require minimal consideration. It allows us to function efficiently in familiar zones and predictable routines. And hardwired in all of us is a prioritized egocentric core to protect our personal interests. But increasingly, our progressively diverse world and its unrelenting pace of change requires analytical thinking that is more vigorous, more complex, more adaptable, and more sensitive to divergent views—if we are not to degenerate into the dystopian futures of our movies!
That kind of elevated thinking is reasoning, which draws conclusions about what we know, or can discover, about anything. To reason well, we must intentionally process the information we receive. What are we trying to understand? What is its purpose? How can we check its accuracy? Do we have a limited, shaded, or jaded point of view? What is fact, what is evidence, and what is interpretation? What is the question or problem we are trying to solve? What assumptions are in our inherent biases, and how can we move away from them? What are the ultimate implications or consequences?
Our reasoning, therefore, needs standards with which to measure, compare and contrast all the bits of information in order to come to a meaningful and fair conclusion. Such intellectual standards include clarity, precision, accuracy, significance, relevance, logicalness, fairness, breadth and depth.
In the absence of these reasoning standards, we default to our self-centeredness, which inevitably leads to gnashing of teeth, biased irrationality, and social regrets. But when we vigorously apply these standards, we develop a capacity for fairmindedness, rational action, and healthy societies. This intellectual clash for the mastery of our own minds frames two incompatible ends:
Virtues for fair-minded rationality Vices inhibiting fair-minded rationality
intellectual humility intellectual arrogance
intellectual autonomy intellectual conformity
intellectual empathy intellectual self-centeredness
intellectual civility intellectual rudeness
intellectual curiosity intellectual apathy
intellectual discipline intellectual laziness
intellectual integrity intellectual hypocrisy
Here is a starter set of questions for better thinking and reasoning, drawn from the critically acclaimed book Critical Thinking, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder:
Clarity: Could you elaborate or give an example?
Precision: Could you be more specific?
Accuracy: How can we verify or test that?
Significance: Which of these facts are most important?
Relevance: How does that relate to, or help with the issue?
Fairness: Are my assumptions supported by evidence? Is my thinking justifiable in context?
Logicalness: Does what you say follow from the evidence?
Depth: What are some of the complexities of this issue?
Informed reasoning leads to better self-management, better understanding and relationships between people and groups—and ultimately, a better, more cooperative society. And let it begin with me.