Imagine you’re at a get-together of friends and are introduced to someone new, and you strike up a conversation with them. You compliment them on their cool shirt, and they tell you how surprisingly cheap it was and what a good deal they got on it. You make a lighthearted comment about how it was probably made in a sweatshop somewhere, like so much of our clothing today. The other person laughs but says, “Well, let’s hope not. But, not all sweatshops are bad.”
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People who make critical thinking a part of their daily lives will learn to formulate their problems clearly and concisely, and will watch themselves think about solutions, asking whether the data they’re using is relevant, sufficient, and logical. They’ll keep asking questions (primarily of themselves!) and test any conclusions they come to against both intellectual standards and their own objectives. They will take great pains to make sure they don’t accept faulty interpretations, or fail to consider alternatives. They are simultaneously open-minded and geared toward refining and concluding. They are above all curious, and want to find the best way to satisfy this curiosity—not to be “right,” but for the satisfaction of cultivating knowledge about themselves and the world. In all this, they don’t lose sight of the context in which they operate, and they know how to communicate with others, even in complex situations or where viewpoints differ.
Let’s consider a few examples of how this entire process works together. Imagine you’re at a get-together of friends and are introduced to someone new, and you strike up a conversation with them. You compliment them on their cool shirt, and they tell you how surprisingly cheap it was and what a good deal they got on it. You make a lighthearted comment about how it was probably made in a sweatshop somewhere, like so much of our clothing today. The other person laughs but says, “Well, let’s hope not. But, not all sweatshops are bad.”
You gear up to disagree, and share what you know about the issue: that sweatshops for major clothing labels are responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in the world, and exploit third-world countries only to make massive profits for already wealthy corporations. In fact, you’re surprised that this person doesn’t know this, and soon you’re embroiled in a heated discussion.
If you were a practiced critical thinker, however, you would pause here and practice some humility, becoming genuinely curious about your new friend’s position and claims, and what information they have to back them up. You would be aware of your own emotional investment in the issue, and would start to question your own perspective rather than jump in with an argument based on assumptions.
Throughout your conversation, you ask thoughtful but focused questions to try to understand their point of view—and your own. Why do they think that some sweatshops are not bad? Where did they get their information? You practice fairness in your thinking. You hold off on making a conclusion until you’ve gathered the facts.
After a long conversation, you discover that this person comes from a country where “sweatshops” pay workers in one week what they’d receive doing a month’s worth of any other work. You learn that many previously destitute people are able to work and support their families because of these clothing manufacturers—and your friend comes from one of these families. You learn that although sweatshops do indeed subject workers to horrific conditions, they also happen to be the best option for many in some countries—a complicated piece of information you didn’t possess before.
You quickly realize that, sweatshops being an issue you’ve never really taken the time to consider, there’s more to it than you thought. You also realize that, compared to your friend, you actually possess less information about this topic, and are not even sure where your impressions about it come from. You leave the conversation with a renewed interest in better understanding the politics of your friend’s home country, and are grateful for the opportunity to have questioned your knee-jerk, unexamined opinions about a very complex topic.
In this example, the elements under question include:
- Point of view (how your unique perspective affected your conclusions)
- Information (whether you have sufficient knowledge to draw conclusions, or are missing key pieces of information)
- Concepts (the popular “zero sum” model of cheap labor in developing countries)
- Assumptions (An obvious one: that nobody really wants to work in a sweatshop, right?)
- Intellectual standards can then be applied to these in turn:
- Depth and breadth could be applied to your point of view (i.e. is yours really the only viable one?)
- You can use some standards for good information (Is it sufficient and high quality? Where did you get your opinion from?)
- You can apply the same standards you have for information to your concepts (Is your model of sweatshops accurate? Does it really reflect the reality this other person is sharing with you?)
- The standard of accuracy and significance can be applied to the assumptions you’ve made (Simply, are they true? Have you been focusing on the wrong thing?)
All the above can be considered together with the critical thinking traits of intellectual humility and fair-mindedness (i.e. considering the fact that winning the argument is not worth offending and alienating your conversation partner.)
Failing to understand the elements of your own thinking (your point of view, the data you have, the assumptions) or work hard to improve their quality by applying intellectual standards (asking about the logic, veracity, relevance and depth of your thought processes) may have taken this conversation in a completely different direction. It could have well turned into an argument, especially if instead of challenging your assumptions and realizing you were coming to conclusions off of incomplete data, you assumed the other person was ignorant and it was your job to educate them.
Though you still think it’s not a good idea to buy “fast fashion,” you have a more nuanced understanding of the issue than you did before. Because of your critical thinking, you learned something and improved your own intellectual abilities in the process. I’m sure you can agree that is more satisfying in the long run than the mere feeling of having “won” the argument!