Beyond Critical Thinking: Helping Students to Become Ethical Thinkers

Critical thinking–everyone knows students need to know how to do it, yet everyone defines it differently.  It gets mentioned as an outcome for higher education with amazing frequency, but there is very little in the way of consensus as to what it looks like or how to embed it in our pedagogy.

Many books and articles have been written about critical thinking, so you would think that we could pin a few things down regarding its meaning.  Do critical thinkers understand how to negotiate multiple points of view and to construct a response using evidence?  Yes.  Do critical thinkers, as Stephen Brookfield suggests in Teaching for Critical Thinking (2011), question their assumptions regularly?  Yes.  Can critical thinkers create a variety of hypotheses to explain a phenomenon and then analyze the validity of each?  Yes.*  Is critical thinking all of this and more?  There is no doubt about it.

The result of this multiplicity of meanings is that critical thinking, as a concept, has become so watered down and overly generalized that it is not very effective as a metric to gauge our students’ learning.  Perhaps, then, it is time to ask a new question:  WHY do we want students to develop critical thinking skills?  We, of course, want them to live happy, healthy, productive lives, and applying critical thinking skills to their personal decisions should aid in this pursuit.  But isn’t part of the answer that we also want them, in their professional lives, to make ethical decisions in their interactions with other human beings, global resources, the economy, etc.?

Because Mason’s new president, Ángel Cabrera, has devoted much of his career to being a leader in developing programs focused on responsible management education, we have been talking a lot about ethics here.  I think it is very important that we connect this discussion to our pedagogy.  I would like to see us shift our focus from teaching critical thinking to cultivating ethical thinkers.

Here is my formula for how that could happen:  Teaching ethical reasoning skills (which would involve much of what we commonly consider “critical thinking,” but is a more specific application of those skills) + acquiring global awareness + engaging with diverse groups + developing empathy = Cultivating ethical thinkers and actors.

Let’s take the last three parts of the formula first.  I’m not exactly sure how empathy is learned (I’m definitely not an expert in psychology), but attaining global awareness and engaging with diversity of all kinds–either in the classroom or in co-curricular activities or both–can certainly help students to think outside themselves and to endeavor to see things from other perspectives.  These kinds of experiences can also teach them about worldwide injustice and intolerance and non-western frames of reference, both of which can aid in the development of an empathic worldview and an ethical habit of mind.  General education programs at many universities already require classes focused on global issues, multicultural education, and/or diverse perspectives, so there are mechanisms in place to build a solid foundation for ethical thinkers.

The ethics piece of the puzzle is a bit trickier to implement.  Certainly some majors already have ethics courses on the books:  business majors, nursing majors, and–perhaps–some science majors are the most common.  But what about majors that do not feature these kinds of courses?  How do we ensure that ethical issues are being taught across the curriculum?

I have two suggestions. 1) Philosophy is, in many respects, the disciplinary home to ethics courses, so we could bring the philosophy departments at our university into general education more intentionally.  My experience has been that it is often the “Intro. to Philosophy” course that serves to fill general education requirements rather than courses that deal overtly and substantially with ethics.  Let’s add ethics courses to the mix then.  This is something that is definitely achievable, and I have a hunch that philosophy departments will not argue about the increase in enrollment.

2) The Humanities and the Arts, more generally, have much to contribute if our goal is to help students develop ethical habits of mind.  Every time students read about Odysseus choosing between Skylla and Charybdis in an English or classics course; every time a history class studies Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the atomic bomb; and every time art students are confronted with the case of Damien Hirst, who once killed 9,000 butterflies in the course of making work for an exhibition, they are engaging in the ethical reasoning process.  They have to work through a wide variety of issues, gather evidence, and make arguments using an ethical frame of reference.

These are only a few examples, of course, but I think that if we can move the conversation away from the vague platitudes of critical thinking to the more specific realm of ethical thinking, then we can create at least one pathway forward for higher education that would benefit both our students and the world around us.

*In fact, my Mason colleague Gheorge Tecuci has designed a computer program to help students develop this skill.