Friday, July 18, 2008

Ethical Standards and Critical Thinking

Alice C. Linsley

No scientifically sound research has been done to study the relationship of critical thinking to moral behavior in the USA, but it isn’t difficult to think about how the two are related. Consider the dynamic of the parent and adolescent when it comes to setting restrictions. The parent says that a certain action is not to be done and the youth immediately asks why it isn’t to be done. Rather than being contentious (as many parents think), the child is asking for an explanation of the parent’s thinking. Most adolescents are exploring the relationship between moral standards and critical thinking.

Educating or Indoctrinating?
The world in which we live is highly complex. There is no single morality or ethical standard by which we may judge what is right and what is wrong. In such a multi-cultural and religiously diverse world, who is to determine what is to be taught to our children? How are we to develop in them moral character without indoctrination?

Public schools have become the indoctrination tool of the State. Not surprisingly certain subjects and methodologies are regarded as out of bounds. These fall under the general category of “metaphysical speculation” and are therefore dismissed as unscientific. Philosophy, for example, is not taught because it opens the door to conversation about dangerous ideas: the existence and nature of God, the measure of Truth, questions about what is real, and how we can verify truth claims, etc. It seems not to matter that all science began as metaphysics and that metaphysics is still very much an aspect of scientific speculation.

Even independent schools neglect the importance of metaphysics when teaching character and ethics. It is easier to avoid issues that may stir controversy, especially when the school is dependent upon parental approval to stay in business. In 35 years of teaching, I’ve seen the materialistic worldview of empiricism come to dominate public education and erode the more metaphysically balanced curriculum of Catholic and Christian schools. Once metaphysics is excised from education, we are left with a mechanistic, materialistic, and blatantly false view of reality. And then we wonder why our students aren’t learning or why they seem unmotivated, even despairing?

Failures of Modern Education
Dorothy Sayers identified the failure of modern education to teach critical thinking 75 years ago in a speech she gave titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Some failures of modern education include:

Irresponsible prolongation of intellectual childhood to justify teaching less in more subjects

Confusion of fact and opinion, or the proven and the plausible, in the media.

Sophistry in public debate, rather than logical rhetoric.

Committees addressing mostly irrelevant matters expected to form public policy

Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean.

A society of adults who don’t know how to discern legitimate expertise from popular pulp and who can’t use the library.

The tendency of some people to become so specialized that they can’t make connections between the disciplines.

Scientists who fail to adhere to the basic principles of Aristotelian logic, thus presenting speculation as facts.

Sayers’ critique of mid-twentieth century English society applies to contemporary America, as these problems have become more pronounced in our time.

The Critical Thinking Community has stated that “students have an undeniable right to develop their own moral perspective — whether conservative, liberal, theistic, or non-theistic — but they should be able to analyze the perspective they do use, compare it accurately with other perspectives, and scrutinize the facts they conceptualize and judge as carefully as in any other domain of knowledge. They should, in other words, become as adept in using critical thinking principles in the moral domain as we expect them to be in scientific and social domains of learning… Students who learn to think critically about moral issues and so develop moral virtues, can then develop their moral thinking within any tradition they choose. Critical thinking does not compel or coerce students to come to any particular substantive moral conclusions or to adopt any particular substantive moral point of view. Neither does it imply moral relativism, for it emphasizes the need for the same high intellectual standards in moral reasoning and judgment at the foundation of any bona fide domain of knowledge. Since moral judgment and reasoning presupposes and is subject to the same intellectual principles and standards that educated people use in all domains of learning, one can integrate consideration of moral issues into diverse subject areas, certainly into literature, science, history, civics, and society.”

Challenges to Ethical Standards and Critical Thinking
It is possible to build critical thinking into every area of the curriculum and to launch conversation about ethics and ethical standards from the foundation of critical thought. But there are obstacles, many of which are thrown in our path by those who hate freedom of speech. These people are fairly easy to identify. They tend to disparage confidence in good thinking and to label their opponents. For example, the magazine of GALHA (the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association) has called Islam a "barmy doctrine" growing "like a canker" and deeply "homophobic." In return, the London Hate Crime Forum asked Scotland Yard to investigate GALHA for "Islamophobia."

In this environment of mud-slinging and potty-mouth intolerance, it is difficult to hear reasoned conversation, and it is nearly impossible to teach our children how to discuss substantive matters rationally, humbly and honestly.

To this challenge we must add the reality that many parents have relinquished to the schools or churches their responsibility to model virtue and reason. A parent can’t teach what they don’t know, and most parents are products of an educational system that allowed them not to think deeply about anything.

Then there is the mainstream media’s approach to information, never connecting the dots and generally promoting a celebrated political cause. The typical American’s opinion on a hot button issue is easily traced to the media’s selection and slanting of news. Americans are too willing to allow public opinion shapers to tell them what to think.

There is also the phenomenon of departmentalizing our lives so that one standard of behavior applies in our homes and a very different standard applies in our workplaces. Former Enron chairman, Kenneth Lay, exemplified this with his multiple ethical selves: a lover of his city and generous contributor to charities, and yet an arrogant gambler with peoples’ lives and fortunes.

Beset by all these challenges to critical thinking and ethical behavior, we might easily give up the fight, but there is hope. More colleges and universities are requiring critical thinking and ethics for graduation. Character education has been mandated in many public school districts. There are more watchdog organizations than ever before, groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and research and educational organizations such as Ethics Resource Center (ERC).

Insurance companies, architectural firms, legal associations, medical groups, and businesses of all sorts have ethical codes and guidelines. Many corporations and industries have Ethics Officers who are responsible for seeing that their companies are in compliance with government regulations and with in-house codes.

The American conscience has become aware of the importance of ethics, not only to avoid law suits, but also to advance best practices, which for any organization requires critical thinking and ultimately brings success.


Unknown said...

Sayers nailed it with this particular aspect of her assessment, upon which so many other failures in society hinge: "Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean."

Without common language and meaning behind the language, we live in a world where we must suspend credulity when someone says that "it depends upon what the meaning of 'is' is..."

Yes, Virginia...they really do think we're stupid. In fact, politicians, media talking heads, shop stewards, sales sharks, deadbeats, etc. are all hoping we are - in order that we might buy into their pitch.
Unfortunately, we have reached a certain level of "dumbing down" now that many are just that gullible.

You are right to say that so much of this is rooted in education - or, should I say, the lack thereof. It is a frightful thing to consider what that great critical thinker, G.K. Chesterton once said: "Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."

Anne Ball
President/CEO, LinsleyConsultingGroup

Alice C. Linsley said...

Wonderful comment, Anne. And I love the G.K. Chesterton quote!

DaveInLex said...

I have no doubt that we are dumbing down our culture. The same lack of exposure to critical thinking and the presence of overly PC, is also responsible for dulling and denying intuition. That little bit of hair that raises or that subtle tap on the shoulder that usually gives you just enough to avoid a problem, is being down played to new generations, leaving them exposed as victims, and manipulated.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Dave, you're right that many aspects of our society downplay intuition. Intuition is difficult to define and therefore most empiricists deny it. However, for security professionals, heeding one's intuition can make the difference between life and death.

Klinton said...

It is frigthening that we have become a product of our enviorment. Public schools and everyday media make it almost impossible for our children and some adults to develop their own views and opinions.

racm32 said...

I would agree with the points concerning the failure of modern schools, at least on the high school level. To much random information is thrown onto the students, information that they will in most cases never use again. Class times are not long enough to allow teachers to go deep enough into the material where student might actually learn something voluble. With the current system involving dismissal bells students are conditioned to simply go from bell to bell and typically shut out a teacher once a bell rings.

chad said...

This article rings true about how people today are not critical thinkers. I graduated high school four years ago and never really was taught that thier was another side to anything. As I went college I soon learned that thinking more deeply into a subject was key into passing college. College professors was not intrested in facts but how you presented them. This opened my eyes and showed me that for twelve years of public school was nothing. After learning the truth I strongly feel that sure my generation and the ones behind me are in big trouble.