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Weak versus Strong Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves basic intellectual skills, but these skills can be used to serve two incompatible ends: self-centeredness or fair-mindedness. As we develop the basic intellectual skills that critical thinking entails, we can begin to use those skills in a selfish or in a fair-minded way. In other words, we can develop in such a way that we learn to see mistakes in our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others. Or we can merely develop some proficiency in making our opponent's thinking look bad.

Typically, people see mistakes in other's thinking without being able to credit the strengths in those opposing views. Liberals see mistakes in the arguments of conservatives; conservatives see mistakes in the arguments of liberals. Believers see mistakes in the thinking of nonbelievers; nonbelievers see mistakes in the thinking of believers. Those who oppose abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments for abortion; those who favor abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments against it.

We call these thinkers weak-sense critical thinkers. We call the thinking "weak" because, though it is working well for the thinker in some respects, it is missing certain important higher-level skills and values of critical thinking. Most significantly, it fails to consider, in good faith, viewpoints that contradict its own viewpoint. It lacks fair-mindedness.

Another traditional name for the weak-sense thinker is found in the word sophist. Sophistry is the art of winning arguments regardless of whether there are obvious problems in the thinking being used. There is a set of lower-level skills of rhetoric, or argumentation, by which one can make bad thinking look good and good thinking look bad. We see this often in unethical lawyers and politicians who are merely concerned with winning. They use emotionalism and trickery in an intellectually skilled way.

Sophistic thinkers succeed only if they do not come up against what we call strong-sense critical thinkers. Strong-sense critical thinkers are not easily tricked by slick argumentation. As William Graham Sumner (1906) said almost a century ago, they

cannot be stampeded ... are slow to believe ... can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain ... can wait for evidence and weigh evidence ... can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices....

Perhaps even more important, strong-sense critical thinkers strive to be fair-minded. They use thinking in an ethically responsible manner. They work to understand and appreciate the viewpoints of others. They are willing to listen to arguments they do not necessarily hold. They change their views when faced with better reasoning. Rather than using their thinking to manipulate others and to hide from the truth (in a weak-sense way), they use thinking in an ethical, reasonable manner.

We believe that the world already has too many skilled selfish thinkers, too many sophists and intellectual con artists, too many unscrupulous lawyers and politicians who specialize in twisting information and evidence to support their selfish interests and the vested interests of those who pay them. We hope that you, the reader, will develop as a highly skilled, fair-minded thinker, one capable of exposing those who are masters at playing intellectual games at the expense of the well-being of innocent people. We hope as well that you develop the intellectual courage to argue publicly against what is unethical in human thinking. We write this resource with the assumption that you will take seriously the fair-mindedness implied by strong-sense critical thinking.

To think critically in the strong sense requires that we develop fair-mindedness at the same time that we learn basic critical thinking skills, and thus begin to "practice" fair-mindedness in our thinking. If we do, we avoid using our skills to gain unfair advantage over others. We avoid using our thinking to get what we want at the expense of the rights and needs of others. We treat all thinking by the same high standards. We expect good reasoning from those who support us as well as those who oppose us. We subject our own reasoning to the same criteria we apply to reasoning to which we are unsympathetic. We question our own purposes, evidence, conclusions, implications, and points of view with the same vigor that we question those of others.

Developing fair-minded thinkers try to see the actual strengths and weaknesses of any reasoning they assess. This is the kind of thinker we hope this resource will help you become. So, right from the beginning, we are going to explore the characteristics that are required for the strongest, most fair-minded thinking. As you read through the rest of the book, we hope you will notice how we are attempting to foster "strong-sense" critical thinking. Indeed, unless we indicate otherwise, every time we now use the words "critical thinking," from this point onward, we will mean critical thinking in the strong sense.

In the remainder of this chapter, we will explore the various intellectual "virtues" that fair-minded thinking requires (Figure 3.1). There is much more to fair-mindedness than most people realize. Fair-mindedness requires a family of interrelated and interdependent states of mind.

Figure 3.1. Critical thinkers strive to develop essential traits or characteristics of mind. These are interrelated intellectual habits that lead to disciplined self-command.


In addition to fair-mindedness, strong-sense critical thinking implies higher-order thinking. As you develop as a thinker and internalize the traits of mind that we shall soon discuss, you will develop a variety of skills and insights that are absent in the weak-sense critical thinker.

As we examine how the various traits of mind are conducive to fair-mindedness, we will also look at the manner in which the traits contribute to quality of thought (in general). In addition to the fairness that strong-sense critical thinking implies, depth of thinking and high quality of thinking are also implied. Weak-sense critical thinkers develop a range of intellectual skills (for example, skills of argumentation) and may achieve some success in getting what they want, but they do not develop any of the traits highlighted in this chapter.

It is important to note that many people considered successful in business or in their profession are, in fact, selfish thinkers. In self-indulgent and materialistic cultures, the idea "if it is good for me it is good for everyone" is tacitly assumed when not overtly stated. The pursuit of money, often at the expense of the rights and needs of others, is considered not only acceptable, but also commendable. Nevertheless when the pursuit of wealth and power is unbridled, injustice often results. The human mind is readily able to justify its own selfishness and lack of consideration for others. The powerful find many reasons to ignore the interests of the weak (Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2. These are the opposites of the intellectual virtues. They occur naturally in the mind and can only be countered through culturalization of intellectual virtues.


True critical thinkers, in the strong sense, realize the ease with which the mind can ignore the rights and needs of others. They recognize that to be reasonable and just is not to comply with nature but to defy it. They recognize the difficulty of entering into points of view different from our own. They are willing to do the work that is required to go beyond selfish thinking.

Let us turn to the component traits of the strong-sense critical thinker. After we take up each individual trait as it stands in relation to fair-mindedness, we will highlight its significance as a contributor to the general development of high levels of thinking.

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