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Recognizing the Interdependence of Intellectual Virtues

The traits of mind essential for critical thinking are interdependent. Consider intellectual humility. To become aware of the limits of our knowledge, we need the intellectual courage to face our own prejudices and ignorance. To discover our own prejudices, in turn, we often must intellectually empathize with and reason within points of view with which we fundamentally disagree. To achieve this end, we typically must engage in intellectual perseverance, as learning to empathically enter a point of view against which we are biased takes time and significant effort. That effort will not seem justified unless we have the necessary confidence in reason to believe we will not be tainted or "taken in" by whatever is false or misleading in the opposing viewpoint.

Furthermore, merely believing we won't be harmed considering "alien" viewpoints is not enough to motivate most of us to consider them seriously. We also must be motivated by an intellectual sense of justice. We must recognize an intellectual responsibility to be fair to views we oppose. We must feel obliged to hear them in their strongest form to ensure that we are not condemning them out of ignorance or bias on our part. At this point, we come full circle to where we began: the need for intellectual humility.

To begin at another point, consider intellectual integrity or good faith. Intellectual integrity is clearly a difficult trait to develop. We are often motivated—generally without admitting to or being aware of this motivation—to set up inconsistent standards in thinking. Our egocentric or sociocentric tendencies, for example, make us ready to believe positive information about those that we like and negative information about those that we dislike. We likewise are strongly inclined to believe what serves to justify our selfish interests or validate our strongest desires. Hence, all humans have some innate mental tendencies to operate with double standards, which is typical of intellectual bad faith. These modes of thinking sometimes correlate well with getting ahead in the world, maximizing our power or advantage, and getting more of what we selfishly want.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to operate explicitly or overtly with a double standard. We therefore need to avoid looking at the evidence too closely. We need to avoid scrutinizing our own inferences and interpretations too carefully. At this point, a certain amount of intellectual arrogance is quite useful. I may assume, for example, that I know just what you're going to say (before you say it), precisely what you are really after (before the evidence demonstrates it), and what actually is going on (before I have studied the situation carefully). My intellectual arrogance makes it easier for me to avoid noticing the unjustifiable discrepancy between the standards I apply to you and the standards I apply to myself. Not having to empathize with you makes it easier to avoid seeing my self-deception. I also am better positioned if I lack a need to be fair to your point of view. A little background fear of what I might discover if I seriously consider the inconsistency of my own judgments can be quite useful as well. In this case, my lack of intellectual integrity is supported by my lack of intellectual humility, empathy, and fair-mindedness.

Going in the other direction, it will be difficult to use a double standard if I feel a responsibility to be fair to your point of view. This responsibility requires me to empathetically view things from your perspective, and to do so with some humility, recognizing that I could be wrong, and that you could be right. The more I dislike you personally, or feel wronged in the past by you or by others who share your way of thinking, the more pronounced in my character the trait of intellectual integrity and good faith must be to compel me to be fair.

We can begin to analyze the extent to which we have developed these interdependent traits of mind by focusing on our reactions to situations in the workplace. Imagine, for example, that your company decides to reorganize your division and some people lose their jobs. To what extent are you able to intellectually empathize, not only with your colleagues who lost their jobs, but also with the managers who made the decision? To what extent do you see intellectual humility operating in your thinking, so that you recognize what you do know and what you do not know about the situation? To what extent are you able to think autonomously so that you are not trapped in the group's reaction to the situation? To what extent is your thinking driven by an intellectual sense of justice to all parties involved? To what extent are you able to think with integrity so that you apply the same standards to all parties involved in the situation?

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