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How Does Responsible Thinking Differ From Critical Thinking?

"Critical Thinking" is a term that has been around for many years and many books have been written and courses taught that are devoted to it. I feel that the people who promote critical thinking are trying to achieve essentially the same thing I am with "Responsible Thinking" and in fact are teaching many of the same principles. However I feel that there are several ways that typical critical thinking approaches have not quite hit the nail on the head in term of relevance and effectiveness.  Here is how we might treat critical thinking differently:

1. We should emphasize avoiding false beliefs rather than identifying false arguments.

Critical thinking comes from a tradition of critiquing oral or written arguments. This is valuable because it can help prevent us from being fooled by these arguments. We should be able to do even better, however, if we alter the emphasis from critiquing arguments to avoiding being misled. It is the false beliefs, not the bad arguments themselves, that can get us into trouble, so the beliefs should be our focus. This also allows us to consider situations where we might draw false conclusions even though no actual argument is involved, such as assuming air travel is dangerous because we see news stories about plane crashes.  At one time the Yahoo internet directory (used before search engines became popular) listed critical thinking under: 

Social Science > Communications > Rhetoric > Critical Thinking. 

It will be hard for critical thinking to make a difference in people's lives if it is relegated to being a sub-category of "rhetoric".

2. We should emphasize applying critical thinking to our own thinking rather than critiquing someone else.

My first awareness of critical thinking was when a high school friend who was on the debate team found a critical thinking book. He planned to use it to call attention to the logical fallacies employed by opposing debaters. He apparently never considered that it might be useful in his own thinking or debating. I have seen critical thinking discussions written from both an evangelical Christian point of view and an atheistic point of view. In both cases, the writers presented arguments that disagreed with their own preconceived opinions as critical thinking "fallacies."  Neither discussion did any critical examination of arguments supporting the writer's own position. Critical thinking has long been used as a club with which to bash our opponents. Until we start using it as a tool to correct our own errors, it will not be very useful.

3. Critical thinking is often too abstract and boring.

Traditionally, critical thinking is often presented as something dry and academic. We may be given lists of fallacies which include "argumentatum ad hominem" and "post hoc ergo propter hoc" and "denial of the antecedent". Such terminology makes critical thinking boring and inaccessible to most people. Discussing induction, deduction, and the structure of syllogisms is very impressive but rarely going to be remembered or applied. We need to relate critical thinking to real-life problems and situations.  Everyday  people have to see it as useful and understandable.

4.  We need to emphasize the importance of critical thinking much more forcefully.

Often treatments of critical thinking say little about why we want to be critical thinkers except perhaps that it is useful for decision making or conforms to a higher intellectual standard.  It sometimes sounds like something we learn so we can impress people with how smart we are.

In reality, critical thinking is of extreme importance for everyone. When things go terribly wrong it is often a result of poor critical thinking.  Ethnic hatred is a critical thinking problem. War is a critical thinking problem. Bad elected officials and corporate scandals could be avoided by better critical thinking. Religious cults result from critical thinking problems. Personal feuds are critical thinking problems. Terrorism is a critical thinking problem. People get cheated out of their life's savings because their failure to apply critical thinking. Most of the greatest problems facing humanity are caused, at least in part, by people's critical thinking failures. The future of humanity could depend on making critical thinking a very high priority.

In this material I have tried to approach critical thinking with this change in emphasis.  In order to call attention to the differences, I have called it "Responsible Thinking". Hopefully using this approach will help to increase the influence of critical thinking so it can make a bigger difference in our lives and in our world.