Critical Thinking Versus Ethics


   In this revised paper, originally published in Educational Leadership (1988), Richard Paul argues that ethics ought to be taught in school, but only in conjunction with critical thinking. Without critical thinking at the heart of ethical instruction, indoctrination rather than ethical insight results. Moral principles do not apply themselves, they require a thinking mind to assess facts and interpret situations. Moral agents inevitably bring their perspectives into play in making moral judgments and this, together with the natural tendency of the human mind to self-deception when its interests are involved, is the fundamental impediment to the right use of ethical principles.
   Paul spells out the implications of this view for the teaching of ethics in literature, science, history, and civics. He provides a taxonomy of moral reasoning skills and describes an appropriate long term staff development strategy to foster ethics across the curriculum.

The Problem of Indoctrination

Early everyone recognizes that even young children have moral feelings and ideas, make moral inferences and judgments, and develop an outlook on life which has moral significance for good or ill. Nearly everyone also gives at least lip service to a universal common core of general ethical principles — for example, that it is morally wrong to cheat, deceive, exploit, abuse, harm, or steal from others, that everyone has a moral responsibility to respect the rights of others, including their freedom and well-being, to help those most in need of help, to seek the common good and not merely their own self-interest and egocentric pleasures, to strive in some way to make this world more just and humane. Unfortunately, mere verbal agreement on general moral principles alone will not accomplish important moral ends nor change the world for the better. Moral principles mean something only when manifested in behavior. They have force only when embodied in action. Yet to put them into action requires some analysis and insight into the real character of everyday situations.

The world does not present itself to us in morally transparent terms. The moral thing to do is often a matter of disagreement even among people of good will. One and the same act is often morally praised by some, condemned by others. Furthermore, even when we do not face the morally conflicting claims of others, we often have our own inner conflicts as to what, morally speaking, we should do in some particular situation.

Considered another way, ethical persons, however strongly motivated to do what is morally right, can do so only if they know what that is. And this they cannot do if they systematically confuse their sense of what is morally right with their self-interest, personal desires, or what is commonly believed in their peer group or community. Because of complexities such as these, ethically motivated persons must learn the art of self-critique, of moral self-examination, to become attuned to the pervasive everyday pitfalls of moral judgment: moral intolerance, self-deception, and uncritical conformity. These human foibles cause pseudo-morality, the systematic misuse of moral terms and principles in the guise of moral action and righteousness.

Unfortunately few have thought much about the complexity of everyday moral issues, can identify their own moral contradictions, or clearly distinguish their self-interest and egocentric desires from what is genuinely moral. Few have thought deeply about their own moral feelings and judgments, have tied these judgments together into a coherent moral perspective, or have mastered the complexities of moral reasoning. As a result, everyday moral judgments are often a subtle mixture of pseudo and genuine morality, moral insight and moral prejudice, moral truth and moral hypocrisy. Herein lies the danger of setting up ill-thought-out public school programs in moral education.

Without scrupulous care, we merely pass on to students our own moral blindness, moral distortions, and close-mindedness. Certainly many who trumpet most loudly for ethics and morality in the schools merely want students to adopt their ethical beliefs and their ethical perspectives, regardless of the fusion of insight and prejudice those beliefs and perspectives doubtless represent. They take themselves to have the Truth in their pockets. They take their perspective to be exemplary of all morality rightly conceived. On the other hand, what these same people fear most is someone else’s moral perspective taught as the truth: conservatives afraid of liberals being in charge, liberals of conservatives, theists of non-theists, non-theists of theists.

Now, if truth be told, all of these fears are justified. People, except in the most rare and exceptional cases, do have a strong tendency to confuse what they believe with the truth. It is always the others who do evil, who are deceived, self-interested, close-minded never us. Given this universal blind spot in human nature, the only safe and justified basis for ethical education in the public schools is one precisely designed to rule out bias in favor of the substantive beliefs and conclusions of any particular group, whether religious, political, communal, or national. Indeed since one of our most fundamental responsibilities as educators is to educate rather than indoctrinate our students to help them cultivate skills, insights, knowledge, and traits of mind and character that transcend narrow party and religious affiliations and help them to think beyond biased representations of the world we must put special safeguards into moral education that prevent indoctrination. The world needs not more close-minded zealots, eager to remake the world in their image, but more morally committed rational persons with respect for and insight into the moral judgments and perspectives of others, those least likely to confuse pseudo with genuine morality.

But how is this to be done? How can we cultivate morality and character in our students without indoctrinating them, without systematically rewarding them merely because they express our moral beliefs and espouse our moral perspective?
The answer is in putting critical thinking into the heart of the ethical curriculum, critical thinking for both teachers and students. To bring ethics and morality into the schools in an educationally legitimate way, administrators and teachers must think critically about what to emphasize and what to avoid. Intellectually discriminating minds and morally refined sensibilities must be in charge of both initial curriculum design and its subsequent classroom implementation.

This is not an unreasonable demand, for, ethics aside, skill in the art of drawing important intellectual discriminations is crucial to education in any subject or domain, and proficiency in the art of teaching critically — encouraging students to question, think for themselves, develop rational standards of judgment — is the responsibility of all classroom teachers. Any subject, after all, can be taught merely to indoctrinate students and so to inadvertently stultify rather than develop their ability to think within it. Unfortunately, we have all been subjected to a good deal of indoctrination in the name of education and retain to this day some of the intellectual disabilities that such scholastic straight-jacketing produces. To allow ethics to be taught in the public schools this narrowly is unconscionable. It is to betray our ethical responsibility as educators in the name of ethics.

Integrating Critical Thinking and Ethics

If we bring ethics into the curriculum — and we should — we must ensure that we do so morally. This requires us to clearly distinguish between espousing the universal, general principles of morality shared by people of good will everywhere, and the very different matter of defending some particular application of these principles to actual life situations as conceived from a particular moral standpoint (liberal, conservative, radical, theistic, non-theistic, U.S., Soviet, etc.).

Any particular moral judgment arises from someone conceptualizing the facts of a situation from some moral perspective or standpoint. Every moral perspective in some way embodies the same general moral principles. The integration of principles with purported facts within a particular perspective produces the judgment that this or that act is morally right or wrong. Precisely because we often differ about the facts or about the proper perspective on the facts, we come to differing moral judgments.

The problem is not at the level of general moral principles. No people in the world, as far as I know, take themselves to oppose human rights or stand for injustice, slavery, exploitation, deception, dishonesty, theft, greed, starvation, ignorance, falsehood, and human suffering. In turn, no nation or group has special ownership over any general moral principle. Students, then, need skill and practice in moral reasoning, not indoctrination into the view that one nation rather than another is special in enunciating these moral principles.

Students certainly need opportunities to explicitly learn basic moral principles, but more importantly they need opportunities to apply them to real and imagined cases, and to develop insight into both genuine and pseudo morality. They especially need to come to terms with the pitfalls of human moralizing, to recognize the ease with which we mask self-interest or egocentric desires with high-sounding moral language.

In any case, for any particular instance of moral judgment or reasoning, students should learn the art of distinguishing principles (which tell us in a general way what we ought or ought not to do) from perspectives (which characterize the world in ways which lead to an organized way of interpreting it) and facts (which provide the specific information for a particular moral judgment).

In learning to discriminate these dimensions of moral reasoning, we learn how to focus on the appropriate questions at issue. Sometimes the dispute will depend on the facts: (Did John actually take the watch?) But, more often, they will be a matter of perspective (If you look at it this way, Jack did not take advantage of her, but if you look at it that way, he did. Which is more plausible given the facts?) Sometimes they will be a matter of both the facts and how to interpret them. (Do most people on welfare deserve the money they get? Should white collar crime be punished more severely?).

As people, 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.

To help students gain these skills, teachers need to see how one adapts the principles of critical thinking to the domain of ethical judgment and reasoning (see figure #1). Teachers also need insight into the intimate interconnection of intellectual and moral virtues. They need to see that being moral is something more than abstract good-heartedness, that our basic ways of knowing are inseparable from our basic ways of being, that how we think and judge in our daily life reflects who we are, morally and intellectually. To cultivate the kind of moral independence implied in being an educated moral person, we must foster in students moral humility, moral courage, moral integrity, moral perseverance, moral empathy, and moral fairmindedness (see figure #2). These moral traits are compatible with all moral perspectives (whether conservative, liberal, theistic, non-theistic, etc.).

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. Let us consider each of these areas very briefly.

Ethics and Literature

Good literature represents and reveals, to the reflective critical reader, the deeper meanings and universal problems of real everyday life. Most of these problems have an important moral dimension or character. They are the kinds of problems all of us must think about and solve for ourselves; no one can simply tell us the “right” answers:

Who am I? What kind of person am I? What is the world really like? What are my parents, my friends, and other people really like? How have I become the way I am? What should I believe in? Why should I believe in it? What real options do I have? Who are my real friends? Who should I trust? Who are my enemies? Need they be my enemies? How did the world become the way it is? How do people become the way they are? Are there any really bad people in the world? Are there any really good people in the world? What is good and bad? What is right and wrong? How should I decide? How can I decide what is fair and what is unfair? How can I be fair to others? Do I have to be fair to my enemies? How should I live my life? What rights do I have? What responsibilities?

Stimulating students to reflect upon questions like these in relationship to story episodes and their own experience enables them to draw upon their own developing moral feelings and ideas, to reason about them systematically, to tie them together and see where they lead. Careful reflection on episodes in literature — characters making sound or unsound moral judgments, sometimes ignoring basic moral principles or twisting them to serve their vested interests, sometimes displaying moral courage or cowardice, often caught in the throes of a moral dilemma — helps students develop a basic moral outlook on life. Furthermore, since moral issues are deeply embedded in everyday life, they often appear in literature.

One need not unnaturally force discussion of literature into a moral framework. Moral issues are inevitably implicit there for the raising. However, it is important to realize that moral issues in literature, like the moral issues of everyday life, are rarely simplistic, and involved students will typically generate opposing viewpoints about how to respond to them. This, too, reflects the nature of the real world with its variety of moral outlooks vying for our allegiance.

As teachers of literature we should not impose authoritative interpretations upon the student; we should help them develop a reasoned, reflective, and coherent approach of their own. Each perspective, of course, should be respected; however, to be considered, each perspective must be reasoned out, not simply dogmatically asserted. In discussion, each student must learn the art of appealing to experience and reason, not merely to authority. Each student must therefore learn to reflect upon the grounds of his or her beliefs, to clarify ideas, support them with reasons and evidence, explore their implications, and so forth. Each student must also learn how to sympathetically enter into the moral perspectives of the others, not with the view that all moral perspectives are equally sound, but rather with the sense that we cannot judge another person’s perspective until we genuinely understand it.

Everyone is due the respect of at least being understood. And just as students will feel that they have something worth saying about the moral issues facing characters in stories and want their views to be understood, so they must learn to give that same respect to the others. Students then learn the art of reasoned dialogue, how to use moral reasoning skills to articulate their concerns about rights, justice, and the common good, from whatever moral viewpoint their experience and background predisposes them.

Essay writing is an excellent means of helping students organize their thinking on moral issues in literature. It provides the impetus to formulate moral principles explicitly, to carefully conceptualize and interpret facts, and to give and consider reasons in support of their own and contending moral conclusions. Needless to say we must grade students’ moral writing, not on the basis of their substantive perspectives or conclusions, but rather on grounds of clarity, coherence, and sound reasoning. A clearly thought out, well-reasoned, well-illustrated piece of “moral” writing is what we are after. Such writing need not be long and complicated. Indeed it can begin in the early years with one-sentence “essays” such as “I think Jack (in “Jack and the Bean Stalk”) was greedy because he didn’t need to take all the golden eggs and the golden harp, too.”

Ethics and Science

Students should study science to understand, evaluate, and utilize scientific information. Most students will not, of course, become scientists but nevertheless need scientific knowledge to understand and solve problems within everyday personal and vocational life, problems having to do with such diverse areas as medicine, biology, chemistry, engineering, technology, the environment, and business. Science and technology play a greater and greater role in our lives, often generating major moral issues in the process. Scientific information is not simply used, it is used, and sometimes misused, for a variety of purposes, to advance the interests of a variety of groups, as those interests are conceived from a variety of perspectives. Its use must always be assessed.

In their daily lives students, like the rest of us, are bombarded with scientific information of every kind, typically in relation to some kind of advocacy. And they, like the rest of us, need to make decisions about the implications of that information. What are the real dangers of air pollution? Do people have a right to clean air and water? If so, how clean? What are the consequences of developing nuclear rather than solar power? To what extent should scientists be able to use animals in their experiments? Do animals have moral rights? To what extent should scientists be allowed to experiment with new viruses that might generate new diseases? Under what conditions should people be artificially kept alive? What life and death decisions should be left to doctors? What special moral responsibilities, if any, do scientists have to the broader society? These are but a few of the many weighty moral and scientific issues with which all of us as educated people are faced.

Whether we develop an informed viewpoint or not, practical decisions are made every day in each of these areas, and the public good is served or abused as a result of the rationality or irrationality of those decisions. Although many of these issues are ignored in traditional science instruction, there are good reasons not only to include but to emphasize them. First, they are more interesting and useful to most students than the more traditional “pure-science” emphasis. Second, they help students develop a more unified perspective on their values and personal beliefs and on the moral issues that science inevitably generates when applied to the real world.

Ethics and History

There is no more important subject, rightly conceived, than history. Human life in all of its dimensions is deeply historical. Whatever experiences we have, the accounts that we give of things, our memories, our records, our sense of ourselves, the “news” we construct, the plans we form, even the daily gossip we hear — are historical. Furthermore, since we all have a deep-seated drive to think well of ourselves, and virtually unlimited powers to twist reality to justify ourselves, how we construct history has far-reaching ethical consequences. Not only do virtually all ethical issues have a historical component (moral judgment presupposes an account of what actually happened) but also virtually all historical issues have important ethical implications.

Issues arise among historians when they have conflicting accounts of events. Each major moral standpoint tends to read history differently and comes to importantly different moral conclusions as a result. The moral and the historical come together again and again in questions such as these: Morally speaking, what does the past teach us? What were the long-term effects of this kind of action as opposed to that? What kind of a world are we living in? What moral ideals can we actually live by and in what way? Is pacifism, for example, realistic? Are we justified in engaging in “unethical” practices in our own defense because our enemies use them to attack or harm us? What does it mean for countries to be “friendly” toward each other? How are friendships between countries like and unlike those between individuals? To what extent have we as a nation (and I as an individual) lived in accordance with the moral ideals we have set for ourselves? For example, was the historical treatment accorded Native Americans and other ethnic groups, has our foreign policy in general, been in keeping with our traditional espoused moral values? Morally speaking, how could our founding fathers justify slavery? Should they be morally criticized for accepting this violation of human rights or are there historical reasons why our criticism should be tempered with “understanding”? If our founding fathers, who eloquently formulated universal moral principles, were capable of violating them, are we now different from them, are we morally better, or are we also, without recognizing it, violating basic moral values we verbally espouse?

Once we grasp the moral significance of history, as well as the historical significance of morality, and recognize that historical judgment, like ethical judgment, is necessarily selective, that facts are conceptualized from some point of view, then we are well on our way toward constructing an unlimited variety of assignments in which history is no longer an abstraction from present and immediate concerns but rather an exciting, living, thought-provoking subject.

Once students truly see themselves constructing history on a daily basis and, in doing so, coming to conclusions that directly affect the well-being of themselves and others, they will have taken a giant step toward becoming historically sensitive, ethical persons. As Carl Becker said in his presidential address to the American Historical Association over 50 years ago, every person, like it or not, “is his own historian”. We must make sure that our students grasp the moral significance of that fact.

Ethics, Civics, and the Study of Society

Just as all of us, to be ethical, must be our own historian, so too, to ethically fulfill our civic responsibilities, we must be our own sociologists. That is to say, each of us must study the underlying realities of social events, the unwritten rules and values that unreflectively guide our behavior; otherwise how can we justify using ethical principles to judge people and situations in the real world around us? We should be more than uncritical social observers and superficial moral judges.

We have to recognize, as every sociologist since William Graham Sumner has pointed out, that most human behavior is a result of unanalyzed habit and routine based on unconsciously held standards and values. These embedded standards and values often differ from, even oppose, the ideals we express, and yet the conformist thinking which socialization tends to produce resists critical analysis. This resistance was recognized even from the early days of sociology as a discipline:
Every group of any kind demands that each of its members shall help defend group interests … group force is also employed to enforce the obligations of devotion to group interests. It follows that judgments are precluded and criticism is silenced. (Sumner, 1906)

Even patriotism, Sumner points out, “may degenerate into a vice ... chauvinism”:
It is a name for boastful and truculent group self-assertion. It overrules personal judgment and character, and puts the whole group at the mercy of the clique which is ruling at the moment. It produces the dominance of watchwords and phrases which take the place of reason and conscience in determining conduct. The patriotic bias is a recognized perversion of thought and judgment against which our education should guard us. (Sumner, 1906)

Ironically, true patriots in a democratic society serve their country by using their critical powers to ensure governmental honesty. Intelligent distrust rather than uncritical trust is the foundation necessary to keep officials acting ethically and in the public good. It was Jefferson who said:

It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights. Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism — free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence.
And Madison enthusiastically agreed: “The truth is, all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

What students need in civic education, then, is precisely what they need in moral education: not indoctrination into abstracted ideals, with the tacit implication that the ideals are generally practiced, not slogans and empty moralizing, but assignments that challenge their ability to use civic ideals to assess actual political behavior. Such assignments will, of course, produce divergent conclusions by students depending on their present political leanings. But, again, their thinking, speaking, and writing should be graded on the clarity, cogency, and intellectual rigor of their work, not on the substance of their answers. All students should learn the art of political analysis, the art of subjecting political behavior to critical assessment based on civic and moral ideals, on an analysis of important relevant facts, and on consideration of alternative political viewpoints. Virtually no students graduate today with this art in hand.

This means that words like “conservatism” and “liberalism”, the “right” and “left”, must become more than vague jargon; they must be recognized as names of different ways of thinking about human behavior. Students need experience actually thinking within diverse political perspectives. No perspective, not even one called “moderate”, should be presented as the correct one. By the same token, we should be careful not to lead the students to believe that all perspectives are equally justified or that important insights are equally found in all points of view. We should continually encourage and stimulate our students to think and never do their thinking for them. We should, above all, be teachers and not preachers.

Critical Thinking and Ethics The relationship between critical thinking and ethics is sometimes strong, and sometimes weak. The principles and rules of critical thinking are certainly applicable to ethical reasoning. There will always be a need for ethical decision making in order to be fair to everyone and to not be bias towards anyone for their religion, sex, race, etc. Critical thinking can certainly be used for ethical reasoning. Ethics is defined as the reasoned study of what is morally right and wrong or good and bad. Critical thinking is the active and systematic process of communication, problem solving, evaluation, analysis, synthesis, and reflection, both individually and in community, to foster understanding, support sound decision making, and guide action. With these two defined, critical thinking and ethics should come hand in hand. In ethical reasoning, the principles of communication, analysis, evaluation, and problem solving from critical thinking should be used. The problem with this is that there are people that

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