Thursday, February 25, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinking and Ethics

The (Critical?) Thinker
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still looking at the article "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), written by Peter A. Facione, who summarizes the views "of 200 policy-makers, employers, and faculty members from two-year and four-year colleges" on "the core critical thinking skills and habits of mind" (page 5).

I've already covered these skill and dispositions in several posts, so I'd like to note a point about the limits of critical thinking. In a sense, it is not limited at all:
Considered as a form of thoughtful judgment or reflective decision-making, in a very real sense critical thinking is pervasive. There is hardly a time or a place where it would not seem to be of potential value. As long as people have purposes in mind and wish to judge how to accomplish them, as long as people wonder what is true and what is not, what to believe and what to reject, good critical thinking is going to be necessary. (page 9)
So long as one is concerned with determining effective, efficient means to goals, Facione tells us, then critical thinking will pervade one's reflections, assuming that one has honed the necessary skills. But note that Facione is talking about instrumental reason, the means used to attain goals, and there is a limit in this that the experts call attention to:
We said the experts did not come to full agreement on something. That thing has to do with the concept of a "good critical thinker." This time the emphasis is on the word "good" because of a crucial ambiguity it contains. A person can be good at critical thinking, meaning that the person can have the appropriate dispositions and be adept at the cognitive processes, while still not being a good (in the moral sense) critical thinker. For example, a person can be adept at developing arguments and then, unethically, use this skill to mislead and exploit a gullible person, perpetrate a fraud, or deliberately confuse and confound, and frustrate a project.

The experts were faced with an interesting problem. Some, a minority, would prefer to think that critical thinking, by its very nature, is inconsistent with the kinds of unethical and deliberately counterproductive examples given. They find it hard to imagine a person who was good at critical thinking not also being good in the broader personal and social sense. In other words, if a person were "really" a "good critical thinker" in the procedural sense and if the person had all the appropriate dispositions, then the person simply would not do those kinds of exploitive and aggravating things.

The large majority, however, hold the opposite judgment. They are firm in the view that good critical thinking has nothing to do with any given set of cultural beliefs, religious tenants, ethical values, social mores, political orientations, or orthodoxies of any kind. Rather, the commitment one makes as a good critical thinker is to always seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness. The majority of experts maintain that critical thinking conceived of as we have described it above, is, regrettably, not inconsistent with abusing one's knowledge, skills, or power. There have been people with superior thinking skills and strong habits of mind who, unfortunately, have used their talents for ruthless, horrific, and immoral purposes. Would that it were not so. Would that experience, knowledge, mental horsepower, and ethical virtue were all one and the same. But from the time of Socrates, if not thousands of years before that, humans have known that many of us have one or more of these without having the full set.

Any tool, any approach to situations, can go either way, ethically speaking, depending on the character, integrity, and principles of the persons who possess them. So, in the final analysis the majority of experts maintained that we cannot say a person is not thinking critically simply because we disapprove ethically of what the person is doing. The majority concluded that, "what 'critical thinking' means, why it is of value, and the ethics of its use are best regarded as three distinct concerns."

Perhaps this realization forms part of the basis for why people these days are demanding a broader range of learning outcomes from our schools and colleges. "Knowledge and skills," the staples of the educational philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, are not sufficient. We must look to a broader set of outcomes including habits of mind and dispositions, such as civic engagement, concern for the common good, and social responsibility. (pages 11-12)
The basic problem here is one noted by the Frankfurt School, namely, that instrumental reason -- rationality applied to finding effective, efficient means toward goals -- can be applied for any aim, no matter how immoral.

I don't dispute this point directly, for I think that it's largely correct -- so long as we define critical thinking solely in terms of instrumental reasoning. But there has been a distinction, as I've already noted, between Facione's focus and my own. Facione treats critical thinking as a "tool," and instrument for solving problems, whereas I began the critical thinking part of this culture-of-discussion series by focusing on self-reflection, arguing that critical thinking entails applying the 'why-question' to positions that one holds, including one's own values. In short, I began with the assumption, implicit more than explicit, that critical thinking applies to the purposes that one strives for, namely, that one's aims -- one's goals, one's purposes, one's ends -- must be subjected to critical reflection.

Put differently, I don't limit critical thinking to instrumental reason but consider it more broadly to include reasoning about the proper aims in life. Of course, this can be a rather disruptive form of reflection since it questions treasured values and doesn't necessarily confirm the expected virtues that a culture holds valuable.

Hence some of the cultural resistance against encouraging the development of critical thinkers . . .

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