Critical Thinking for Healthy Democracies
Why is critical thinking important?
When I was a classroom teacher I would write this bullet list on the board and work my way down:
- Autonomy and Freedom of Thought
- Personal Empowerment
- Democracy and Civic Duty
- Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom
Let’s talk about number 4 – “democracy and civic duty”.
In the last few posts I’ve been talking about the value of critical thinking in terms of rational self-interest.
On the one hand, it can help to protect us from bad arguments and manipulative rhetoric, and in so doing give us a space to think and deliberate about what we really believe and care about.
That’s critical thinking as a kind of self-defense. It can help us with our “defensive game”.
I also talked about how it can help us with our “offensive game”, and by that I mean that it can help us to be more articulate and effective spokespeople for our own goals and values. It can give us a voice and strength of influence that we might not otherwise have.
That’s what I’m calling critical thinking in the service of personal empowerment.
Beyond Rational Self-Interest
This is all well and good, but the value of critical thinking doesn’t stop with individual self-interest. If we look past our noses we see that we’re not isolated islands, that we actually live in community with other people, and these communities form a society with institutions and governments that are designed to serve the needs of the people.
Or at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work in so-called liberal democratic societies.
What I want to talk about here is the role of critical thinking specifically in liberal democratic societies, and what duties we as citizens may have to try to be critical and independent thinkers.
What I Mean By “Liberal Democracy”
As a point of clarification, when I say “liberal democratic society” I’m not using the term “liberal” in the sense in which the term is commonly used in political discussions, where it’s contrasted with “conservative”, like when we say that Michael Moore is a liberal and Rush Limbaugh is a conservative; or pro-choice activists are liberal and pro-life activists are conservative; or support for universal health care is liberal and opposition to it is conservative.
That’s not what the term “liberal” means in this context.
When I call a society a “liberal democratic” society, I’m using the older sense of the term, where “liberal” refers to liberty or freedom, and “democratic” refers to rule or governance by the people.
So we’re talking about forms of government where political power is vested, ideally, in the people, who get to elect officials whose job it is to represent their interests and make policies and laws that serve those interests.
These are democratic societies, rule by the people.
What makes them liberal democracies is a specific conception of what the role of the state is with respect to its citizens.
Part of this role is captured by what is sometimes called the doctrine of liberal neutrality.
“Liberal neutrality” is the view that individual citizens should be free to pursue their own conception of the good life, their own conception of what is ultimately good and valuable and important. The state doesn’t impose any particular conception of the good life on its citizens, it’s “neutral” on this question.
That’s what “neutrality” means here.
So what’s the job of the state? The job of the state is to ensure that you have as much freedom as possible to pursue your own good, your own happiness, consistent with everyone else having the same freedom to pursue their own good.
That’s the “liberal” part, the “freedom” part.
Now, when it’s phrased like this, liberalism sounds more like classical 18th and 19th century liberalism, which is closer to libertarianism than to modern 20th and 21st century liberalism.
That’s partly right. We’re talking about liberalism as it was understood by people like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, which has a libertarian slant to it.
But it’s not entirely right. This concept of liberal neutrality is also consistent with the welfare liberalism of a political philosopher like John Rawls, and contemporary progressive liberals, who argue that justice requires a certain amount of redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.
What’s at issue between welfare liberals and libertarians is just what is required for individuals to actually have and be able to exercise their basic rights and freedoms.
There’s a real disagreement here, but it’s a disagreement about what liberal freedom demands and how it can best be achieved, not about the value of freedom per se, and not about the importance of liberal neutrality.
On these issues, all parties are in agreement. They’re all variations on a theme within a family of liberal democratic political philosophies.
Critical Thinking in Liberal Democracies
So, getting back to critical thinking, there are two questions I want to ask:
- What role does critical thinking play in maintaining liberal democracies?
- Do citizens of liberal democracies have a civic duty to cultivate their critical thinking faculties?
I’ll give you my answers up front: the answer to 1 is “a huge role”, and the answer to 2 is “yes”. To my mind this is obviously true, but I know it’s not to a lot of people, so here goes.
Ideally, democracy is government by the people, for the people. We, the people, are charged with electing officials to represent our needs and interests, and if we don’t like how they govern, we have the power and the responsibility to vote them out of office.
As citizens we’re not normally involved in drafting laws and policies, but we’re responsible for assessing the laws and policies that our elected and appointed officials propose and vote on. And doing this well requires both an informed citizenry and a citizenry capable of critically assessing arguments, pro and con, that pertain to the laws and policies in question.
So that’s one obvious reason why critical thinking is important. It’s important because it’s necessary to participate fully in the democratic process.
But I think it goes even deeper than that.
There’s always been a tension between democratic rule and classical liberalism. Liberalism emphasizes respect for individual rights and liberties, freedom of thought and expression, and so on. But democracy carries with it the potential for mob rule, the tyranny of the majority or the privileged classes, and the state-sanctioned oppression of minority classes.
Think of the status of women, or people of color, or indigenous peoples, or gays and lesbians, in ostensibly democratic countries over the past 150 years.
Now, when we think about the women’s rights movement, or the civil rights movement, or other liberation movements, I want us to consider the importance of independent critical thought in making those movements possible.
When it was illegal for women and people of color to vote and participate as equal citizens in government and society, the cultural norms and social pressures of the time made it easier to follow along and not question the rationale for those norms.
But think now about what it would mean to ask, at that time: How can this situation be rationally justified? What are the arguments for this position? Are they good arguments? Are all the premises plausible? Does the conclusion follow? Do they rely on background assumptions that can be challenged?
In asking these questions we’re just doing elementary argument analysis.
But in this context, these are subversive, dangerous questions. They threaten an entire social order.
So it’s not surprising that in social groups that are deeply invested in perpetuating an oppressive social order, this kind of critical inquiry isn’t going to be valued. It’s going to be controlled or suppressed if it’s seen as asking people to question the foundations of the established social order.
George Orwell wrote about this at length in his essays and novels. Socrates was put to death for asking questions that challenged the worldview of the established authorities of the day.
I’m Not Naive
Now, my claim is not that teaching critical thinking will magically wipe away oppression and human injustice. Of course there’s no guarantee that simply raising these questions is going to cause the scales to fall from people’s eyes and see the error of their ways.
My claim is simply that it’s harder for oppressive policies and beliefs to gain a foothold in a democratic society that openly supports the value of critical thinking and Socratic inquiry. Not that it’s impossible, just that it’s harder.
So, to the extent that we care about freedom and equality and justice and the ideals of liberal democratic governance, I think we should also care about critical thinking and the values of Socratic inquiry. I think they go hand-in-hand, you can’t value one without valuing the other.
Now, I also think it’s obvious that we in fact live in a very non-ideal world, where principles of liberal democratic governance can and are undermined by internal corruption, excessive nationalism, excessive internationalism, corporate lobbying, geo-political threats, globalization, war, resource scarcity, and so on.
But I think these challenges just make the case for critical thinking even stronger. If liberal democracy survives and flourishes through this century, it will be because we somehow managed to foster and exercise our capacity for critical and creative thinking in tackling these problems.
Do We Have a Duty to Cultivate Our Critical Thinking Skills?
The second question I want to ask is, in light of all this, do we as citizens have a duty to cultivate our rational, critical thinking faculties?
I hope it’s clear now why I think the answer is “yes”.
It’s not a legal duty of course. We can’t legally require anyone to study logic and argumentation, any more than we can legally require people to vote on election day.
But it’s plausible to think that we still have some kind of moral duty to vote. The system just doesn’t work properly unless enough of us participate.
I think the same is true with critical thinking skills. The system just doesn’t work properly unless enough of us take up the challenge of staying informed and thinking critically about the issues that matter to us.
And Yet We Don’t Teach Critical Thinking
The distressing thing to me is that despite the important role that critical thinking plays in democratic citizenship, we don’t teach critical thinking in the public school system.
Even in the US, the home of liberal arts education that stresses general knowledge and thinking skills, only a tiny fraction of students are ever exposed to basic principles of logic and argument analysis, beyond the elementary theorem-proving you might do in a geometry class. You’ll find very little, if any, discussion of the distinction between good and bad arguments in the public school curriculum, from kindergarten to 12th grade.
It’s a bit better in college and university, where you’ll actually find dedicated critical thinking courses, but it’s still the case that nationally only a fraction of students are required to take such courses.
And the trends in higher education aren’t very positive in this regard.
Globally, we’re seeing less and less support for the liberal arts and humanities, and more and more support for business, management and applied science and technology. The trend is toward education with economic impacts in mind, rather than human development in mind.
I’ve seen this trend in every university I’ve ever worked for, but there’s also evidence for a global shift in educational philosophy in Europe and India and other parts of the world, that is marginalizing the humanities even more than it does in the US.
I’m worried that these trends have the unfortunate side-effect of actually stifling the development of important critical thinking skills.
In the long run I think this is is bad for business. But I’m even more worried that it’s bad for liberal democracy and the fulfillment of important human values.