Standards of Critical Thinking

Thinking towards truth.

Posted Jun 11, 2012

What is critical thinking? According to my favorite critical thinking text, it is disciplined thinking that is governed by clear intellectual standards.

This involves identifying and analyzing arguments and truth claims, discovering and overcoming prejudices and biases, developing your own reasons and arguments in favor of what you believe, considering objections to your beliefs, and making rational choices about what to do based on your beliefs.

Clarity is an important standard of critical thought. Clarity of communication is one aspect of this. We must be clear in how we communicate our thoughts, beliefs, and reasons for those beliefs. 

Careful attention to language is essential here. For example, when we talk about morality, one person may have in mind the conventional morality of a particular community, while another may be thinking of certain transcultural standards of morality. Defining our terms can greatly aid us in the quest for clarity.

Clarity of thought is important as well; this means that we clearly understand what we believe, and why we believe it.

Precision involves working hard at getting the issue under consideration before our minds in a particular way. One way to do this is to ask the following questions: What is the problem at issue? What are the possible answers? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each answer?

Accuracy is unquestionably essential to critical thinking. In order to get at or closer to the truth, critical thinkers seek accurate and adequate information. They want the facts because they need the right information before they can move forward and analyze it.

Relevance means that the information and ideas discussed must be logically relevant to the issue being discussed. Many pundits and politicians are great at distracting us away from this.

Consistency is a key aspect of critical thinking. Our beliefs should be consistent. We shouldn’t hold beliefs that are contradictory. If we find that we do hold contradictory beliefs, then one or both of those beliefs are false. For example, I would likely contradict myself if I believed both that "Racism is always immoral" and "Morality is entirely relative." This is a logical inconsistency.

There is another form of inconsistency, called practical inconsistency, which involves saying you believe one thing while doing another. For example, if I say that I believe my family is more important than my work, but I tend to sacrifice their interests for the sake of my work, then I am being practically inconsistent.

The last three standards are logical correctness, completeness, and fairness. Logical correctness means that one is engaging in correct reasoning from what we believe in a given instance to the conclusions that follow from those beliefs. Completeness means that we engage in deep and thorough thinking and evaluation, avoiding shallow and superficial thought and criticism. Fairness involves seeking to be open-minded, impartial, and free of biases and preconceptions that distort our thinking.

Like any skill or set of skills, getting better at critical thinking requires practice. Anyone wanting to grow in this area might think through these standards and apply them to an editorial in the newspaper or on the web, a blog post, or even their own beliefs. Doing so can be a useful and often meaningful exercise.